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A Book Review… Noise Rules With Absolute Tyranny

October 8, 2017 Featured Today No Comments


The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, by Robert Cardinal Sarah, with Nicolas Diat; translated by Michael J. Miller (Ignatius Press: San Francisco, 2017), 247 pp.; $17.95. Available from or at 1-800-651-1531.

To think clearly, to hear the voice of conscience, to listen to the motions of the heart, to be in touch with the soul, and to sense the Holy Spirit all require the habit of silence and the need for recollection and solitude — a way of Christian life conducive to prayer, meditation, and contemplation essential for both religious and lay people, although in different degrees.
The deluge of noise that inundates the 21st century distracts, diverts, and fragments peoples’ lives in so many ways that silence is more absent than present. Whether it is the constant sounds of media, raucous music, talk shows, sports events, or the constant advertising that fill the ears around the clock or whether it is the mobile devices of instant messaging and electronic communication that preoccupy people’s time throughout the day, noise rules with absolute tyranny.
As silence diminishes and disappears in the rhythms and structure of daily life, man loses contact with the interiority of spiritual life and avoids the stillness of silence that allows him to know God. Cardinal Sarah’s book of reflections and meditations on the many spiritual dimensions of silence attunes the soul to recognize the many dissonant voices, endless interruptions, and ceaseless din that rob a person of a state of mind and soul to commune with God and listen to the Holy Spirit who speaks in a still, small voice.
Recalling that no prophet ever encountered God except in the quiet of the wilderness or desert, Sarah writes, “There is no place on earth where God is more present than in the human heart. This heart is truly God’s abode, the temple of silence.”
He cites many examples of God’s nearness and presence in the atmosphere of stillness and recollection. Those aware of the mystery of silence discern that the miracle of transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ “occurs in the utmost sacred silence” because “silence is the law of divine plans.”
Citing St. Mother Teresa’s words from A Gift for God that “God is the friend of silence,” he quotes her poetic words: “See how nature — trees, flowers, grass — grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence.” Man must learn that God speaks in inaudible ways whether it is the heavens “telling” the glory of God or the earth “proclaiming” His handiwork (Psalm 19).
Christ’s admonition to Martha not to be “anxious about many things” and to appreciate “the better part” of Mary’s listening to Christ likewise identifies the importance of this receptive state of mind open to God’s revelations: “We should always make sure to be Mary before becoming Martha,” Sarah advises.
He explains the importance of silence in decision-making to discern God’s will and to remember that contemplation informs action. Truth that benefits and enlightens others is transmitted by the way a person first ponders things in the heart before he acts as the famous words of St. Thomas explain: contemplata aliis tradere (things contemplated are handed down to others). Anyone hastily reciting the Divine Office without the proper disposition and discipline of recollection “makes the heart lukewarm and kills the virginity of our love for God.”
Adoration too can only occur in the atmosphere of silence and awe. A mother beholding a child asleep in a crib or anyone enjoying great art, music, or sculpture evokes the wonder and mystery that silence nourishes.
Listening too that welcomes another person into one’s friendship also depends on silence. The communion of love between lovers, parents, and children, and man and God requires the attitude of stillness and receptivity that lets the heart be penetrated. Sarah alludes to Solomon who prayed, “Give me, Lord, a heart that listens.” This unlocking of the heart is not automatic or forced but effected only in quiet.
This silence of the heart also orders the passions and moderates the appetites and desires to avoid all exaggerated emotions and unruly tendencies: “The Gospel explains how important it is to mistrust sterile enthusiasms, intense passions, and ideological or political slogans.” The cultivation of silence dispels superficiality, cant, hyperbole, and the sophistry of artful rhetoric with “calm, peace, repose, silent contemplation, and adoration of the radiant face of God.”
The self-discipline of silence subordinates a person’s likes and dislikes, moderates intense irrational emotion, curbs excessive zeal, and manages fanatical love. Referring to the wisdom literature of the Old Testament, Sarah warns of the dangers of the unguarded tongue: “Whoever uses too many words will be loathed” (Sirach 20:8) and “Make balances and scales for your words, and make a door and a bolt for your mouth” (Sirach 28:25).
On the other hand, noise knows no limit or golden mean, “like a ship without a captain on a raging sea.” This temperance of speech prepares the soul for love which “comes like a beautiful reward when man has managed to silence the dislikes, passions, and furors of his heart.” Charity also is the fruit of silence because the interior life it cultivates sensitizes the heart “to listen, to hear, and to welcome” — all preconditions for love of neighbor by understanding other people and responding to their needs.
“The Dictatorship of Noise” that Sarah recognizes in modern life has many sources, many of them identified by Thomas Merton in The Sign of Jonas as “The world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply chatter” — an observation made in 1953 before the advent of “fake” news, talk shows, and the dominance of the media. Sarah alludes to man’s addiction to noise as a “drug on which he has become dependent.” It plays the part of the tranquilizer and sedative that separate man from reality.
So many popular entertainments from rock concerts and sporting events to political rallies and demonstrations encourage shouting and screaming that produce the cacophony of noise. This state of uproar that produces the “dictatorship of noise” also develops into “the dictatorship of the image” dominated by screens, artificial lights, and advertisements that interfere with man’s capacity to gaze at the stars with contemplative wonder: “Modern life does not allow us to look calmly at things.”
All this noise “constantly speaking at a devastating speed and volume” deadens man’s awareness of God’s voice that must compete with the endless messages and texts that cry out for attention: “But who will help man to be quiet? His mobile phone is constantly ringing; his fingers and mind are always busy sending messages.”
Without silence man never experiences the tears of happiness that originate in the heart and soul or senses the presence of the sacred and transcendent. Man never acquires “the silence of listening” that expresses special interest and attention for another person as heart speaks to heart reflecting “the gift of self to the other” and “a mark of moral generosity.”

