Cardinal Robert Sarah on “The Strength of Silence” and the Dictatorship of Noise

In a wide-ranging interview with "La Nef", Cardinal Sarah discusses his new book, published in France, saying, "By living with the silent God, and in Him, we ourselves become silent."

Editor’s note: The following interview with Robert Cardinal Sarah appeared in the October 2016 issue of the French newspaper La Nef; it was given on the occasion of the publication of his new book La Force du silence (The Strength of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise). The interview appears exclusively here in English by kind permission of Cardinal Sarah. The translation is by Michael J. Miller, who translated Cardinal Sarah’s 2015 book God or Nothing (Ignatius Press).

La Nef: This book that you are offering to your readers is a veritable spiritual meditation on silence: why have you launched into such a profound reflection, which is not usually expected of a Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, who is in charge of dossiers that deal very concretely with the life of the Church? 

Cardinal Robert Sarah: “God’s first language is silence.” In commenting on this beautiful, rich insight of Saint John of the Cross, Thomas Keating, in his work Invitation to Love, writes: “Everything else is a poor translation. In order to understand this language, we must learn to be silent and to rest in God.” 

It is time to rediscover the true order of priorities. It is time to put God back at the center of our concerns, at the center of our actions and of our life: the only place that He should occupy. Thus, our Christian journey will be able to gravitate around this Rock, take shape in the light of the faith and be nourished in prayer, which is a moment of silent, intimate encounter in which a human being stands face to face with God to adore Him and to express his filial love for Him. 

Let us not fool ourselves. This is the truly urgent thing: to rediscover the sense of God. Now the Father allows Himself to be approached only in silence. What the Church needs most today is not an administrative reform, another pastoral program, a structural change. The program already exists: it is the one we have always had, drawn from the Gospel and from living Tradition. It is centered on Christ Himself, whom we must know, love and imitate in order to live in Him and through Him, to transform our world which is being degraded because human beings live as though God did not exist. As a priest, as a pastor, as a Prefect, as a Cardinal, my priority is to say that God alone can satisfy the human heart. 

I think that we are the victims of the superficiality, selfishness and worldly spirit that are spread by our media-driven society. We get lost in struggles for influence, in conflicts between persons, in a narcissistic, vain activism. We swell with pride and pretention, prisoners of a will to power. For the sake of titles, professional or ecclesiastical duties, we accept vile compromises. But all that passes away like smoke. In my new book I wanted to invite Christians and people of good will to enter into silence; without it, we are in illusion. The only reality that deserves our attention is God Himself, and God is silent. He waits for our silence to reveal Himself. 

Regaining the sense of silence is therefore a priority, an urgent necessity. 

Silence is more important than any other human work. Because it expresses God. The true revolution comes from silence; it leads us toward God and toward others so that we can place ourselves humbly at their service. 

Why is the idea of silence so essential in your view? Is silence necessary in order to find God, and in what way “is it man’s greatest freedom” (no. 25)? As “freedom”, is silence an ascetical practice? 

Cdl. Sarah: Silence is not an idea; it is the path that enables human beings to go to God. 

God is silence, and this divine silence dwells within a human being. By living with the silent God, and in Him, we ourselves become silent. Nothing will more readily make us discover God than this silence inscribed at the heart of our being. 

I am not afraid to state that to be a child of God is to be a child of silence. 

Conquering silence is a battle and a form of asceticism. Yes, it takes courage to free oneself from everything that weighs down our life, because we love nothing so much as appearances, ease and the husk of things. Carried away toward the exterior by his need to say everything, the garrulous man cannot help being far from God, incapable of any profound spiritual activity. In contrast, the silent man is a free man. The world’s chains have no hold on him. 

No dictatorship can do anything against a silent man. You cannot steal a man’s silence from him. 

I think of my predecessor in the See of Conakry in Guinea, Archbishop Raymond-Marie Tchidimbo. He remained in prison for almost nine years, persecuted by the Marxist dictatorship. It was forbidden for him to meet with or speak to anyone. The silence imposed by his jailers became the place of his encounter with God. Mysteriously, his cell became a true “novitiate” and that miserable, sordid little room enabled him to understand somewhat the great silence of Heaven. 

