The dying monk who drove a cardinal to silence

Cardinal Sarah: 'Man can encounter God in truth only in silence and solitude' (Getty)

The Power of Silence
by Cardinal Robert Sarah, Ignatius, £14

This is a deeply impressive book, equal to Cardinal Sarah’s earlier one, God or Nothing. In that volume, Sarah described at length his childhood in Guinea and the development of his priestly vocation as he moved up the hierarchy to become an archbishop. In this one we learn in detail of his inner life, his wide reading of spiritual classics, and the saints and theologians who have guided his thinking, as well as his uncompromisingly Catholic response to the secular world.

It is significant that St Augustine, another African bishop, is among his favoured authors. For Sarah, the “city of God” must always, at some level, be separate from the city of man: neither a fortress Church nor one that is blithely (and blindly) ecumenical.

Often one is inclined to skip a book’s introduction. This one matters, for it describes how the book came to be written: through the silent prayers of a young monk, Brother Vincent-Marie of the Resurrection, who was dying of multiple sclerosis. He could no longer speak, so the cardinal visited him several times at the Abbey of la Grasse, and often spoke to him on the phone, communicating with him in a friendship that was “born in silence [and] grew in silence”. Clearly their dialogue forced Sarah, like his young friend, to “enter ever more deeply into the truth of things”.

This book, like its predecessor, is the result of a long interview with the French journalist Nicolas Diat. Diat, who has numbered the paragraphs of the cardinal’s responses to make them easier to refer back to, acts more as a facilitator than an interviewer. In his questions he prompts Sarah to develop his reflections, rather than reply to questions fired at point-blank range, as is the way with political interviews.

Rather like certain music by Bach, Sarah returns again and again to the same themes, though from different angles and employing different phrasing. Central to his thought is that “Silence is not an absence … It is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.” This leads to the understanding that “Man can encounter God in truth only in silence and solitude.”

The cardinal, who is prefect of the Vatican Congregation for Divine Worship, is acutely aware of the pressures exerted over his office by external forces, admitting that we all run the danger of being “preoccupied with worldly business and concerns if we neglect the interior life … the ascetical practices”. In his own case, as he has described in God or Nothing, “ascetical practices” mean regular retreats into the desert for three days without food or water.

His love for and reverence towards Benedict XVI is clear in many allusions here. Benedict, who has written the afterword to the second edition, has, along with Augustine, the most references in the bibliography. Sarah is clearly drawn to Benedict’s new life, “like a monk, withdrawn in the silence of a monastery in the Vatican gardens”. Mother Teresa, who “loved to remain in silence for hours at a time before Jesus, present in the Eucharist”, is another spiritual mentor. He relates with evident approval an anecdote of a young priest contentedly telling Mother Teresa that he celebrated Mass, said the Divine Office and prayed his rosary daily. This did not satisfy her: “Love demands the maximum!” she told him.

We learn very little in these pages of Cardinal Sarah’s own tribulations at the Vatican, where he is, inevitably, very unpopular with certain factions. Almost in passing he says that he “painfully experienced assassination by gossip, slander and public humiliation”. He is undeterred – and probably unsurprised – by this, recognising as he does that “silent prayer is the strongest and surest act in the struggle against evil.” Evil is simply a form of rebellion against God, for “the more man rejects the silence of God, the more he will rebel against him”.

Sarah has been particularly attacked for his wish, deeply felt and expressed, to bring more reverence and silence into the Ordinary Form of the Mass. Referring to a “horizontal liturgy” rather than a “vertical” one, he has criticised “priests and bishops who make their appearance as entertainers”, pointedly asking: “How did priests celebrate before the invention of the microphone?” Such statements are not guaranteed to make clerical friends.

Maybe if other clerics at the Vatican could follow the cardinal’s own practice, when he states that “the great moments of my day are found in the incomparable hours that I spend on my knees in darkness before the Most Blessed Sacrament”, there might be more holiness at the heart of the Church.

There is one, perhaps significant, aside – a reference to Pope Gregory the Great who “felt the tension between monastic life and his papal office”. Those who hope this holy cardinal might one day assume the papal office himself should direct their silent pleas to the saintly monk-pope.