The Power of Silence

A few years ago I wasted money on a book that purported to be about the history and importance of silence in Catholicism. It turned out to be an exercise in political correctness instead. This became apparent in the opening pages with an explanation that there are different kinds of silence. One kind, it said, is guilty silence, and the outstanding example of that, you guessed it, was Ven. Pope Pius XII keeping silent instead of speaking out publicly to condemn the Nazi treatment of Jews.

I am not going to address the calumny of Pius XII being “Hitler’s Pope.” Plenty of other commentators have done so ever since it was first ventilated by the German playwright Rolf Hochhuth in The Deputy more than fifty years ago. Theirs has been a Sisyphean effort, as would be anything I might say. No matter the historical truth, enemies of the Faith as long as they exist, and that will be forever, will continue to flog certain subjects as long as it is useful to them, and that also will be forever. The Holocaust is only one. Others include the Crusades, the Inquisition and, more recently (and continuing), the notion of priests as very often (if not generally) secret pedophiles.

The object is not simply to cast the Church and her members in the worst possible light. It is also to keep the remaining members feeling ashamed and defeated, something like citizens of a once proud nation now occupied by enemy troops.

In any event, I closed the book in question after reading a few pages and have never reopened it. Now I rejoice that the book I hoped it would be exists. It is The Power of Silence; Against the Dictatorship of Noise, by Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship, with the collaboration of French journalist Nicolas Diat. (The two worked together on Cardinal Sarah’s earlier book God or Nothing.)

What follows here will not be a review of the new book. You have to read a book in order to review it, and I have not read The Power of Silence, not in the sense of opening it at page one and going on to the end. Rather, when I did open it I discovered I couldn’t read for more than a few minutes without being compelled to stop and meditate on what I had just read. As a result, The Power of Silence is my current spiritual reading.

I cannot think of a better way to illustrate why it would become that for me, or anybody else, than to quote from the book itself, and to do so simply by opening it randomly and sharing whatever I find on the page where my eye happens to land. Thus from page 82:

“Memory is a word made fruitful by the Holy Spirit. It is a tomb, a tilled soil in which man deposits the seed of the word, and the latter takes root and springs up silently, developing a new, more abundant life that bears hope within it.

“Having died in the silence of listening, the word flourishes again under the sun of the Spirit that reawakens it to life. Assimilated and made fruitful through meditation, it appears as a new being laden with many fruits: if the grain of wheat does not die, it bears no fruit. The death of the seed is the life of the plant. And the plant, the only being in all nature that is simultaneously silent and animated, is offered to us precisely as the most perfect image of what occurs during the moments that follow silent listening.

“Thus the speculative tradition of lectio divina, which has run through Christianity from Origen to our day, says that meditatio follows lectio [reading], and oratio [prayer] follows meditatio. The reading of the lectio divina is by its nature reserved for a situation in which one addresses God, and thus it reflects perfectly the riches of silence.

“The silence of memory is peace of soul and heart. The silence of memory is a free, upright man.”

On the facing page (83): “Noise is a desecration of the soul, noise is the ‘silent’ ruin of the interior life.”

Here are two paragraphs from page 171:

“The heart of the Christian faith lies in the poverty of a God who gives everything through love, going so far as to give his own life.

“If we manage to be with God in silence, we possess what is essential. Man does not live by bread alone, but by a word that comes from the mouth of God. The materialistic civilization that now prevails in the West favors nothing but immediate profit, economic success, and pointless leisure activities. In this domain of King Money, who could ever be interested in God’s silence? The Church would commit a fatal mistake if she exhausted herself in giving a kind of social face to the modern world that has been unleashed by free-market capitalism. The good of man is not exclusively material.”

From page 126: “Without silence, we are deprived of mystery, reduced to fear, sadness, and solitude. It is time to rediscover silence! The mystery of God, his incomprehensibility, is the source of joy for every Christian. Every day we rejoice to contemplate an unfathomable God, whose mystery will never be exhausted. The eternity of heaven itself will be the joy, ever new, of entering more profoundly into the divine mystery without ever exhausting it. Only silence can express this joy: ‘We are silent because the words by which our souls would fain live cannot be expressed in earthly language,’ said the Carthusian Augustin Guillarerand, in the anthology They Speak by Silences.

Throughout The Power of Silence everything Cardinal Sarah says is greatly enriched by his quotation of other learned spiritual writers like the Carthusian who was just cited. The citation also puts me in mind of another matter.

In God or Nothing and elsewhere, the Cardinal has identified Western liberalism and Islamic jihadism as the two greatest threats which menace the Church today. I mention this because in the Introduction to The Power of Silence Nicolas Diat describes a visit he and the Cardinal made in February, 2016, to the Grande Chartreuse, the mother house of Carthusian monasticism founded in 1084 by Saint Bruno. The Carthusians are famous, of course, for their strict silence. At the Grande Chartreuse the high Churchman and his journalist companion are greeted by the seventy-fourth Father General of the Carthusian Order, Dom Dysmas de Lassus.

The journalist does not report it, but one supposes that he and certainly Cardinal Sarah were aware that ten centuries after the First Crusade the monks of the Grande Chartreuse still pray in their daily office for the liberation of the Holy Land — an example of faithfulness in prayer that can have few parallels. I know of it because I and Robert Hickson were told it by Arnaud de Lassus, who died recently, when we were recovering at the Lassus home in Versailles following a Chartres Pilgrimage. Arnaud was the father of Dom Dysmas.

As I write these lines I try to imagine what it could have been like for Arnaud, perhaps even on his deathbed, to have the memory of the Father General of the Carthusians as a lively little boy. Could he think of such a development, from boy to Saint Bruno’s seventy-third successor, for more than a few seconds without falling silent at the wonder of it? I think not, and think of what a consolation it must have been.