Is it still possible to understand the importance of silence in a world where noise, in all its forms, never ceases? Is this a new situation of “modernity”, with its media, TV, and internet, or has this noise always been a characteristic of the “world”? 

Cdl. Sarah: God is silence, and the devil is noisy. From the beginning, Satan has sought to mask his lies beneath a deceptive, resonant agitation. The Christian owes it to himself not to be of the world. It is up to him to turn away from the noises of the world, from its rumors that run headlong in order to turn better toward what is essential: God. 

Our busy, ultra-technological age has made us even sicker. Noise has become like a drug on which our contemporaries are dependent. With its festive appearance, noise is a whirlwind that avoids looking oneself in the face and confronting the interior emptiness. It is a diabolical lie. The awakening can only be brutal. 

I am not afraid to call on all people of good will to enlist in a form of resistance. What will become of our world if it cannot find oases of silence? 

In the turbulent floods of easy, hollow words, keeping silent assumes the appearance of weakness. In the modern world, the silent man becomes someone who does not know how to defend himself. He is a “subhuman” with respect to the self-proclaimed strong man who crushes and drowns the other in the floods of his talk. The silent man is one man too many. This is the deep reason for modern men’s disdain and hatred of silent beings, for their abominable crimes against unborn children, the sick, or persons at the end of life. These human beings are the magnificent prophets of silence. With them, I am not afraid to declare that the priests of modernity, who declare a sort of war on silence, have lost the battle. For we can remain silent in the midst of the biggest hodgepodge, despicable disturbances, in the midst of the din and shouting of those infernal machines that invite us to activism by snatching any transcendent dimension and any interior life away from us. 

Although the interior man seeks silence in order to find God, is God Himself always silent? And how are we to understand what some call “God’s silence” with regard to unspeakably evil tragedies like the Holocaust, the gulags…? More generally, does the existence of evil call into question the “almighty power” of God? 

Cdl. Sarah: Your question leads us into a very deep mystery. At the Grande Chartreuse [Carthusian monastery], we meditated at length on this point with the Prior General, Dom Dysmas de Lassus. 

God does not will evil. Nevertheless, He remains astonishingly silent in the face of our trials. In spite of everything, suffering does not call God’s almighty power into question—far from it; rather, it reveals it to us. I still hear the voice of the child who through his tears asked me, “Why did God not keep my father from being killed?” In His mysterious silence, God manifests Himself in the tear shed by the child and not in the order of the world that would justify that tear. God has His mysterious way of being close to us in our trials. He is intensely present in our trials and sufferings. His strength makes itself silence because it reveals his infinite tact, His loving tenderness for those who suffer. External manifestations are not necessarily the best proofs of closeness. Silence reveals God’s compassion, the fact that He takes part in our sufferings. God does not will evil. And the more monstrous the evil, the clearer it becomes that God in us is the first victim. 

Christ’s victory over death and sin is consummated in the grand silence of the cross. God manifests all His power in this silence that no barbarity will ever be able to sully. 

When I traveled to countries that were going through violent, profound crises, sufferings and tragic miseries, such as Syria, Libya, Haiti, the Philippines after the devastating typhoon, I observed that silent prayer is the last treasure of those who have nothing left. Silence is the last trench where no one can enter, the one room in which to remain at peace, the place where suffering for a moment lays down its weapons. In suffering, let us hide ourselves in the fortress of prayer. 

Then the power of the jailers is no longer important; criminals can destroy everything furiously, but it is impossible for them to break in and enter into the silence, the heart, the conscience of a human being who prays and nestles in God. The beating of a silent heart, hope, faith and trust in God remain unsinkable. Outside, the world may become a field of ruins, but inside our soul, in the deepest silence, God keeps watch. War and the processions of horrors will never get the better of God present in us. When faced with evil and God’s silence, we must always persevere in prayer and cry out silently, saying with faith and love: 

“I looked for you, Jesus!
I heard you weeping for joy
at the birth of a child.
I saw you seeking freedom
through the bars of a prison.
I walked close by you
while you were begging for a piece of bread.
I heard you howling with sorrow
when your children were laid low by the bombs.
I discovered you in the rooms of a hospital,
subjected to treatments without love. 
Now that I have found you,
I do not want to lose you again.
I ask you, please, teach me to love you.”

