Book Review: The Presence of the One who loves us eternally
The Presence of the One who loves us eternally
The Power of Silence – Against the Dictatorship of Noise by Robert Cardinal Sarah with Nicolas Diat, Ignatius, 244pp, £16.50.
reviewed by Sr Claire Waddelove OSB
“Cardinal Sarah is a spiritual teacher, who speaks out of the depths of silence with the Lord, out of his interior union with him, and thus really has something to say to each one of us.”
Afterword p.244, Benedict XVI Pope Emeritus
This beautiful book does indeed deserve to be read by everyone: by bishops, priests and religious, certainly, and those in formation, but also by lay Catholics and other Christians, who will find in it a means of deepening and strengthening their interior life, and by non-believers who may thus discover a path to God. Those, in particular, who have never known a world without the internet and mobile phones, will have a new vista opened to them: a contemplative approach to life, the silent love of the praying heart.
The author’s message is unequivocal: “If man seeks God and wants to find him, if he desires a life of the most intimate union with him, silence is the most direct path and the surest means of obtaining it” (p219). And, “To refuse silence filled with confident fear and adoration, is to refuse God the freedom to take hold of us by his love and presence. Sacred silence allows man to place himself joyfully at God’s disposal” (No 230).
Like their first book, God or Nothing, this one takes the form of a dialogue between Cardinal Sarah and Nicolas Diat. The latter’s questions form a framework for what might be described as a prolonged mediation on the subject, which, until the final chapter, is broken down into numbered “Thoughts”. These vary in length from a short paragraph to a page or more, and there are numerous thoughts in response to each question. The book is very accessible and although best read slowly all through, it can also be readily dipped into, as each Thought can stand alone. There are treasures on every page and many memorable texts, giving us a glimpse into the depths of the author’s soul. Throughout the book, there are evocative quotations from the Scriptures and spiritual writers spanning the millennia. There is a bibliography of five pages listing the sources, but no precise references are given.
God is Silence
In “Silence Versus The World’s Noise”, the first and longest chapter, we read that God is silence, that he dwells in the human heart and it is there that he will bring about our inner transformation. We must prepare for activity by “an intense life of prayer, contemplation, seeking The Presence of the One who loves us eternally and listening to God’s will” (No 14). In contrast, the world “no longer hears God because it is constantly speaking at a devastating speed and volume in order to say nothing…. In this hell of noise, man disintegrates and is lost” (No 74). It is part of the devil’s strategy, to keep man from facing himself and finding God. “Too few are willing to confront God in silence, by coming to be burned in that great face-toface encounter” (No 76).
Stern words of warning are addressed to priests: “Without the asceticism of silence, pastors become rather uninteresting men, prisoners of their boring, pathetic torrents of words. Without the life of the Holy Spirit and without silence, a priest’s teaching is nothing but confused chatter devoid of substance” (No 135).
The title of the second chapter, “God Does Not Speak, But His Voice Is Quite Clear”, might give rise to disappointment. It begins promisingly with creation, which is “a silent word of God. The wordless beauty of nature displays before our eyes the manifold riches of a Father who is ceaselessly present among men” (No 162). Prayer is indicated as being the best means of understanding God’s silent speech, his presence and his love: and “God has his mysterious way of being close to us in our trials” (No 171).
Redressing the balance
Yet the voice of God seems muffled rather than clear. Although references to the Sacred Scriptures as the very Word of God do appear elsewhere, much more might have been expected here. There is no direct reference to the voice of conscience, nor to the way God speaks to us through other people, through wise spiritual counsel, through the circumstances and events of our life. There are a few passing references to the fact that Our Lord spoke, “the voice of the Son is the voice of the Father” (No 194), and an acknowledgement that he rarely asked his disciples to keep silent, but in this chapter, too, the emphasis is overwhelmingly on silence: the silence of God, of Jesus, of the Holy Spirit, of Mary. Even the liturgy of heaven is silent. It might seem overdone. Presumably the Cardinal thought it necessary to redress the balance which is so heavily weighted the other way. We need to be silent in order to be able to hear God, to receive the Word.
In Chapter III, “Silence, The Mystery And The Sacred”, the spotlight is on the liturgy, from which he would like banished all noise, worldliness, entertainment, superficiality, irreverence, profanity, and due place given to sacred silence. “Only silence leads man beyond words, to the mystery, to worship in spirit and in truth” (No 243). Happily for those of us who have dedicated our lives to the praise of God in Gregorian chant, this receives approbation: “Gregorian chant is not contrary to silence. It has issued from it and leads to it. I would even say that it is as though woven of silence” (No 247).
God works in silence
God’s silence in the face of evil and suffering is the theme of Chapter IV. Evil is acknowledged as “an enigma that is impossible to resolve” (No 272), but we can say that God does not will it. “Evil exists because his love is not accepted; his love is misunderstood, rejected, and resisted. … The more monstrous the evil, the more evident it is that God, in us, is the first victim” (No 276). We are invited to follow the example of Our Lady at the foot of the Cross: “She takes refuge in prayer, selfoffering, and serene acceptance of God’s mysterious will, in communion with her Son” (No 282). “The time will come when evil will be destroyed by good … evil never has the last word. In the darkest night, God works in silence” (No 291). Silent prayer, patience, trust, self-surrender and filial piety give strength in the midst of trials. Rebellion against God leads to sterile
despair; suffering with faith and hope canlead one to spiritual heights.
Insights into prayer
In the final chapter, Dom Dysmas de Lassus, Father-General of the Carthusian Order, joins in the conversation, in a rare interview. Drawing on a wealth of personal experience, he offers precious insights into prayer – distractions, coping with interior noise, making progress, continual prayer; and the spiritual life - the hardest combat being the battle with oneself, the immense
journey that has to be travelled from total selfishness to sacrificial love, seeing trials and suffering from the perspective of eternal life and the certainly of being loved by God.
In the Conclusion, Cardinal Sarah gives the last word to Lectio Divina, “a moment of silent listening, contemplation, and profound recollection in the light of the Spirit … The Word read in silence accompanies us, enlightens us, and feeds us. … It is the Presence of the One who loves us eternally” (pp 240-241).
Sr Claire Waddelove belongs to the Benedictine Community at St Cecilia’s Abbey, Ryde, Isle of Wight.