Cardinal Sarah Confronts the Dictatorship of Noise

Postmodern man, says Cardinal Sarah, lives on the “sad drug” of noise, which “sickens yet reassures him.” He “gets drunk” on noise to deny reality, to “anesthetize his own atheism.” He’s hooked up to the “morphine pump” of agitation; his eyes “are sick, intoxicated, they can no longer close.”

They’re “red” from the flickering screens of a “brightly lit prison.” They’re battered by the “dictatorship of the image,” whether visual or “sonic.” Hence Cardinal Sarah’s forceful new book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. 

That dictatorship “stubbornly hates silence.” It “detests” kneeling before God.  So it imposes media-created “truths”—“corroborated by fabricated images and testimonies”—and peddles an endless “theater of shadows.” It broadcasts smiling abortions on TV shows, murders and rapes on Facebook Live, and hardcore pornography on children’s smartphones. Plato’s cave never looked so hellish.

Even within the Church, the shadow-world encroaches. The Vatican brandishes pornographic images in its sex education program for teens. And before it hosted pro-abortion population controllers to cry against “biological extinction,” the Vatican staged an eerie, phantasmagoric “New Agelight show for Mother Earth on the 2015 feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Mother of God.

Our eyes, says Cardinal Sarah, “no longer find restful areas of darkness, and consciences no longer recognize sin.” In a world that’s “drunk on speaking,” certain priests “speak again and again” just to hear the media “reecho” their deconstructive “ineptitudes.”

So Cardinal Sarah spells out a stark ultimatum: “God or nothing, silence or noise.” That link between noise and nihilism is haunting: “in killing silence, man assassinates God.” And God’s “assassination” permits “death to keep prowling”: postmodernity “denies death” yet “paradoxically unceasingly exalts” and “causes” it.

Power of Silence coverOne is reminded of the suicidal protagonist of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, “who loved only death, loved and lived in a deliberate and almost perverted anticipation of death,” until, finally, he flung himself into its abyss. Our culture that loves only death is, as Cardinal Sarah recently said, on a “race to hell.” The word “hell” appears twenty-two times in his previous book, God or Nothing, which describes both our “insolent” dismissal of Hell and our “headlong flight” toward “hell on earth” now that we’re in “one of the last stages of the civilization of diversion.”

So The Power of Silence transports us to the “physical” or “interior” desert, which “teaches us to fight against evil and all our evil inclinations.” There, facing “hunger, thirst, and … spiritual combat,” we pursue the “blazing, arid work” of silent asceticism. There we struggle to be “singed by the burning bush of the love of God”—to radiate the saving “beauty of Christ,” like the monks whose faces are “lined and burned by God’s silence.”

Silence “impels us toward an unknown land that is God.”  Hence St. Augustine’s restlessness with the “country of shadows”; hence St. Gregory the Great’s groaning at his “expulsion far from [God’s] face.” Hence St. Thérèse of Lisieux’s flight into silent adoration—for “the language [God] best hears is silent love,” says St. John of the Cross.

Cardinal Sarah compares silent love to “the smoke of the incense” rising before God (Rev. 8:1-4). He calls the contemplative life a “silent burnt offering” whose fragrance “gladdens” God’s heart. He beautifully describes the silence that envelops the Grande Chartreuse in the evening half-light after Vespers and the “incomparable hours” spent on his knees “in darkness before the Most Blessed Sacrament.”

Ultimately, “astonishment at the divine silence closes our mouth, like a celebrant who, performing his priestly duties before God, burns incense before the divine presence and adores in silence.” Liturgical silence protects mystery from “profane banality.” It is an “acoustic veil,” like the veil covering the ciborium and tabernacle in deference to the Real Presence. Gregorian chant is “woven” of mystical silence, and in the Latin liturgy, the “very mysterious words” of the Canon and consecration “were draped in a veil of silence”—for “do we not automatically lower our voice to say the most important things, words of love?”

