Why did Robert Cardinal Sarah decide to devote a book to silence?

The Introduction to Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence, by French journalist Nicolas Diat, reveals the book could never have existed without a young French monk who was paralyzed and unable to speak—and yet formed a deep and abiding friendship born in silence, that grew in silence, and continues to exist in silence.

Robert Cardinal Sarah in a 2012 file photo (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Why did Robert Cardinal Sarah decide to devote a book to silence? We spoke for the first time about this beautiful subject in April 2015. We were returning to Rome after spending several days in the Abbey in Lagrasse.

At that magnificent monastery, located between Carcassonne and Narbonne, the cardinal paid a visit to his friend, Brother Vincent. Shattered by multiple sclerosis, the young religious knew that he was reaching the end of his life. In the prime of life, he found himself paralyzed, confined to his bed in the infirmary, condemned to merciless medical protocols. The smallest breath was an immense effort for him. On this earth, Brother Vincent-Marie of the Resurrection was already living in the Great Silence of heaven.

Their first meeting had taken place on October 25, 2014. That day left a deep impression on Cardinal Sarah. Right away he recognized an ardent soul, a hidden saint, a great friend of God. How could anyone forget Brother Vincent’s spiritual strength, his silence, the beauty of his smile, the cardinal’s emotion, the tears, the modesty, the colliding sentiments? Brother Vincent was incapable of uttering a simple sentence because the sickness deprived him of the use of speech. He could only lift his gaze toward the cardinal. He could only contemplate him, steadily, tenderly, lovingly. Brother Vincent’s bloodshot eyes already had the brightness of eternity.

That sunny autumn day, as we left the little room where the monks and the nurses ceaselessly took over from one another with extraordinary devotion, the Abbot of Lagrasse, Father Emmanuel- Marie, brought us into the monastery gardens, near the church. It was necessary to get some air in order to accept God’s silent will, this hidden plan that was inexorably carrying off a young, good religious toward unknown shores, while his body lay tormented.

The cardinal returned several times to pray with his friend, Brother Vincent. The patient’s condition kept worsening, but the quality of the silence that sealed the dialogue of a great prelate and a little monk grew in an increasingly spiritual way. When he was in Rome, the cardinal often called the Brother. The one spoke gently, and the other remained silent. Cardinal Sarah spoke again to Brother Vincent a few days before his death. He was able to hear his breathing, husky and discordant, the attacks of pain, the last efforts of his heart, and to give him his blessing.

On Sunday, April 10, 2016, when Cardinal Sarah had come to Argenteuil for the conclusion of the exhibition of the Holy Tunic of Christ, Brother Vincent gave up his soul to God, surrounded by Father Emmanuel-Marie and his family. How can the mystery of Brother Vincent be understood? After so many trials, the end of his journey was peaceful. The rays from paradise passed noiselessly through the windows of his room.

During the last months of his life, the little patient prayed a lot for the cardinal. The monks who cared for the Brother at every moment are certain that he remained alive for a few additional months so as to protect Robert Sarah better. Brother Vincent knew that the wolves were lying in wait, that his friend needed him, that he was counting on him.

This friendship was born in silence, it grew in silence, and it continues to exist in silence.

The meetings with Brother Vincent were a fragment of eternity. We never doubted the importance of each of the minutes spent with him. Silence made it possible to raise every sentiment toward the most perfect state. When it was necessary to leave the abbey, we knew that Vincent’s silence would make us stronger to confront the world’s noises.

On that Sunday in spring when Brother Vincent joined the angels of heaven, the cardinal wished to come to Lagrasse. A great calm reigned over the whole monastery. The Brother’s silence had descended upon the places that he had known. Of course it was not easy to walk past the deserted infirmary.

In the choir of the church, where the Brother’s body reposed for several days, the prayer of the monks was beautiful.

An African cardinal came to bury the young religious with whom he was never able to have a discussion. The son of the Guinean bush spoke in silence with a little French saint; this friendship is unique and indestructible.

The Power of Silence could never have existed without Brother Vincent. He showed us that the silence into which illness had plunged him allowed him to enter ever more deeply into the truth of things. God’s reasons are often mysterious. Why did he decide to try so severely a joyful young man who was asking for nothing? Why such a cruel, violent, and painful sickness? Why this sublime meeting between a cardinal who had arrived at the summit of the Church and a sick person confined to his room? Silence was the salt that sea- soned this story. Silence had the last word. Silence was the elevator to heaven.

Who was looking for Brother Vincent? Who came to take him without a word? God.

For Brother Vincent-Marie of the Resurrection, the program was simple. It fit into three words: God or nothing.

Another stage marks this spiritual friendship. Without Brother Vincent, without Father Emmanuel-Marie, we would never have gone to the Grande Chartreuse.