Our Noisy Egos

The noise that knows no moderation roars like rushing waters, one river producing “the noise of our ego, which never stops claiming its rights, plunging us into an excessive preoccupation with ourselves.” Another river resounds with the noise of memory haunted by the guilt of unabsolved sins that trouble the conscience. A third river cries aloud with the noises of temptation produced by the seven deadly sins, inviting the worship of the false gods of the belly, Mammon and pleasure.
These Siren songs depend on loud instruments and deafening shouts in contrast to God’s silence that “never blinds us like flashy, gaudy noises, because it is the simple reflection of divine love.”
The life of Christ, Sarah explains, is permeated with divine silence. The shepherds come to adore the birth of the Savior on a silent night. Christ’s humble, obscure life in Nazareth is hidden and unpublicized. The silence of the crib and the silence of Nazareth continue into the silence of the cross and the silence of the sealed tomb. Mary stood silently at the foot of the cross.
Amid the shouting of the crowds demanding “crucify Him,” Christ makes no reply to Pilate’s questions: “In the face of all the false accusations of the chief priests and the elders, Jesus makes no answer because they are nothing but clamor, confusion, jealousy, and uncontrolled hatred.”
The God of silence, then, must be approached with the awe and reverence that the holy and sacred always evoke as the proper state for communion with the divine. Noise profanes the purity of silence.
As other eruptions of empty noises, Sarah laments the Celebrations of the Eucharist when they resemble “vulgar country fairs” and project “an air of misplaced, noisy familiarity,” and he decries the funerals that turn into “noisy, exhibitionistic spectacles” that suppress the solemn mystery of death: “Mourning is expressed by ears, not by an artificial, uprooted joy.”
The greatest joys and sorrows — birth and death — always elicit a profound sense of the wonder of divine mysteries sensed only in the atmosphere of great silence that lifts man out of a profane world luring man from God by immersion into noise.
Quoting Maurice Zundel, the cardinal writes, “Silence is the only thing that reveals the depths of life.” He calls silence “an acoustic veil” comparable to the clothing that covers the body and the veiling of the chalice, ciborium, and tabernacle. Without silence, veils, screens, and vestments, the realms of the sacred and the profane lack essential distinction.

In The Presence Of God

Silence produces many other fruits. It teaches patience, the willingness to wait for the wheat and the tares to be separated in good time. Silence strengthens weakness as man relies on God in prayer, and it protects the soul from a loss of identity as the chamber of God’s indwelling. In silence man develops self-knowledge and moral honesty:
“A person’s clear-sightedness and lucidity about himself can mature only in solitude and silence. A silent man is all the more apt to listen and stand in the presence of God.”
In silence when man hears and perceives with more sensitivity, he learns to accept God’s will and deepens his faith. As man enters more deeply into the innermost cell of his soul, he discovers God’s mysterious presence and learns, like St. Augustine, to marvel at himself and to gain his identity instead of seeking oceans, mountains, and stars:
“To go in search of God is not to go out of oneself in order to find something in the outside world; on the contrary, it is to turn away from this world and to reflect on oneself.”
Probing and penetrating, The Power of Silence is a book of great depth and erudition. Searching the spiritual classics, the writings of saints, Sacred Scripture, and human experience, the cardinal uncovers a main cause of the malaise of modernity and its lukewarm morality. Noise is not just sound but a form of superficiality, confusion, distraction, and escape that blocks thought, prayer, recollection, contemplation, and transcendence:
“Postmodern man seeks to anesthetize his own atheism.”
Silence is not just emptiness or deadness but a divine milieu where man communes with God, hears the motions of his heart, uplifts his soul, and tastes the peace, joy, and love that only God can give: “All that is of God makes no noise. Nothing is sudden, everything is delicate, pure and silent.”

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