About 365 miles south-east of Paris, high in France’s remote Chartreuse Mountains, lies one of the world’s most well-known monasteries. Since its foundation in 1084 by the religious order that would become known as the Carthusians, La Grande Chartreuse has been characterized by a daunting quietness. This was famously captured and brought to the world’s attention in the award-winning 2005 documentary Into Great Silence. The power of that silence forms the backdrop to a new book, La Force du Silence, by Cardinal Robert Sarah, the African-born Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, who first came to the universal church’s attention with his best-selling God or Nothing (2015).
On many levels, this is a very different book to God or Nothing. The latter is about a journey of faith of a poor boy from an impoverished and obscure rural village in the then-colony of French Guinea to one of the highest offices at the Holy See. Cardinal Sarah’s new book, however, is a spiritual testimony to that faith: the type of witness that more of the Church’s prelates should—but often don’t—provide as successors of the Apostles. Working again with the distinguished French journalist Nicolas Diat, Sarah focuses the reader’s mind upon something easily trivialized in an age preoccupied with equality. And that is the sheer grandeur of God. To grasp this unfathomable depth, Sarah urges us to be mastered by a silence which liberates us from the Babel of distractions surrounding us.
Silence functions as a metaphor for many things in this book. It evokes the wonder that anyone should experience in God’s presence. But the silence of which Sarah speaks also embodies fidelity, humility, charity, and the clarifying light of reason. Noise, for Sarah, concerns the confusion and sentimentalism of unreason; the bombast of those who scorn the faith of the simple and the saints, and the unfaithfulness of those who would sell out the Church to the applause of the world—primarily a Western world—that tries to disguise its abandonment of God with the type of franticness that’s a sure sign of superficiality.
Having described the nature of the noise that surrounds us, Sarah illustrates how God’s silence speaks to humanity. He then turns to that most difficult of questions: God’s apparent silence in the face of unspeakable evil. The last chapter consists of a three-way exchange in which Diat poses questions to Sarah and the current prior of La Grande Chartreuse and minister-general of the Carthusian order, Dom Dysmas de Lassus. Sarah and de Lassus take turns to explore how silence reveals not only our need of God, but also sheds light on what isn’t essential as we seek this God who is beyond historical contingency and yet always with us.
Sarah’s approach throughout this book is reminiscent of the posthumously-published Pensées penned by the French scientist and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Like the Pensées, each numbered paragraph in La Force du silence may be read as a stand-alone counsel upon which readers can reflect. The similarities do not end there. Sarah references, for example, numerous Church Fathers and saints. Among others, these include Jerome, Ignatius of Antioch, Maximus the Confessor, John of the Cross, Teresa of Calcutta, Thomas More, and Thérèse of Lisieux. Yet, like Pascal, the life and thought of Saint Augustine looms large throughout Sarah’s reflections and Diat’s questions.
Pascal and Augustine were not shy about naming the problems they regarded as characterizing the Church of their respective times. Nor is Sarah. The noisy sophistry of many contemporary Western theologians (particularly that, some might add, presently emanating from the German-speaking Catholic world) is named for what it is: a prattle which reflects a lack of humility and a disinterest in truth. More generally, Sarah suggests that the propensity of many Christians to talk endlessly about that which is peripheral to the faith reflects their loss of a sense of who God is.
So too does a tendency that Sarah singles out for particular criticism: those forms of activism which marginalize the truths proclaimed by the Church and the life of prayer in the name of “relevance”. In this connection, Sarah points out that saints who were especially immersed in the hustle and bustle of the world, such as John Bosco, John Paul II, Thomas More, and Josemaría Escrivá, maintained especially intense prayer lives, much of which was characterized by silent adoration. This is a reminder that, without regularly immersing ourselves in quiet contemplation of Christ, God’s presence in any Christian’s life will inevitably fade. That is how a church starts collapsing into being just another activist group or NGO.