So human wordiness “lowers” mystery; “words spoil anything that surpasses them.” And “the liturgy,” Cardinal Sarah says, “is sick,” suffering from “a sort of secularization that aims to ban” silence. It is infected today with “noisy familiarity,” with “the omnipresence of the microphone,” with certain “verbose hymns” and “endless flat, horizontal commentaries.” “Some seek to eliminate by all possible means” the kneeling, prostrate “gestures of the heavenly liturgy” (cf. Rev. 7:11).

St. John Chrysostom once admonished his flock for “noisily,” “joking[ly]” approaching the Eucharist while “the angels who guarded Jesus’ tomb did so with fear and recollection.” Cardinal Sarah thus wonders:

What would [the saint] say today about our processions? How many priests walk toward the altar of sacrifice while chattering, discussing, or greeting the people… Why so much frivolousness and worldliness at the moment of the Holy Sacrifice?…

Many fervent Christians who are moved by the Passion and death of Christ on the Cross no longer have the strength to weep or to utter a cry of pain to the priests and bishops who make their appearance as entertainers and set themselves up as the main protagonists of the Eucharist. These believers tell us nevertheless: ‘We do not want to gather with men around a man!  We want to see Jesus!  Show him to us in the silence and humility of your prayer!’

It is a cry that Cardinal Sarah continues to voice, despite the backlash he faced last year for urging priests to “return as soon as possible” to celebrating Mass ad orientem. In a recent address on the tenth anniversary of Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum, Cardinal Sarah articulated the “serious, profound crisis” affecting the Church and her liturgy. He lamented the “relativism in doctrinal, moral, and disciplinary teaching,” the “desacralization and trivialization” of the liturgy, the “merely social and horizontal view of the Church’s mission.”

“Many refuse to face up to the Church’s work of self-destruction through the deliberate demolition of her doctrinal, liturgical, moral, and pastoral foundations,” he declared.

In another recent interview, he voiced the “grave risk” of “fragmentation” and “schism” if “national” Church bodies “decide for themselves … doctrine and morals.” In The Power of Silence, he describes a transition from “silent apostasy” to “militant apostasy” now that repentance has become a “traumatizing state of soul.” The “impression is given that sin no longer exists”—as if states like adultery are just “stages” toward “a distant ideal.”

In his address on Summorum Pontificum, Cardinal Sarah described, as our crisis’s root, a Church whose “CENTER is no longer God and the adoration of Him, but rather men and their alleged ability to ‘do’ something to keep themselves busy” during Mass. He warned:

There is often a sacrilegious tendency to reduce the Holy Mass to a simple convivial meal, the celebration of a profane feast, the community’s celebration of itself, or even worse, a terrible diversion from the anguish of a life that no longer has meaning or from the fear of meeting God face to face, because His glance unveils and obliges us to look truly and unflinchingly at the ugliness of our interior life. But the Holy Mass is not a diversion. It is the living sacrifice of Christ who died on the cross…

Yes: ears sick, eyes red from the fake flickers of the postmodern cave, the soul aches not for some chatty self-celebration, some microphone-starring “diversion” from its own interior emptiness and “ugliness.” The faithful all “have a right to” the liturgical “beauty,” “sacrality,” “silence,” and “adoration” that “put us face to face with God.”

For the soul yearns to be, as St. Elizabeth of the Trinity puts it, an “echo of the eternal Sanctus,” imitating the blessed who ceaselessly fall down and worship God (Rev. 7:11). She yearns to be lovingly “overcome” by God’s beauty and grandeur, to “‘fall down in a kind of faint’ in an utterly profound silence.”

Such silent praise is the “last effort of the soul that overflows and can say no more” (Lacordaire). And it is, as Cardinal Sarah affirms, “the strongest … act in the struggle against evil”—the struggle out of postmodernity’s gaping, godless, raucous “pit of darkness.”

Julia Meloni

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Julia Meloni writes from the Pacific Northwest. She holds a bachelor's degree in English from Yale and a master's degree in English from Harvard.

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