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Book Review: The Power of Silence by Robert Cardinal Sarah

November 27th, 2018 | 8 min read

By L. M. Sacasas

The modern world has a curious way of stripping something away and then selling it back to us at a premium. Or, to put it another way, of transforming formerly public goods into a private luxuries. I’m sure you can think of any number of cases. Take darkness, for example. Over the course of one hundred years or so we conquered the night and banished the starry hosts. Only recently have we discovered that if we now want to experience natural darkness and behold the Milky Way we might have to pay for it. Dark Sky tourism is one of the most popular trends in tourism. Adequate or healthy levels of physical activity serves as another example. A monthly gym or CrossFit membership supplies what might have been achieved as a matter of course while completing one’s ordinary daily work.

Silence is yet another example. The World Health Organization recently updated its noise pollution guidelines. The report, focused on European nations, claims that one in five Europeans is exposed to noise levels with adverse health effects, including high blood pressure, heart disease, and the risk of cognitive impairment for children. The report went so far as to classify noise pollution one of the “top environmental risks to health.” Naturally, those who are sufficiently resourced can now turn to one of the growing number of luxury resorts whose main selling point is silence. In 2017, Alex Glasscock, CEO and founder of The Ranch in Malibu told Condé Nast Traveler, “A calm and silent mind is the new luxury and people are actively seeking this opportunity.” And intrepid entrepreneurs are willing to supply the opportunity at a hefty price. A four-day stay at the Ranch, its cheapest offering, will run you $4200. Alternatively, you could buy $350 noise-cancelling headphones.

How exactly does this happen? How do public goods turn into private luxuries? The story, as we might imagine, is rather complicated. From one perspective, it is merely the ordinary operations of capital. But it may be worth asking why it proves so difficult to resist these operations. It is possible to suppose that the goods were not recognized as such until they were lost, that they were not framed as goods until they were threatened. Indeed, this is almost certainly part of the answer. It is easy to see how darkness, bodily activity, and silence would be taken for granted. Moreover, it is easy to see how they might even be construed as problems to be overcome. Darkness limits our work, bodily activity can be wearisome and slavish, and silence can be a symptom of loneliness and isolation. Consequently, we embrace the technologies that allow us to work and play into the night, relieve us of our wearisome labor, and fill or silences.

William Cronon argued along similar lines several years ago with respect to the idea of “the wilderness” in American history. Regarding the idea of the wilderness, Cronon writes, “Far from being the one place on earth that stands apart from humanity, it is quite profoundly a human creation—indeed, the creation of very particular human cultures at very particular moments in human history.” During the turn of the nineteenth century, the wilderness was theorized as the sublime and the frontier. As industrial technologies expanded and altered the shape and pace of urban life, “the wilderness” appeared in a new light. It was no longer a foreboding and threatening space; it was now a hallowed and treasured place. And, strikingly, Cronon also reminds us that at this point “Wilderness suddenly emerged as the landscape of choice for elite tourists.”

I would suggest, however, that the story is slightly more complicated than this. Alasdair MacIntyre has argued that ethics lost its way when it lost its telos. Traditionally, ethics was conceived of as the bridge between “man-as-he-happens-to-be and man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature.” Ethical prescriptions only made sense within this tripartite structure. In MacIntyre’s view, modern ethical theories amounted to one failed effort after another to do ethics without some normative understanding of “man-as-he-could-be-if-he-realized-his-essential-nature.” Under these circumstances, ethical rules and principles were no longer coherent or compelling. They had, in short, lost their story.

This is not a bad way of understanding what happened to a whole class of goods that includes silence but also things like solitude, attention, and privacy. Once they were disembedded from a socio-moral context from which they derived their taken-for-granted value—once they lost their story—they became easy prey for the emerging technological and economic milieu. Within this context, any attempt to conserve these goods tends to appear reactionary or nostalgic. Worse yet, as the examples with which we began suggest, such efforts do little more than return these goods to us as commodities.

It is with these considerations in mind that I took up Robert Cardinal Sarah’s 2016 book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. The work, first published in French, appeared in English in 2017. The book is structured as a long interview or conversation with the French journalist, Nicolas Diat, who previously collaborated with Cardinal Sarah on an earlier book God or Nothing.