With Jesus we bear our sufferings and trials better. 

What role to you assign to silence in our Latin liturgy? Where do you see it, and how do you reconcile silence and participation? 

Cdl. Sarah: Before God’s majesty, we lose our words. Who would dare to speak up before the Almighty? Saint John Paul II saw in silence the essence of any attitude of prayer, because this silence, laden with the adored presence, manifests “the humble acceptance of the creature’s limits vis-à-vis the infinite transcendence of a God who unceasingly reveals Himself as a God of love.” To refuse this silence filled with confident awe and adoration is to refuse God the freedom to capture us by His love and His presence. Sacred silence is therefore the place where we can encounter God, because we come to Him with the proper attitude of a human being who trembles and stands at a distance while hoping confidently. We priests must relearn the filial fear of God and the sacral character of our relations with Him. We must relearn to tremble with astonishment before the Holiness of God and the unprecedented grace of our priesthood. 

Silence teaches us a major rule of the spiritual life: familiarity does not foster intimacy; on the contrary, a proper distance is a condition for communion. It is by way of adoration that humanity walks toward love. Sacred silence opens the way to mystical silence, full of loving intimacy. Under the yoke of secular reason, we have forgotten that the sacred and worship are the only entrances to the spiritual life. Therefore I do not hesitate to declare that sacred silence is a cardinal law of all liturgical celebration. 

Indeed, it allows us to enter into participation in the mystery being celebrated. Vatican Council II stresses that silence is a privileged means of promoting the participation of the people of God in the liturgy. The Council Fathers intended to show what true liturgical participation is: entrance into the divine mystery. Under the pretext of making access to God easy, some wanted everything in the liturgy to be immediately intelligible, rational, horizontal and human. But in acting that way, we run the risk of reducing the sacred mystery to good feelings. Under the pretext of pedagogy, some priests indulge in endless commentaries that are flat-footed and mundane. Are these pastors afraid that silence in the presence of the Most High might disconcert the faithful? Do they think that the Holy Spirit is incapable of opening hearts to the divine Mysteries by pouring out on them the light of spiritual grace? 

Saint John Paul II warns us: a human being enters into participation in the divine presence “above all by letting himself be educated in an adoring silence, because at the summit of the knowledge and experience of God there is His absolute transcendence.” 

Sacred silence is the good of the faithful, and the clerics must not deprive them of it!

Silence is the cloth from which our liturgies ought to be cut out. Nothing in them should interrupt the silent atmosphere that is their natural climate. 

Isn’t there a kind of paradox in stating the need for silence in the liturgy while acknowledging that the Eastern liturgies have no moments of silence (no. 259), while they are particularly beautiful, sacred and prayerful? 

Cdl. Sarah: Your comment is wise and shows that it is not enough to prescribe “moments of silence” in order for the liturgy to be permeated with sacred silence. 

Silence is an attitude of the soul. It is not a pause between two rituals; it is itself fully a ritual. 

Certainly, the Eastern rites do not foresee times of silence during the Divine Liturgy. Nevertheless, they are intensely acquainted with the apophatic dimension of prayer before a God who is “ineffable, incomprehensible, imperceptible”. The Divine Liturgy is plunged, as it were, into the Mystery. It is celebrated behind the iconostas, which for Eastern Christians is the veil that protects the mystery. Among us Latins, silence is a sonic iconostas. Silence is a form of mystagogy; it enables us to enter into the mystery without deflowering it. In the liturgy, the language of the mysteries is silent. Silence does not conceal; it reveals in depth. 

Saint John Paul II teaches us that “mystery continually veils itself, covers itself with silence, in order to avoid constructing an idol in place of God.” I want to declare today that the risk of Christians becoming idolaters is great. Prisoners of the noise of endless human talk, we are not far from constructing a cult according to our own dimensions, a god in our own image. As Cardinal Godfried Danneels remarked, “the chief fault of the Western liturgy, as it is celebrated in practice, is being too talkative.” Father Faustin Nyombayré, a Rwandan priest, says that in Africa “superficiality does not spare the liturgy or supposedly religious sessions, from which people return out of breath and perspiring, rather than rested and full of what has been celebrated in order to live and to witness better.” Celebrations sometimes become noisy and exhausting. The liturgy is sick. The most striking symbol of this sickness is the omnipresence of the microphone. It has become so indispensable that people wonder how anyone could have celebrated before it was invented! 