When the idea germinated of asking the Father General of the Carthusian Order to take part in this book, we scarcely thought that such a project was possible. The cardinal did not want to dis- turb the silence of the principal monastery of the Order, and it is extremely rare for the Father General to speak.

Nevertheless, on Wednesday, February 3, 2016, in the early afternoon, our train stopped at the station in Chambéry …

The gray sky was suspended over the mountains that surround the town. The sadness of winter seemed to set the landscape and the people in a sticky glue. As we approached the Chartreuse mountain range, a snowstorm started and covered the valley with a perfect white. After coming through St. Laurent du Pont on the famous way of Saint Bruno, the road became almost impassable.

Driving along by the high walls of the monastery, we came across the novice master, Father Seraphico, and several young monks who were returning from their walk. They turned around as the cardinal’s automobile passed, greeting him discreetly. Then the car stopped in front of a long, solemn, austere building: we had arrived at the Grande Chartreuse. Thick clumps of snowflakes fell, the wind rushed into the fir trees, but the silence already enveloped our hearts. We slowly crossed the main courtyard, then were directed to the large priors’ house, built by Dom Innocent le Masson in the seventeenth century, which opens onto the imposing officers’ cloister.

The seventy-fourth Father General of the Carthusian Order, Dom Dysmas de Lassus, welcomed the cardinal with an especially touching simplicity.

At the heart of this mystical geography, Saint Bruno’s dream of solitude and silence has taken shape since the year 1084. In the historical anthology La Grande Chartreuse, au-delà du silence, Nathalie Nabert speaks about an incomparable blend: “Carthusian spirituality was born of the encounter of a soul and a place, from the coincidence between a desire for a quiet life in God and a landscape, Cartusie solitudinem, as the ancient documents describe it, the isolation and wild beauty of which attracts souls to even greater solitude, far from the ‘fugitive shadows of the world’, allowing men to pass ‘from the storm of this world to the tranquil, sure repose of the port’. That is how Bruno of Cologne would refer to it in the evening of his life in the letter that he writes to his friend Raoul le Verd to attract him to the desert.”

Quickly, after a conversation that lasted no more than five minutes, we arrived at our cells. From the window of the room where I was settled, I could contemplate the monastery, clothed in its white mantle, nestled against the overwhelming slope of the Grand Som, more beautiful than any of the images that have built up the immutable myth of the Grande Chartreuse. The long, solemn series of separate buildings lined up in a row, then, down below, the buildings housing the “obediences” or workshops of the lay Brothers.

Very rarely can an outsider pass through the doors of the citadel. In this inspired place, the long tradition of the eremitic Orders, the tragedies of history, and the beauty of creation cross paths. But that is nothing compared with the depth of the spiritual realities; the Grande Chartreuse is a world where souls have abandoned themselves in God and for God.

At half past five, Vespers (Evening Prayer) gathered the Carthusians in the narrow, dark conventual church. In order to get there, it was necessary to walk through endless cold, austere corridors, where I kept thinking about the generations of Carthusians who had hastened their steps in order to participate in the Divine Office. The Grande Chartreuse is the house of the centuries, the voiceless house, the holy house.

I thought again also about the hateful, disturbing eviction of the religious on April 29, 1903, following the passage of Émile Combes’ law on the expulsion of the religious congregations, which was reminiscent of the dark hours of the French Revolution and the forced departure of the Carthusians in 1792. It is necessary to reflect on that profanation and the arrival in the ancient monastery of an infantry battalion after it had smashed the heavy entrance gates, then of two squadrons of dragoons and hundreds of demolitions specialists. The magistrates and the soldiers made their way into the church, and the Fathers were brought out of their choir stalls one by one and led outdoors. The enemies of God’s silence triumphed in shame. On the one side were the fierce supporters of a world liberated from its Creator, and on the other—the faithful, poor Carthusians, whose only wealth was the beautiful silence of heaven.

On that February evening in 2016, from the first gallery, I saw the white, hooded shadows who were taking possession of the stalls. The Fathers quickly opened the large antiphonaries that allowed them to follow the musical scores of the Vesper texts. The light diminished little by little, the chanting of the psalms followed; the cardinal, who had taken his place beside Dom Dysmas, cautiously turned the pages of the ancient books to follow the prayer. Behind him, the rood screen that separated the stalls of the Fathers in choir from those of the lay Brothers sketched in the half-light a large cross that seemed to lend still greater dignity to this striking darkness.

Carthusian plain chant imparts a slowness, a depth, and a piety that is sweet and at the same time rough. At the end of Vespers, the monks intoned the solemn Salve Regina. Since the twelfth century, every day, the Carthusians have intoned this antiphon to the Virgin Mary. Today there are hardly any monasteries where these notes still resound.

