Words often bring with them the illusion of transparency, as though they allowed us to understand everything, control everything, put everything in order. Modernity is talkative because it is proud, unless the converse is true. Is our incessant talking perhaps what makes us proud?
Never before has the world spoken so much about God, about theology, about prayer, and even about mysticism. But our human language lowers to a paltry level everything that it tries to say about God. Words spoil anything that surpasses them. Now, mystery is by definition that which is above our human reason. In his Mystical Theology, Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite wrote that, confronted with this reality that is beyond everything, confronted with the mystery, we are led to the “dazzling obscurity of the secret Silence . . . surcharging our blinded intellects with the . . . invisible fairness of glories which exceed all beauty.”
There is a real warning that our civilization needs to hear. If our intellects can no longer close their eyes, if we no longer know how to be quiet, then we will be deprived of mystery, of its light, which is beyond darkness, of its beauty, which is beyond all beauty. Without mystery, we are reduced to the banality of earthly things.
Often I wonder whether the sadness of Western urban societies, filled with so much depression and moral distress, so many suicides, does not come from the loss of the sense of mystery. In losing the capacity for silence in the presence of the mystery, people cut themselves off from the sources of joy. Indeed, they find themselves alone in the world, without anything that surpasses and supports them. I know of nothing more frightening than that! How else can we understand the reflection of Blaise Pascal in his Pensées:
When I see the blindness and the wretchedness of man, when I regard the whole silent universe, and man without light, left to himself, and, as it were, lost in this corner of the universe, without knowing who has put him there, what he has come to do, what will become of him at death, and incapable of all knowledge, I become terrified, like a man who should be carried in his sleep to a dreadful desert island, and should awake without knowing where he is, and without means of escape.
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 Guillerand, in the anthology They Speak by Silences.
In order to preserve the mystery, it is necessary to protect it from profane banality. Silence performs this role admirably. A treasure must be placed out of reach; what is precious always remains veiled. Even our body is covered with clothing, not because it would be shameful or impure, but because it is sacred and mysterious. In the liturgy, the chalice is veiled; the ciborium and the tabernacle are covered with a veil when they contain the Real Presence. Silence is an acoustic veil that protects the mystery. Do we not automatically lower our voice to say the most important things, words of love? In the past, in the Latin liturgy, the very mysterious words of the Canon and of the consecration, pronounced submissa voce [in a low voice], were draped in a veil of silence.
In his Apostolic Letter Orientale Lumen, Saint John Paul II writes this magnificent line: “This mystery is continuously veiled, enveloped in silence, lest an idol be created in place of God.”
There is a great risk that Christians may become idolaters if they lose the meaning of silence. Our words inebriate us; they confine us to what is created. Bewitched and imprisoned by the noise of human speech, we run the risk of designing worship to our specifications, a god in our own image. Words bring with them the temptation of the golden calf! Only silence leads man beyond words, to the mystery, to worship in spirit and in truth. Silence is a form of mystagogy; it brings us into the mystery without spoiling it. I understand why Thérèse of Lisieux wrote in her letter to Céline, dated October 14, 1890: “Virginity is a profound silence.” We must rediscover that reserve, that modesty, that virginal sense, that silent delicacy in order to approach the holy mysteries of the liturgy, the great mysteries of theology.
Let us learn to keep silence even in the midst of suffering. Today there are many who howl with the wolves to defend a view of the liturgy, of which they want to be the sole custodians; these ideologues noisily immolate on the altar of their idols those whom they consider reactionary. God willing, may their idols breathe in the sweet-smelling aroma of their sacrifice . . .
It seems to me that silence veils the mysteries, not to hide them, but to reveal them. The mysteries can be uttered only in silence. Thus, in the liturgy, the language of the mysteries is silent.
Men have to try not to bother about goods that are not necessary. Things are superfluous if a person accumulates them unnecessarily, solely out of greed and avarice. A Christian has the obligation to imitate Christ: “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). The vows of poverty taken by priests and religious correspond to this requirement. This has nothing to do with manifesting a sort of Jansenism that leads to self-hatred. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 5:3). Jesus does speak about detachment from all superfluous riches. “The poor have the good news preached to them”, Christ announces to John the Baptist in the Gospel of Luke (7:22), in order to express the openness of the poor to the Gospel and God’s special love for them.
Likewise, in the Book of Revelation, Saint John exclaims: “You say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing; not knowing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked” (Rev 3:17). God always resists the powerful, and he gives his grace to the poor.
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 sort of social face to the modern world that has been unleashed by free-market capitalism. The good of man is not exclusively material.
The big difference between God and man hinges on the problem of possession. If a human being does not possess some material goods, he feels that he is nothing, lost, weak. Most of our troubles result from some form of lack of poverty. Man allows himself be caught in the nets of his lowest instincts to possess. He wants to accumulate material goods in order to satisfy himself and enjoy them. But these superfluous goods obstruct the eyes, shut the heart, and sap our spiritual energy. However, there are also many rich people who live an exceptional spiritual life with God and show immense generosity to the poor.