The noise from outside and our own interior noises make us strangers to ourselves. In the midst of noise, a human being cannot help falling into banality: we are superficial in what we say, we utter empty talk, in which we talk and talk again… until we find something to say, a sort of irresponsible “muddle” made up of jokes and words that kill. We are superficial also in what we do: we live in a banal state that is supposedly logical and moral, without finding anything abnormal about it. 

Often we leave our noisy, superficial liturgies without having encountered in them God and the interior peace that He wants to offer us. 

After your conference in London last July, you are returning to the topic of the orientation of the liturgy and wish to see it applied in our churches. Why is this so important to you, and how would you see this change implemented? 

Cdl. Sarah: Silence poses the problem of the essence of the liturgy. Now the liturgy is mystical. As long as we approach the liturgy with a noisy heart, it will have a superficial, human appearance. Liturgical silence is a radical and essential disposition; it is a conversion of heart. Now, to be converted, etymologically, is to turn back, to turn toward God. There is no true silence in the liturgy if we are not—with all our heart—turned toward the Lord. We must be converted, turn back to the Lord, in order to look at Him, contemplate His face, and fall at His feet to adore Him. We have an example: Mary Magdalene was able to recognize Jesus on Easter morning because she turned back toward Him: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” “Haec cum dixisset, conversa est retrorsum et videt Jesus stantem. – Saying this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there” (Jn 20:13-14). 

How can we enter into this interior disposition except by turning physically, all together, priest and faithful, toward the Lord who comes, toward the East symbolized by the apse where the cross is enthroned? 

The outward orientation leads us to the interior orientation that it symbolizes. Since apostolic times, Christians have been familiar with this way of praying. It is not a matter of celebrating with one’s back to the people or facing them, but toward the East, ad Dominum, toward the Lord. 

This way of doing things promotes silence. Indeed, there is less of a temptation for the celebrant to monopolize the conversation. Facing the Lord, he is less tempted to become a professor who gives a lecture during the whole Mass, reducing the altar to a podium centered no longer on the cross but on the microphone! The priest must remember that he is only an instrument in Christ’s hands, that he must be quiet in order to make room for the Word, and that our human words are ridiculous compared to the one Eternal Word. 

I am convinced that priests do not use the same tone of voice when they celebrate facing East. We are so much less tempted to take ourselves for actors, as Pope Francis says! 

Of course, this way of doing things, while legitimate and desirable, must not be imposed as a revolution. I know that in many places preparatory catechesis has enabled the faithful to accept and appreciate the orientation. I wish that this question would not become the occasion for an ideological clash of factions! We are talking about our relationship with God. 

As I had the opportunity to say recently, during a private interview with the Holy Father, here I am just making the heartfelt suggestions of a pastor who is concerned about the good of the faithful. I do not intend to set one practice against another. If it is physically not possible to celebrate ad orientem, it is absolutely necessary to put a cross on the altar in plain view, as a point of reference for everyone. Christ on the cross is the Christian East. 

You ardently defend the conciliar Constitution on the liturgy while deploring the fact that it has been implemented so badly. How do you explain in retrospect the last fifty years? Aren’t Church leaders the ones primarily responsible? 

Cdl. Sarah: I think that we lack the spirit of faith when we read the conciliar document. Bewitched by what Benedict XVI calls the media Council, we give it an all-too-human reading, looking for ruptures and oppositions where a Catholic heart must strive to find renewal in continuity. More than ever the conciliar teaching contained in Sacrosanctum Concilium must guide us. It is about time to let ourselves be taught by the Council instead of utilizing it to justify our concerns about creativity or to defend our ideologies by utilizing the sacred weapons of the liturgy. 

Just one example: Vatican II admirably described the baptismal priesthood of the laity as the ability to offer ourselves in sacrifice to the Father with Christ so as to become, in Jesus, “holy, pure, spotless Victims”. We have here the theological foundation for genuine participation in the liturgy. 

