One of the most original and controversial spiritual writers of our age is an African Cardinal named Robert Cardinal Sarah. He grew up in poverty in his home country of Guinea, West Africa, and converted at an early age from animism to Christianity. Historically, Africa has always produced a very radical form of Christianity: from the time of Tertullian, Cyprian and Augustine, the African fathers of the Church challenged a comfortable reading of the Gospel.
Along with many of the Bishops of Africa, both Catholic and Anglican, you have a very strong, and some would say rigorist, form of Christianity. They resist the watering-down of our faith because of the needs of convenience. In their often-bitter battle with an expanding Islam, they seek to present the Christian faith in all its ardor and its demands.
Pope Francis has put him in charge of many aspects of Church life including the Liturgy. Cardinal Sarah clearly comes from the people and is interested in maintaining the purity of the Christian message.
It is, therefore, very interesting that one of his first books is one entitled “The Power of Silence”. In it, he details the presence everywhere of what he calls ‘noise’. If we are honest about it, we have to admit that he is right! There is so much noise around us (think of the construction on Astoria’s streets!), but also the mindless chatter that comes from our devices: radios, TVs, computers, smartphones, etc. Then you add in the noise from within: voices of the past, our fears, our hopes, our angers, our resentments seething inside of us in its totality. Thus we have a cacophony of noises that obscures the voice of God.
Only silence can restore the balance of creation.
As many of you already know, I am a great believer in the contemplative side of the Church. By that I mean the whole monastic and eremitical movement in the Church (in both the Catholic and Orthodox traditions). Monks and Nuns (‘Nuns’ are properly the female branches of the contemplative orders in the Church—to be distinguished from the more active orders of women that we call ‘Sisters’) have provided for the Church a contemplative grounding in prayer. They are like Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus listening to Him while Martha does the work and complains about Mary’s idleness. These monastic centers in the Church are found in practically every country including our own. I am preparing, for instance, for my retreat with the Trappists (one of these orders) this August when I will be embedded in a community down in Virginia and for two weeks live their arduous, but rewarding, life.
Whenever I go to one of these monasteries, I love the experience of getting out of the car after a long drive and being engulfed by the silence—no machines, no whirs and throttles, no ad-men trying to sell me something. Just healing silence.
I really want to emphasize this healing; it is something so tangible and real. When I feel the silence, it is not a void or an absence of sound. There is still the whisper of the breeze and the distant song of birds. But it is so gentle and harmonized that I usually take a deep breath and exhale. At that moment, I can literally feel the tensions leave my body and my mind. I notice then a kind of embrace by reality and by God, a sort of welcome home! At that moment, I wonder why it has taken me so much time to leave the world of constant noise and distractions.
But most of all, in that silence I encounter God, really and truly. It sometimes brings tears of gratefulness to my eyes. I want to embrace nature. In that loveliness I touch God; I find peace.
Yet even with the beauty of nature around me and a community of monks dedicated to constant prayer and contemplative silence, I still find noise bothering me. It is the internal noise of our wildly moving thoughts and emotions that often obscure the gentle quiet voice of God. This type of noise is much more difficult to turn off. We can’t point to modern life’s tyrannical hold on us. We have to take responsibility in shaping the mess that we are in.
Gradually, through Christian mindfulness and the Jesus Prayer, the voices within tire out and we can begin to hear God’s whisper again. This takes discipline and perseverance, but it is possible to enjoy that spiritual environment of contemplative silence even when we return to the city. While riding the subway, I can close my eyes and pray to God in interior silence so that the noisy outer world, while still there, ceases to be a dictatorship. I am free in the silence of my prayer.