How a dying monk inspired Cardinal Sarah to embrace silence

Cardinal Robert Sarah (Getty)

I have been reading more of Cardinal Robert Sarah’s The Power of Silence, about which I blogged on Thursday 18 May. It is an extraordinary book, born of theological scholarship and an innate understanding of contemplation, as well as being almost paradoxical in its requirement of words to describe the importance of silence in the Christian life.

Now halfway through it, I am struck as never before about how much worldly events and ‘busyness’ intrude and encroach upon the inner world of the spirit. Most interesting is the actual genesis of the book. Although theoretically an “interview” with French journalist Nicolas Diat (who also interviewed the Cardinal for his book God or Nothing) it is, like this earlier book, merely a springboard for Cardinal Sarah to describe the true nature of Catholic Christianity. This does not mean immersion in social or charitable projects, an obsession with liturgical reform, endless ecumenical ventures and all the other ways in which we might be distracted from “the one thing needful”.

They have their place, but as Sarah reminds us over and over again, action must flow from a contemplative heart; only through listening humbly and attentively to God in silence will authentic inspiration for Catholic action come about.

Most moving is Diat’s Introduction, in which he explains the Cardinal’s decision “to devote a book to silence.” It came about through meeting a young monk, Brother Vincent-Marie of the Resurrection, at the Abbey of Lagrasse in the south of France on 25 October 2014. Brother Vincent was slowly dying of multiple sclerosis and was no longer able to speak. The Cardinal “recognised an ardent soul, a hidden saint, a great friend of God [who] could only lift his gaze towards the cardinal [and] contemplate him steadily, tenderly, lovingly.”

When Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, returned to Rome he often phoned Brother Vincent; he spoke while the other listened, remaining silent. We learn that in his final months – he died on Sunday 10 April 2016 – Brother Vincent prayed constantly for the Cardinal. Diat adds the enigmatic sentence, “The monks who cared for the Brother…are certain that he remained alive for a few additional months so as to protect Robert Sarah better.”

Diat comments that “This friendship was born in silence, it grew in silence” and that the book “could never have existed without Brother Vincent [who] showed us that the silence into which illness had plunged him allowed him to enter ever more deeply into the truth of things.”

Having just lived through the political upheavals of the last few days, with the saturation media coverage that it has excited, and having wasted too much time reading newspaper articles about the current situation, heard too many radio debates and watched too many news items on TV, I confess my own head is full of distraction and noise. I dearly need to be reminded, even gently reproved, by Cardinal Sarah: “The Gospel explains how important it is to mistrust sterile enthusiasms, intense passions and ideological or political slogans.”

Now back to silence.