Into the Darkness
Addressing these contemporary matters, however, don’t preoccupy the bulk of Sarah’s reflections. Far more attention is expended on some of the hardest questions with which every person—Christian or non-Christian, believer or atheist—wrestles. Why was God silent, for example, in face of the genocide of European Jewry? Where was God when seven Trappist monks from the Tibhirine monastery in Algeria were beheaded by Islamists in 1996? How could God not save those who remain his Chosen People? Why did God not stay the hand of jihadist executors?
The problem of evil—not mere discomfort or inconvenience, but evil—has long preoccupied Jews and Christians. They have also produced answers that many find intellectually convincing and to which atheists don’t have especially convincing rebuttals. Yet these Jewish and Christian responses can’t provide by themselves immediate or even long-term release from bewilderment and pain. Intellectual certainty is one thing, the experience of suffering is quite another.
Like any good bishop, Sarah patiently outlines some of the theological and philosophical responses to the problem of evil. Here he draws upon Catholic and Protestant theologians such as Maurice Zundel (1897-1975) and Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) as well as the German Jewish philosopher Hans Jonas (1903-1993) and his famous 1968 essay, The Concept of God after Auschwitz. But, Sarah cautions, there is a limit. The existence of evil doesn’t disprove the existence of the rational and loving God revealed in the Scriptures. Nonetheless, Sarah warns, evil “is a mystery that humanity can never completely comprehend.” Part of the genius of Sarah’s meditation is how he uses the motif of silence to illuminate this darkness.
For Sarah, it is important that humans resist and combat evil. He himself had no hesitation in denouncing the crimes and terrorism of Sékou Touré’s Marxist regime in Guinea—the same Communist dictator who imprisoned Sarah’s predecessor as Archbishop of Conakry in a concentration camp for eight years and placed Sarah himself on a death-list. That said, Sarah states, we need to remember two things.
First, God’s silence reflects the truth that he is working through time to renew all things, often in ways that we often cannot understand, precisely because we are not God. That’s not a call to be passive. Rather, it’s a caution against imagining that we can master evil in a god-like fashion.
Second, we cannot contest evil, Sarah holds, unless we are willing to quieten ourselves, enter into God’s presence, and meet his silence. In this context, silence implies neither a deaf and mute God nor a master-watchmaker God who does nothing except set time in motion. Instead, God’s silence serves to shed light upon the truth and thus the nature of the injustice and the identity of its perpetrators. Christ himself, Sarah points out, is silent before his accusers. Yet Christ’s stillness discredits the false accusations made against him. More than any words, it convinces Pilate that he’s being asked to sentence an innocent man to death. Likewise Christ’s silence on the Cross testifies to God’s willingness to let himself be humiliated and sacrifice himself in reparation for the evils we have all done. Only the one true God could do this.
Silence and the interior path to God
Silence, however, concerns not only that which is exterior to us. For Sarah, it’s also indispensable if we really want to come to know the God who would allow himself to be nailed to a tree to atone for our sins.
Sarah recalls that as a young priest and archbishop, he often retreated into the Guinean desert to find the solitude and silence he needed to find God. In doing so, he sought to create what he calls “an interior desert”. The models Sarah has in mind are Biblical figures such as Moses, Elijah, John the Baptist, and Christ himself—all of whom took themselves into the wilderness to contemplate God. Entering into this silence, Sarah maintains, helps us to strip away those exteriorities that prevent us from encountering the hidden presence of God which Augustine discovered after his conversion to Christianity. Experiencing that presence, Sarah says, can be “terrifying” and “destabilizing”. Those who choose to embark on this path therefore need enormous courage to do so. Yet at the end of the quest, Sarah promises, we will find true life and true peace.
And that is ultimately where Cardinal Sarah’s at-times mystical reflections on silence are meant to take us: the place of true joy in which the silence no longer frightens us because we are alone with the God who is Love—the Love who is the only alternative to Nothing.
La Force du silence: Contre la dictature du Bruit
by Cardinal Robert Sarah with Nicolas Diat
Paperback, 374 pages
Related at CWR: “Cardinal Robert Sarah on ‘The Strength of Silence’ and the Dictatorship of Noise”(Oct 3, 2016): An exclusive English translation of a wide-ranging interview by Cardinal Sarah with the French newspaper “La Nef”.
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