This spiritual reality ought to be experienced particularly at the Offertory, the moment when the whole Christian people offer themselves, not alongside of Christ but in Him, through His sacrifice that will be accomplished at the consecration. Rereading the Council would enable us to avoid having our offertories disfigured by demonstrations that have more to do with folklore than with the liturgy. A sound hermeneutic of continuity could lead us to restore to a place of honor the ancient Offertory prayers, reread in light of Vatican II. 

You mention “the reform of the reform” which you say you wish for (no. 257): what should this consist of chiefly? Would it involve both forms of the Roman rite or only the Ordinary Form? 

Cdl. Sarah: The liturgy must always be reformed in order to be more faithful to its mystical essence. What is called “reform of the reform” and what we perhaps ought to call “mutual enrichment of the rites”, to adopt an expression from the magisterial teaching of Benedict XVI, is a spiritual necessity. Therefore it concerns both forms of the Roman rite. 

I refuse to waste our time contrasting one liturgy with another, or the rite of Saint Pius V to that of Blessed Paul VI. It is a matter of entering into the great silence of the liturgy; it is necessary to know how to be enriched by all the liturgical forms, Latin or Eastern. Why shouldn’t the Extraordinary Form be open to the improvements produced by the liturgical reform resulting from Vatican II? Why couldn’t the Ordinary Form rediscover the ancient prayers of the Offertory, the prayers at the foot of the altar, or a little silence during some parts of the Canon? 

Without a contemplative spirit, the liturgy will remain an occasion for hateful divisions and ideological clashes, for the public humiliation of the weak by those who claim to hold some authority, whereas it ought to be the place of our unity and our communion in the Lord. Why should we confront and detest each other? On the contrary, the liturgy should make us “all attain to unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ…. Thus, by living in the truth of love, we will grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (cf. Eph 4:13-15). 

In the current liturgical context of the Latin-rite world, how can we overcome the mistrust that remains between some devotees of the two liturgical forms of the same Roman rite who refuse to celebrate the other form and consider it sometimes with a certain disdain? 

Cdl. Sarah: To damage the liturgy is to damage our relationship to God and the expression of our Christian faith. Cardinal Charles Journet declared: “Liturgy and catechesis are the two jaws of the pincers with which the devil wants to steal the faith away from the Christian people and seize the Church so as to crush, annihilate and destroy it definitively. Even today the great dragon is keeping watch on the woman, the Church, ready to devour her child.” Yes, the devil wants us to be opposed to each other at the very heart of the sacrament of unity and fraternal communion. It is time for this mistrust, contempt and suspicion to cease. It is time to rediscover a Catholic heart. It is time to rediscover together the beauty of the liturgy, as the Holy Father Francis recommends to us, for, he says, “the beauty of the liturgy reflects the presence of the glory of our God resplendent in His people who are alive and consoled” (Homily for the Chrism Mass, March 28, 2013). 

What was your exceptional stay at the Grande Chartreuse like?

Cdl. Sarah: I thank God for having granted me this exceptional grace. And how could I fail to mention all the gratitude in my heart and my boundless thanks to Dom Dymas de Lassus for his very warm welcome? I would also like humbly to ask forgiveness of him for all the trouble that I may have caused during my stay at his monastery. The Grande Chartreuse is God’s house. It lifts us up to God and puts us down facing Him. The place offers everything needed to encounter God: the beauty of nature, the austerity of the premises, the silence, the solitude and the liturgy. Even though it is my custom to pray at night, the nocturnal Divine Office of the Grande Chartreuse profoundly impressed me: the darkness was pure, the silence bore a Presence, that of God. The night hid everything from us, isolated us from one another, but it united our voices and our praise, it oriented our hearts, our gaze and our thought so as to look at nothing but God. The night is maternal, delightful and cleansing. Darkness is like a fountain from which we emerge washed, appeased and more intimately united to Christ and to others. Spending a good part of the night in prayer is regenerating. It causes us to be reborn. Here, God truly becomes our Life, our Strength, our Happiness, our All. I feel great admiration for Saint Bruno who, like Elijah, led so many souls to this Mountain of God to hear and see “the still, small voice” and to allow themselves to be called by this voice that says to us: “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:11-13). 

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