"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Power of Silence by Robert Cardinal Sarah, Part 3

You can find Part 1 post here
And Part 2 here

The following is my Goodreads review of Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise and some discussion from the board which I participated in. 

The Power of Silence is an important book for our age.  T.S. Eliot in is his masterpiece work, The Four Quartets summarized the state of humanity in the modern world as “Distracted from distraction by distraction.”  Cardinal Sarah has a variation on this theme: that in the modern world a dictatorship of noise has descended upon mankind and, indeed, has enslaved mankind.  This noise has altered our fundamental relationship with God and has led to the pernicious condition of our souls.   Eliot looks at the symptom, distraction; Sarah identifies the infecting virus, noise. 

There is something to be said of this.  I remember many years ago reading about the Native American’s first reaction to the sound of a firearm when first encountering Europeans.  They had never heard a sound so loud that it disturbed to their core.  It was a sound that felt like a cleaving slice.  Nature does not provide any such sound, at least not on a routine basis.  And the modern world is full of such sounds.  We are rarely without sound, rarely allowed to have a wholesome composed time to commute with the divine, and rarely allowed to hear the silence that is God Himself.  Sarah is most eloquent in his metaphors.  “Silence is this powerful dike that controls the tumultuous waters of the world and protects from noises and distractions of all sorts. Silence is a dam that restores a kind of dignity to mankind.”

That dignity is an integrity of being, a wholeness that resists the fragmenting jolts of contemporary life.  In the book, Cardinal Sarah takes us through the dictatorship of noise of our lives, through what it has done to us and to society, and what we can achieve by seeking silence. It is a little haphazardly written—or perhaps more accurately, not written in a linear fashion—and at times it feels he over stretches the argument.  It is not a perfectly written book, and so it may frustrate the reader at times.  But it does not diminish the book’s importance.  It makes a monumental argument against the dissipation of our times.

Some excerpts from our discussion board at Catholic Thought Book Club:

I thought I would hear something about the active and growing Catholic Church in Africa, as described by John Allen in “The Future Church” which we read here not long ago, as this is a book by an African prelate but alas this book sounds entirely European—a compendium of writings by mostly European and Bible land mystics and saints on escaping the world into contemplation and silence. Is it true that Cardinal Sarah left Africa in 2001 and is out of touch with what goes on in the active and growing Catholic Church in Africa?

Galicius, what made you think this would be about Africa? None of the book descriptions even remotely suggested it. Cardinal Sarah is way more than just an African Cardinal. He was on the short list for the Papacy, and I hold out hope that he may be the next Pope, though he is already 72. Cardinal Sarah has obviously absorbed the entire Catholic tradition.

Is the book European? The book is Catholic, and I don't think African Catholicism is any different, especially in its intellectual foundation. If anything African Catholicism is more traditional Catholic than what European Catholicism has evolved to. This book is of the contemplative tradition, which goes back to the Desert Fathers. However, the book it reminds me the most is Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ. If you get a chance, compare the two. I should dig out my copy and compare as well.

Br. Stabin:
This book is really a challenge to me. To create a silence of the heart. We in the community keep the silence at certain times but how to shut the heart it is really challenging. I know unless keeping the heart and mind in silence we cannot be a prayerful person. We will be like chatterboxes in our prayers and masses.

I found what you were referring to, paragraphs 48 through 52.

Silence of the heart consists of quieting little by little our miserable human sentiments so as to become capable of having the same sentiments as those of Jesus. (P. 52)

I see what you mean. That is a challenge that I can't imagine I could do.

"163. I am certain that God gives to each believer a heart capable of hearing the language of creation."

This is a surprising and yet very profound insight:

"166...I am convinced that the problem of contemporary atheism lies first of all in a wrong interpretation of God’s silence about catastrophes and human sufferings. If man sees in the divine silence only a form of God’s abandonment, indifference, or powerlessness, it will be difficult to enter into his ineffable and inaccessible mystery. The more man rejects the silence of God, the more he will rebel against him."

Isn't this the age-old demand of "showing one more sign"; if only "one more sign" is miraculously produced, then I am willing the believe...

I agree with your comment on 163. I have no doubt on that either. However, given that God doesn't stand in front of us and declare Himself and given that science has developed theories of how the universe came into being, then I can understand how the atheists come to their conclusion. Those theories depend on huge, astronomical probabilities, which in my opinion aren't very likely. But the atheists go in with an outlook of skepticism, and so only weigh the probability based theories rather than a God who guided those probabilities to come to be.

In Sarah's section on silence in the liturgy, I appreciated how he pointed out the places in the rubric that calls for silence. My parish has tried to be more aware of keeping silence at various points such as after each reading or after "Let us pray: to encourage more reflection.

He also writes of wanting a reform of the liturgical reform. From some of his comments in this section, I get the impression that he wants to return to the style of liturgy prior to Vatican II. That would not be my hope. He wrote of the Eucharistic Prayer being prayed in silence by the presider. That would not enhance the liturgical experience for me. My mind wonders too easily. I need to hear the prayers to feel engaged.

While we can all use more silence in our contemplative moments, I can’t help feel that at times Cardinal Sarah is stretching the argument too far. How can you have liturgical service in total silence? And what’s wrong with music to accompany. Beauty is as important as silence and singing is praying twice as St. Augustine said. Yes I agree dancing down the aisle is not appropriate but even Cardinal Sarah acknowledges older people who are lonely should be able to converse after Mass. We are communicative beings. Expressing ourselves, with limitations of course, is not only necessary but human.


  1. What do you think Jesus feels about all this, that we are still discussing and debating the minutia rather than concentrate on personal Communion with Him?

    God bless.

    1. I don't understand what you're referring to as minutia. You mean theology? Don't we concentrate on communion with Him at every Mass? Cardinal Sarah's book is striving to push us to communion with Christ through silence. Is that what you mean by communion?