Cardinal Robert Sarah delivers a talk on silence at St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica in Toronto, March 12, 2018. Photo by Michael Swan

Charles Lewis: Silence much easier said than done

  • April 3, 2018

Many of us were fortunate enough to hear Cardinal Robert Sarah speak at St. Michael’s Cathedral Basilica last month. He is truly a holy man and strong voice in a world of banalities. How many people do you know whose cause is silence?

It was a highly anticipated event, as Sarah’s two books, both written in the past three years, have become Catholic blockbusters. The latest is God or Nothing, which traces his life in the Church from his humble beginnings in a remote village of Guinea called Ourouas. Written in question-and-answer format, it examines some of the challenges the Church faces as it comes more into conflict with the secular world. 

But I want to concentrate on his other book, The Power of Silence, which was the basis for his talk at St. Michael’s and the book most applicable to the life of Christians. 

Silence for Sarah is not a negative. It is a goal, the place where we can find God. In his talk he repeated the beautiful lines from the First Book of Kings. Elijah is told to go stand on “the mount before the Lord” and listen. “The Lord was not in the strong wind; the Lord was not in the earthquake; the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”

That the Lord was in the still small voice, the silence, is the key to Sarah’s view that the unrelenting noise that surrounds us daily is a “morphine pump, a sort of reverie, an incoherent dream-world.”

I read The Power of Silence while on my first silent retreat. It resonated deeply, especially the obligation to be silent. I was also obligated not to phone anyone or check the news on a computer or listen clandestinely to music on an iPod. In this atmosphere, The Power of Silence was a comfort.

After returning to the “normal” world, I started reading the book again. But this time I found Sarah’s words intimidating — not because his message is wrong, but I suddenly found reaching for silence in a world of hyper-connectivity is a hyper-challenge.

Consider a young lawyer, a journalist or a doctor. Or think of any other profession in which someone is trying to become established. There is a constant demand to be on call. All this technology has made us impatient. We expect that either by calling a cellphone, texting or e-mailing that a response will be forthcoming in moments. For anyone with a modicum of ambition, it is considered an absolute requirement to always be “on.” 

No reporter can walk into work each morning without having a very good idea of what has occurred on their beat. Not to be up on what is going on is considered a major flaw, a sign of incompetence. The same goes for the young lawyer working in a competitive firm. Imagine telling your senior partner you missed a call from an important client because you were praying. 

Sarah fully understands the dilemma. He writes, ruefully: “Without noise, man is feverish, lost. Noise gives him security, like a drug on which he has become dependent. With its festive appearance, noise is a whirlwind that avoids facing itself,” he writes. “But this noise is a dangerous, deceptive medicine, a diabolical lie that helps man avoid confronting himself in his interior emptiness. The awakening will necessarily be brutal."

But the question remains: How do we put this into practice? How do we balance the demands of modern life with our need for silence? 

This is not a self-help book. Sarah is no Dr. Phil. But he does offer some hints. For one, speak less and listen more. That sounds so simple but for someone like myself, who barely ever shuts up, it’s a start. Read the Gospels. Reading is conducive to silence and allows for contemplating our Lord and Saviour.

He also warns, and I found this especially difficult to read, not to drown in our causes — especially if it sacrifices worship and prayer. For me, fighting against euthanasia has been an obsession. But I also know that some of this fight has taken a spiritual toll. 

Sarah quotes the great American monk and author Thomas Merton to make his point. “A world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply of chatter is a world without anything to live for...”

These are hard teachings, not easy to receive. Sarah wants to challenge us and challenge can sometime hurt. For now I know I’ll keep trying to understand. I know at the other side something greater is waiting. 

Do I have the courage to persevere? Do any of us? We’ll see.

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and regular contributor to The Catholic Register.)

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