Review: Cardinal Robert Sarah with Nicolas Diat. The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (Ignatius Press, 2017).

By Samuel McNally-Cross

“Man is what he does with his silence” —Baron von Hugel

One of the well-worn arguments of the Christian Church concerns the balance between silence and contemplation on the one hand and apostolic activity and service on the other. At the same time, it does not take a shrewd observation to note that our modern world is growing noisier, especially in cities: constant traffic, blaring sirens, music pumping from every bar, shop, and restaurant. In our cars we flick on the radio without a thought, and our train carriages are filled with chatter on mobile phones. People use headphones to avoid the clamor, but slide into a private yet equally noisy world. There is little that can be done about the atmospheric noise that punctures our existence, but in this powerful book Cardinal Robert Sarah asserts the need for a recovery of silence in order that we may reach communion with the Divine.

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Sarah is known for his strong and passionate speeches, and this book, as the title suggests, is no different in tone. He rails against the lack of contemplation and silence found within the modern Church, especially among her clergy.

Far from being a dense theological treatise, the book takes the form of a conversation between Sarah and the equally astute Nicolas Diat, a French journalist, whose pertinent questions Sarah uses as a springboard to launch into forceful engagement with the subject matter. Sarah comes across as a deeply devoted individual, fired by a desire to see a reclamation of silence and unwilling to bend to a softer compromise. It is clear to see that his position comes from a genuine and deep spiritual life of prayer and prolific reading. (The whole text is peppered with wisdom from various spiritual masters and some names that will no doubt be new to the reader, like Isaac of Stella, Luis de La Palma, and Jean-Baptiste Porion.)

There are no unwieldy paragraphs to wrestle with. Each reply from the cardinal is split into individual numbered thoughts, which can make the responses seem disjointed but does make for a great many gobbets perfect for adding to essays or homilies. It is worth noting, however, that Sarah is not attempting to write about silence in a way that will make the reader nod in agreement and return to old habits. He is striving to change the culture he sees, one that has been overtaken by noise and has forgotten God.

“Noise, as C.S. Lewis’ devil Screwtape famously said, is the music of hell,” Archbishop Charles Chaput writes in a blurb for the book. Cardinal Sarah clearly believes that and wants to see that devilish music drowned out with the overpowering silence of God.

He first focuses on how the world has become so noisy that it has lost focus; second comes the need for silence to hear God; third, the need for silence in order to encounter mystery and wisdom beyond our understanding; fourth, on silence as a compelling response to evil, drawing on Cardinal Sarah’s experiences of the brutal Marxist regime in Guinea; the fifth and final section brings us into the inner sanctuary of Le Grande Chartreuse, home of the Carthusian order, capturing the vision of St. Bruno, to seek God in solitude.

This book will make you uncomfortable with your prayer habits, or lack thereof, and may well convince those who are unsure of the need for contemplation and silence. For admirers of Cardinal Sarah it confirms their view of the man many think of as the successor to Pope Francis. It is unlikely to win over his critics, although the cardinal does give a glimpse into his admirable spiritual life, which may round out his character in the eyes of those who find him difficult.

With an afterthought by Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Cardinal Sarah’s dedication to the same, it is hard to read the book without seeing it is a thinly veiled critique of the current papacy. Don’t let church politics distract from the vital call to contemplative arms that Cardinal Robert Sarah makes.

The Rev. Samuel McNally-Cross is vicar of St. Thomas, Kensal Town, London.

 

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