Of course, we must forcefully recall the legitimate right of peoples to have access to the material means of subsistence, the things that they need in order to live. In Africa, I know how often this principle is trampled on by those who govern. This is why there is an urgent need to evangelize the hearts, minds, and behavior of all my African brethren. In the Encyclical Letter Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI writes:
Paul VI . . . taught that life in Christ is the first and principal factor of development and he entrusted us with the task of travelling the path of development with all our heart and all our intelligence, that is to say with the ardor of charity and the wisdom of truth. It is the primordial truth of God’s love . . . that opens our lives to gift and makes it possible to hope for a “development of the whole man and of all men,” to hope for progress “from less human conditions to those which are more human,” obtained by overcoming the difficulties that are inevitably encountered along the way(§8)
Only the Gospel will be able to heal our human relations so as to establish societies characterized by fraternity and solidarity. God is at the heart of every person, at the center of all our activities, and even at the heart of our poverty and misery.
But if we want to enter into God, it is necessary to be poor. For the Father has possessed nothing for all eternity. By nature, we are far from the infinite simplicity of God. Human ambition is reluctant to be destitute. Man lacks consistency. He prefers the noise of matter to the silence of love. Let us never forget this beatitude announced by Jesus: “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Lk 6:20).
War is always an enterprise of unacceptable destruction, elimination, and annihilation. The other is no longer worth anything. He becomes mere matter doomed to death. When a country, a government, or a coalition tries to subject and annihilate men or nations, barbarism is never far off. Hatred, jealous interests, the bulimic compulsion of the rich and powerful nations to seize the natural resources of weak, poor nations by military violence, the will to dominate and avenge are at the origin of so many wars. The other no longer has the right to life. Indeed, war is an enterprise of evil, because the devil, who detests pity, triumphs with delight. How can we not be scandalized and horrified by the action of American and Western governments in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, and Syria? Countries and peoples are destroyed, heads of state are assassinated, for the sake of purely economic interests. In the name of the goddess Democracy, or of a will to geopolitical or military hegemony, they do not hesitate to start a war so as to disorganize and create chaos, especially in the weakest regions, thus sending out onto the roads endless troops of refugees who have neither resources nor a future.
How many families are displaced, reduced to inhumane poverty, exile, and cultural uprooting? How many sufferings in these lives of continuous wandering and flight, how many atrocious deaths in the name of Liberty, another Western goddess? How much blood is shed for a hypothetical liberation of peoples from the chains that supposedly keep them in the yoke of oppression? How many families are decimated in order to impose a Western concept of society?
In these antechambers of horror, the Church is not spared. She must disappear or change her doctrine and her teaching so as to allow for the emergence of a religion without borders and a new global ethics that is said to be consensual, cut off from all the foundational references of revealed truth and yet itself ambivalent and devoid of content.
Why is God silent about so many sufferings that are intended, planned, and executed by men themselves? In Africa I was able to witness the most indescribable atrocities. In my archdiocese I sheltered missionaries and religious who were fleeing from Sierra Leone and Liberia, countries prey to conflicts of unprecedented violence. They were horrified to have seen hands cut off, bodies torn apart by land mines, faces lacerated by torturers who no longer had any humanity. For several months I hosted in my residence Archbishop Joseph Ganda of Freetown, the Apostolic Nuncio, Archbishop Antonio Lucibello, and his secretary. They had had to flee Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, after having abandoned Monrovia. Those are indelible memories. But no one thought even for an instant to attribute those crimes to God by declaring the criminals innocent and accusing God’s silence.
I think that it is always necessary to cry out to God. It is good to ask for help and aid from heaven, while expressing the confusion, distress, and sadness that fill our hearts. Christians should know that there is no other way of reaching God. When I traveled in countries that were going through violent, profound crises, I observed how much prayer could help those who no longer had anything. Silence was the last trench that no one could enter, the only room in which to remain in peace, the state in which suffering lowered its weapons for a moment. Silence strengthens our weakness. Silence arms us with patience. Silence in God restores our courage.
When we are ruined, humiliated, belittled, slandered, let us keep silence. Let us hide in the holy sepulcher of Our Lord Jesus Christ, far from the world.
Then the power of the torturers no longer matters. The criminals can destroy everything in their fury, but it is impossible to break into the silence, the heart and the conscience of a man. The beating of a silent heart, hope, faith, and trust in God remain unsinkable. Outside, the world becomes a field of ruins, but inside our soul, in the greatest silence, God keeps watch. War, barbarism, and the parades of horrors will never get the better of God, who is present in us.
The poison of war comes to an end in the silence of prayer, in the silence of trust, in the silence of hope. At the heart of all the barbarities, it is necessary to plant the mystery of the Cross.