Outside, night had fallen, and the faint lights of the monastery finally stopped time. The only thing that broke the silence was the rumbling of the packs of snow that fell from the roofs. A fog seemed to climb from the depths of the narrow valley, and the black mountain slopes provided grandiose, gloomy scenery.

The monks went back to the cells. After walking through the immense corridors of the cemetery cloister, each one returned to the cubiculum where he passed such a significant part of his earthly existence. The silence of the Grande Chartreuse reasserted its inalienable rights. While walking through the gallery of maps, where depictions of the Charterhouses from all over Europe decorated the walls, it was easy to see how far Saint Bruno’s Order had been able to spread so as to satisfy the thirst of so many religious who wanted to find heaven, far from the noises of the world.

While the earth is sleeping, or trying to forget, the nocturnal Divine Office is the burning heart of Carthusian life. On the first page of the antiphonary that Dom Dysmas had prepared before I arrived, I could read this notice: “Antiphonarium nocturnum, ad usum sacri ordinis cartusiensis.” It was quarter past midnight, and the monks were extinguishing the few vigil lights that were still lit in the church. Perfect darkness covered the whole sanctuary when the Carthusians intoned the first prayers. The night made it possible to observe more clearly than ever the glowing point of light marking the presence of the Blessed Sacrament. The sound of the wood in the old walnut stalls seemed to blend with the voices of the monks. The psalms followed one after the other to the slow rhythm of a Gregorian chant tone; those who regularly attend the Divine Office at Benedictine abbeys might regret the lack of purity in the style. But Night Prayer does not lend itself well to merely esthetic considerations. The liturgy unfolds in a half-light that seeks God. There are the voices of the Carthusians, and a perfect silence.

Toward half past two in the morning, the bells rang for the Angelus. The monks left the church one by one. Is the nocturnal Divine Office madness or a miracle? In all the Charterhouses in the world, night prepares for day, and day prepares for night. We must never forget the sweet, powerful statement of Saint Bruno in his letter to Raoul le Verd: “Here God gives his athletes, in return for the labor of the combat, the desired reward: a peace that the world does not know and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

The Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments was profoundly touched by the two nocturnal services that marked his stay. He shares with Isaac the Syrian this beautiful thought from the Ascetical Homilies:

Prayer offered up at night possesses a great power, more than the prayer of the day-time. Therefore all the righteous prayed during the night, while combatting the heaviness of the body and the sweetness of sleep and repelling corporeal nature. . . . There is nothing that even Satan fears so much as prayer that is offered during the vigilance at night…. For this reason the devil smites them with violent warfare, in order to hinder them, if possible, from this work [as was the case with Anthony the Great, Blessed Paul, Arsenius, and other Desert Fathers]…. But those who have resisted his wicked stratagems even a little, who have tasted the gifts of God that are granted during vigil, and who have experienced in themselves the magnitude of God’s help that is always nigh to them, utterly disdain him and all his devices…. Which of the solitaries, though possessing all the virtues together, could neglect this work, and not be reckoned to be idle without it? For night vigil is the light of the thinking, and by it the understanding is exalted, the thought is collected, and the mind takes flight and gazes at spiritual things and by prayer it is rejuvenated and shines brilliantly.

For the Cardinal, night warms a man’s heart. The one who keeps vigil at night goes out of himself, the better to find God. The silence of night is the most capable of crushing all the dictatorships of noise. When darkness descends upon the earth, the asceticism of silence can acquire more luminous dimensions. The words of the Psalmist are final: “In the night . . . I think of God, and I moan; I meditate, and my spirit faints. You keep my eyelids from closing; I am so troubled that I cannot speak. I consider the days of old, I remember the years long ago. I commune with my heart in the night; I meditate and search my spirit” (Ps 77:2–6).

Before we departed, the cardinal wanted to have a moment of recollection in the cemetery. We walked through the monastery, those long, magnificent galleries, like labyrinths carved out by prayer. The large cloister measures 709 feet from north to south, 75 feet from east to west, or a quadrilateral with a perimeter of 1,568 feet. The foundations of this Gothic complex go back to the twelfth century; since then, permanent silence has reigned. In the Carthusian deserts, the cemetery is located at the center of the cloister.

The graves bore no names, dates, or mementos. On the one side, there were stone crosses, for the generals of the Order, and on the other—wooden crosses for the Fathers and the lay Brothers. The Carthusians are buried in the ground without a coffin, without a tombstone; no distinctive mark recalls their individual lives. I asked Dom Dysmas de Lassus the location of the crosses of the monks who had been his contemporaries and whose deaths he had witnessed. Dom Dysmas no longer knew. “The gusts of wind and the mosses have already done their work”, he declared. He could find only the grave of Dom André Poisson, one of his predecessors, who died in April 2005. The former general died at night, alone, in his cell; he departed to join all the sons of Saint Bruno, and the vast troop of hermits, in heaven.

