Earlier this year I completed another silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. Such is the monastic emphasis on respecting silence that retreatants are surrounded by signs that read “Silence spoken here.” Even the refrigerator magnet I bought at the gift shop is emblazoned with this declaration. My mother remains astonished that her talkative son was not kindly shown the door by the good monks. Or, barring the monastic boot (not a few of the monks actually wear sandals except for one brother who wears cowboy boots to choir), that I could endure return trips to a place Russell Kirk might have called a “citadel of silence.” It occurs to me that the monks know best.
At the monastery, I reflected on the presence and place of silence in the world. Interestingly, and perhaps a bit paradoxically, many have spoken of silence. Its proponents are usually of a religious, often monastic, persuasion. Prominent examples include Thomas Merton (The Silent Life) and numerous Carthusian monks who have written eloquently and persuasively on the spiritual practice of silence. There is also the seasonal apportionment of silence by Qoheleth in the book of Ecclesiastes. And, following that, the appropriation of this biblical verse by Patrick Leigh Fermor to serve as the title of his travelogue A Time to Keep Silence which he wrote while exploring the great monasteries of Europe and Cappadocia.
While references to silence abound in popular culture (think Simon & Garfunkel or Hannibal Lecter), its vocal critics are few. It is the nature of silence that one does not argue against it so much as one acts against it. Thus we live in a post-modern culture hypercritical of silence. I need not list all the ways in which noise and chatter dominate our lives. We are all too familiar with the daily disturbances that shock our silence and shatter our stillness.
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So I was encouraged to read a recent interview with Robert Cardinal Sarah, Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments and former Archbishop of Conakry, Guinea. Cardinal Sarah spoke to the French newspaper, La Nef (available exclusively in English at catholicworldreport.com), on the occasion of the French publication of his book The Strength of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. In the interview, Cardinal Sarah calls for us to “rediscover the true order of priorities.” This is achieved he says, by putting “God back at the center of our concerns, at the center of our actions and of our life: the only place that he should occupy.” His prescription is not another program or reform, but to rediscover the sense of God by approaching him in silence, the only way, Cardinal Sarah argues, that God allows himself to be approached.
If silence is the path to encounter God, then the noise of the world obstructs this path becoming, as Cardinal Sarah says, the dictatorship of noise. Indeed, in his previous book, God or Nothing, Sarah argues, “Those in control of this world no longer think that they have to fight; they have reached another stage that consists essentially of creating the new man.” This new man is not made in the silence of God’s image, but rather in the fragmented image of a fractured world. It is a noisy world dominated by the demonic, making silence inextricably bound up with salvation. According to Cardinal Sarah, “God is silence, and the devil is noisy. From the beginning, Satan has sought to mask his lies beneath a deceptive, resonant agitation.”
In returning to silence as a means of renewal, Sarah joins the late Swiss Catholic theologian and mystical philosopher of silence, Max Picard, in trying to reestablish man’s severed connection with God by entering into his silence. Max Picard understood the phenomena of silence as a fullness, not an absence. However, unlike the other phenomena of earth, air, fire and water, he argued, silence cannot be exploited. Modern man has had little use for it. This led Picard to reverently refer to silence as a “holy uselessness.” But, he asserted, and not surprisingly, silence can be spoiled. Indeed, silence has been devastated in the wake of the industrial revolution, urbanization, and the triumph of technology. Devastated but not destroyed. Picard anticipated the cacophony of voices today, the volume and intensity of our endless chatter enshrined in social media and the twenty-four-hour news cycle.
Picard believed that true language, embedded in us by the Divine, is not noise because “Speech came out of silence, out of the fullness of silence.” But he also said “Silence is listening.” He distinguishes between listening and waiting to talk. For if we truly listen with our hearts as well as our ears, silence is a leaven to our conversation. Silence, Picard said, “gives the words a new fullness.” Words are redeemed in silence. If he is right about silence being bound up in listening and true language being more than verbal noise, the world and the word are far from redemption.
Russell Kirk, following Picard, said “The discontinuity of modern existence—from which men turn to noise as an anodyne—provokes the machine gun and the men who command it.” Kirk was referring to Picard’s other illuminating work, Hitler in Our Selves, in which Picard explored the connection between noise and violence as a manifestation of the demonic. In The World of Silence, Picard says that verbal noise “prepares the way for evil: the spirit easily becomes submerged in the noise.” Noise has a leveling effect. Yet, according to Picard, the noise is waiting for something. “The shout of the dictator is what the noise is waiting for,” he concludes. The dictator usurps the power of the gentle Word of God and the “man who has become lost in the noise is as it were saved by the firm structure of war, even by the firm structure of a brutal action. That is why it is so easy to make war and commit brutalities in the world of noise.” And that is why, without silence, we will hear only the shout of the dictator and not the whisper of the Word.
If we are honest with ourselves, we are all witnesses to the truth of Picard’s observations. He gives us to understand how such a world as we now live in offers the very best of technology and the very worst of human nature. And not merely the juxtaposition of the two, but a deadly confluence that impels us with a suicidal and demonic drive to nothingness. Søren Kierkegaard, writing many years before Max Picard and Cardinal Sarah, spiritually intuited the existential threat when he said, “create silence, bring about silence; God’s Word cannot be heard, and if in order to be heard in the hullabaloo it must be shouted deafeningly with noisy instruments, then it is not God’s Word; create silence!”
Kierkegaard’s urgency finds expression in Cardinal Sarah’s view that “the true revolution comes from silence.” It is a battle that we must fight daily, especially in our clamorous age. Alarmingly, Sarah notes, “Our busy, ultra-technological age has made us even sicker. Noise has become like a drug on which our contemporaries are dependent. With its festive appearance, noise is a whirlwind that avoids looking oneself in the face and confronting the interior emptiness. It is a diabolical lie. The awakening can only be brutal.” It is therefore in the battle that we find true freedom; as Sarah explains, “No dictatorship can do anything against a silent man. You cannot steal a man’s silence from him.”
Some years ago, Pope Benedict XVI, speaking at the Carthusian monastery of Serra San Bruno, called attention to the harrowing impact of noise on individuals and on society as a whole arguing:
The youngest, who were already born into this condition, seem to want to fill every empty moment with music and images, as for fear of feeling this very emptiness. This is a trend that has always existed, especially among the young and in the more developed urban contexts but today it has reached a level such as to give rise to talk about anthropological mutation. Some people are no longer capable of remaining for long periods in silence and solitude.
The impact is clear. Given the connection between noise and violence, we should all be troubled by a world that cannot endure silence, for it may be a world that cannot endure. Calling the need to encounter God in silence an “urgent necessity” and “more important than any other human work,” Cardinal Sarah speaks profoundly and prophetically. We do well to listen.
Editor’s note: The image above is a detail from a fresco of St. Peter Martyr in the Convent of San Marco painted by Fra Angelico.