Cardinal Sarah was appointed bishop by John Paul II in 1979 and, in 2010, Benedict XVI made him a cardinal. He is Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments. Most notably for our purposes, he was born in 1945 in rural French Guinea. This is notable because it places Cardinal Sarah at a decided advantage when it comes to the question of silence: his sensibilities and insights have been cultivated in a non-Western context. He is able to speak about silence in a manner that is not captive to the patterns outlined above. Silence is not a commodity or lifestyle hack he’s selling. It is a good that remains integrated into a coherent and compelling understanding of human flourishing. “In Africa,” as the cardinal puts it, “the sacred is something quite obvious for the Christian people, but also for believers of all religions.”

The Power of Silence is a rich repository of writings, ancient and modern, from the fathers to Blaise Pascal to Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. What emerges from the cardinal’s weaving of these theological resources and his own insights is an expansive understanding of what constitutes silence, one which, not surprisingly, often touches on the mystical. “It is not enough to be quiet,” Cardinal Sarah tells us, “It is necessary to become silence.”

Silence, we are reminded, describes both external and internal realities. Silence is as much a condition of the soul as it is the absence of auditory stimuli. It describes a state of “interior rest and harmony.” Silence, as Cardinal Sarah understands it, is not unlike that state of the soul characterized by leisure described by another Catholic theologian, Josef Pieper: “a form of that stillness that is the necessary preparation for accepting reality; only the person who is still can hear, and whoever is not still cannot hear.”

Yet, “it is absurd to speak about interior silence without exterior silence.” Silence, then, involves the absence of noise, but noise is not merely what we perceive with our ears: noise, like silence, is also a condition of the soul. It is a state of perpetually harried restlessness. Moreover, silence is a deeply personal reality, but also the foundation of our right relation to others: “Without the capacity for silence, man is incapable of hearing, loving, and understanding the people around him. Charity is born of silence.”

Most importantly, silence is the condition for our hearing the voice of God and it is the voice of God. Silence is not merely a matter of finding personal peace and well-being. It is a requisite condition of our knowing God, for which knowledge we have been made. To participate in the silence of God, then, a silence that dwells within us, is an indispensable element of our becoming the sorts of creatures we have been created to be. “Silence is not an absence,” Sarah explains. “On the contrary, it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.” “The desire to see God is what urges us to love solitude and silence,” Sarah observes, “For silence is where God dwells. He drapes himself in silence.”

Opposed to the life characterized by silence, however, we find what Cardinal Sarah called “the dictatorship of noise.” This dictatorship is characterized by the tools at its disposal. He describes the regime of noise as a “highly technological society” and warns us of “the glowing screens” that “need a gargantuan diet in order to distract mankind and destroy consciences.” This world is marked, as the German scholar Harmut Rosa, has argued by social acceleration. “The experience of modernization,” Rosa argues, “is an experience of acceleration.” By this he means an acceleration of the pace of social change and an acceleration of the experience of time by modern individuals. Just as Cardinal Sarah understands that noise is not merely auditory stimuli, Rosa understands that acceleration is not only about the speed at which we experience life. It is also a matter of frenzied and frenetic activity, which makes it difficult to get one’s bearings or to make sense of one’s own personal history.

The cardinal also understands, however, that there are also deeper issues at play. “Without noise,” he writes, “postmodern man falls into a dull, insistent uneasiness.” This line recalls the thinking of Blaise Pascal, who Cardinal Sarah frequently cites throughout The Power of Silence. Pascal knew that the turn to diversions to help us cope with our inability to abide silence was the symptom of the malaise at the heart of the human condition. But Pascal could still speak about silence, or what he frequently called rest, as a good with a view to an ultimate end—understanding our predicament as a step toward recognizing our dependence on God’s grace.

Cardinal Sarah has written a moving book. He circles around the same basic principles and themes repeatedly, which does generate a mild redundancy. And at times, his efforts to put words to what must finally be a wordless experience fall rather flat, or perhaps that is a matter of translation. But he succeeds in giving silence a story within which it can achieve its value independently of the dynamics which have rendered it a private luxury. But even if we recognize the value of silence, we still face the dictatorship of noise. We will stand a better chance of securing a measure of silence to sustain our spiritual lives if our efforts unfold alongside others who seek silence with us. The dictatorship of noise is best combatted not by individuals but by communities of practice which prioritize silence and a well-ordered life.