I am thinking also of the wars waged by gossip and slanders. Speech can assassinate, a word can kill, but God educates us in the school of forgiveness. He teaches us to pray for our enemies. He surrounds our heart with an enclosure of tenderness so that it may not be sullied by rancor. And he constantly murmurs: “The disciples of my beloved Son have no enemies. Your heart must not have enemies, either.” I speak from personal experience. I painfully experienced assassination by gossip, slander, and public humiliation, and I learned that when a person has decided to destroy you, he has no lack of words, spite, and hypocrisy; falsehood has an immense capacity for constructing arguments, proofs, and truths out of sand. When this is the behavior of men of the Church, and in particular of ambitious, duplicitous bishops, the pain is still deeper. But men look at outward appearances, and God sees the heart (1 Sam 16:7). Relying on his view alone, we must remain calm and silent, asking for the grace never to give in to rancor, hatred, and feelings of worthlessness. Let us stand firm in our love for God and for his Church, in humility.
The key to a treasure is not the treasure. But if we give away the key, we also hand over the treasure. The Cross is an exceptionally precious key, even when it appears to be folly, the subject of ridicule, and a scandal; it is repugnant to our mentalities and our search for easy solutions. We would like to be happy and live in a peaceful world without paying the price. The Cross is an astonishing mystery. It is the sign of Christ’s infinite love for us. In a sermon by Saint Leo the Great on the Passion, we find this extraordinary passage:
Christ being lifted up upon the cross, let the eyes of your mind not dwell only on that sight which those wicked sinners saw, to whom it was said by the mouth of Moses, “And thy life shall be hanging before thine eyes, and thou shalt fear day and night, and shalt not be assured of thy life” [Deut 28:66]. . . . But let our understandings, illumined by the Spirit of Truth, foster with pure and free heart the glory of the cross which irradiates heaven and earth, and see with the inner sight what the Lord meant when He spoke of His coming Passion: “Now is the world’s judgment, now shall the prince of this world be cast out. And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all things unto Me.” O wondrous power of the Cross! O ineffable glory of the Passion!
Through the Cross, Jesus reconciled us with God; he destroyed the barrier that separated us from one another, and he overcame the obstacles that closed off the road to eternal happiness. Christ suffered for us; he leaves us an example so that we might follow in his footsteps. By contemplating the Cross and by making this prayer our own, all dialogue, all forgiveness, and all reconciliation will be possible for us.
This conviction is also part of the tradition of mystical Islam. I would like to tell a story taken from the golden legend of the Muslim holy men. One day the good woman Sutura went to find Tierno Bokar, the wise man of Bandiagara—a village in Mali located on the plateau by the same name, bordered by high cliffs, at the foot of which lived the Dogons, a people famous for its austere art, its complex beliefs about the origins of the universe, and its profound sense of transcendence. She told him: “Tierno, I am very quick-tempered. The slightest gesture affects me severely. I would like to receive a blessing from you or a prayer that will make me gentle, affable, and patient.” No sooner had she spoken than her son, a three-year-old toddler who was waiting for her in the yard, came in, took up a small board and struck her with it violently between the shoulders. She looked at the toddler, smiled, and drew him against her and said affectionately while patting him, “Oh! What a naughty boy, mistreating his mother!” “Why did you not lose your temper at your son, when you say you are so quick-tempered?” Tierno Bokar asked her. “But Tierno,” Sutura replied, “my son is only a child; he does not know what he is doing; one does not get angry with a child of that age.” “My good Sutura,” Tierno said to her
Go back home. And when someone irritates you, think of this small board and tell yourself: Despite his age, this person is acting like a three-year-old child! Be indulgent; you can do it, because you just were with your son who struck you so hard. Go, and that way you will no longer get angry. You will live happily, cured of your ailment. The blessings that will then descend on you will be far superior to those that you could obtain from me: they will be blessings from God and from the Prophet himself.
Someone who endures and forgives an offense is like a large silk-cotton tree that the vultures befoul while resting on its branches. But the disgusting appearance of the tree lasts only part of the year. Every winter, God sends a series of downpours that wash it from top to bottom and clothe it in new foliage. Try to spread to God’s creatures the love that you have for your child. For God sees creatures in the way that a father looks at his children. Then you will be set at the topmost rung of the ladder, where, through love and charity, the soul sees and evaluates the offense only so as to forgive it more wholeheartedly.
Tierno’s words had such a powerful effect on her that, from that day on, Sutura considered everyone who offended her as children and responded to them only with sweetness, love, and smiling, silent patience. She corrected herself so perfectly that, in the last days of her life, they used to say: “Patient as Sutura.” Nothing could anger her. When she died, she was not far from being considered a saint.
The Cross is a great school of contemplation, prayer, and forgiveness. We have to learn to stand silently at the foot of the Cross while contemplating the Crucified Lord as the Virgin Mary did. The Cross is a mountain to climb; at the top, it is granted to us to look at men and the world with the very eyes of God. Faced with serious trespasses that seem unforgivable, the act of faith urges man to contemplate the mystery of Calvary. Then he can see the event of Jesus’ Passion as the greatest possible trespass but also the place of the greatest forgiveness. In the silence of his heart, he hears Jesus’ prayer, which is so difficult to reproduce in concrete actions without the help of divine grace: “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).
EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is composed of excerpts from Robert Cardinal Sarah's book-length interview with Nicolas Diat entitled, The Power of Silence Against the Dictatorship of Noise. Used by kind permission of Ignatius Press, all rights reserved.