Since 1084, Carthusians have not wanted to leave any trace. God alone matters. Stat Crux dum volvitur orbis—the world turns and the Cross remains.

Before leaving, in the sunshine beneath an immaculate blue sky, the cardinal blessed the tombs.

A few moments later, we left the Grande Chartreuse. The Benedictine monk who had come to pick us up declared: “You are leaving paradise …”

In the Dialogues of the Carmelites, Georges Bernanos wrote: “When wise men reach the end of their wisdom, it is advisable to listen to the children.” The Carthusians are wise men and children together.

During this year of work, a phrase from the Diary of a Country Priest by Bernanos was the reliable compass of our reflection:

My inner quiet—blessed by God—has never really isolated me. I feel all human-kind can enter and I receive them thus only at the threshold of my home…. Alas, mine is but a very precarious shelter. But I imagine the quiet of some souls is like a vast refuge. Sinners at the end of their tether can creep in and rest, and leave comforted, forgetting the great invisible temple where they lay down their burden for a while.

Similarly, in Le Silence comme introduction à la métaphysique [Silence as an introduction to metaphysics], the philosopher Joseph Rassam asserted that “silence is within us the wordless language of the finite being that, by its own weight, seeks and carries our movement toward the infinite Being. This is to say that thought does not arrive at the affirmation of God on its own power, but through its docility to the prevenient light of being that is received and welcomed as a gift. The act of silence that defines this reception bears within it prayer, in other words, the movement by which the soul raises itself to God.” For Joseph Rassam, as for Robert Cardinal Sarah, “although speech characterizes man, silence is what defines him, because speech acquires sense only in terms of this silence.” This is the beautiful and important message of The Power of Silence.

On April 16, 2013, a few weeks after his election, Pope Francis recalled: “The prophets, ‘you killed them’, and then venerated them. [They build monuments for them, but after killing them.] That is a manifestation of resistance to the Holy Spirit.” In this world, the man who speaks about silence can experience the same ups and downs. Admiration, rejection, and condemnation follow one another and disappear.

The words of the silent are often true prophecies but also lights that people seek to extinguish.

In this book, Robert Cardinal Sarah had only one aim, which is summed up in this thought: “Silence is difficult, but it makes man able to allow himself to be led by God. Silence is born of silence. Through God the silent one, we can gain access to silence. And man is unceasingly surprised by the light that bursts forth then. Silence is more important than any other human work. For it expresses God. The true revolution comes from silence; it leads us toward God and others so as to place ourselves humbly and generously at their service” (Thought 68, The Power of Silence).

What virtue does Cardinal Sarah expect from the reading of this book? Humility. From this perspective, he can adopt as his own the step taken by Rafael Cardinal Merry del Val. Having retired from the public business of the Church, the former Secretary of State of Saint Pius X had composed a beautiful “Litany of Humility”, which he recited every day after celebrating Mass:

O Jesus, meek and humble of heart,
Make my heart like yours.
From self-will, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being esteemed, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being loved, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being extolled, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being honored, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being praised, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being preferred to others, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being consulted, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire of being approved, deliver me, O Lord.
From the desire to be understood, deliver me, O Lord.

From the desire to be visited, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being humiliated, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being despised, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of suffering rebukes, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being calumniated, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being forgotten, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being ridiculed, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being suspected, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being wronged, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being abandoned, deliver me, O Lord.
From the fear of being refused, deliver me, O Lord.
That others may be loved more than I,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be esteemed more than I,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That, in the opinion of the world, others may increase and I may decrease,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be chosen and I set aside,
Lord, grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be praised and I go unnoticed, Lord,
grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may be preferred to me in everything, Lord,
grant me the grace to desire it.
That others may become holier than I,
provided that I may become as holy as I should, Lord,
grant me the grace to desire it.
At being unknown and poor,
Lord, I want to rejoice.

At being deprived of the natural perfections of body and mind,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When people do not think of me,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they assign to me the meanest tasks,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they do not even deign to make use of me,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they never ask my opinion,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they leave me at the lowest place,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they never compliment me,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
When they blame me in season and out of season,
Lord, I want to rejoice.
Blessed are those who suffer persecution for justice’ sake,
For theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Nicolas Diat
Rome, September 2, 2016

3 Comments

  1. this book is pure joy to read and pray with. What comes across is the Cardinal’s extensive knowledge of the mystics and their journey into the heart of God. It is evident he is well travelled on this road and he wants to take you on it, although very few have taken it. many will take this path if they read the book slowly and prayerfully.

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