In this extract from his new book, the Vatican’s head of liturgy tells Nicolas Diat that we need to rediscover a ‘joyful and sacred fear’
Nicolas Diat: What connection do you make between silence and the sacred?
Cardinal Robert Sarah: The idea of the sacred is particularly misused in the West. In countries that want to be secular – separated from religion and God – there is no longer a link to the sacred.
A certain secular mentality believes it is emancipating itself. Some theologians state that, via the Incarnation, Christ might have brought an end to the distinction between the sacred and the profane. For others, God is so close to us that labelling something as sacred has become outmoded.
As such, some in the Church believe in a “horizontal” pastoral landscape based on socio-political ideals. This behaviour shows a lot of naïvety and perhaps a degree of pride.
In June 2012, in his homily for the feast of Corpus Christi, Pope Benedict XVI solemnly affirmed: “He did not abolish the sacred but brought it to fulfilment, inaugurating a new form of worship, which is indeed fully spiritual but which, however, as long as we are journeying in time, still makes use of signs and rites … Thanks to Christ, the sacred is truer, more intense and, as happens with the Commandments, also more demanding!”
This is a serious question as it deals with our relationship with God. Faced with His greatness, majesty and beauty, how could one not be seized by a joyful and sacred fear? If the transcendental and divine does not make us tremble, it means that even our human nature is ruined.
I remain stupefied by the levity, weakness and vanity of so much of what is said in an attempt to belittle the sacred. So-called enlightened theologians should enrol in the school of the people of God.
The simplest of believers know that sacred realities are their most precious treasures. Spontaneously, they divine that one can only enter into communion with God if they have an interior and an exterior imprint of the sacred. The people have right on their side: it would be arrogant to think one can have access to God without ridding oneself of a profane attitude, and an irreligious and hedonistic paganism.
In Africa, sacredness is a self-evident fact for Christian people, but also for followers of all religions. Having contempt for the sacred, or seeing it as childish and superstitious, reveals the fact that many Westerners have the self-importance of spoilt children. I don’t hesitate in saying that members of the Church who wish to distance themselves from the sacred harm humanity in withdrawing it from a communion of love with God.
God wants to communicate his friendship and intimacy, and yet He can only achieve this if we open ourselves up to Him in a fair and real way. Faced with the ever-after, man must recognise his smallness, his poverty, his nullity. Remember the words Jesus spoke to Catherine of Siena: “You are she who is not, I am he who is.”
Without a radical humility which expresses itself with gestures of adoration and sacred rites, there is no friendship possible with God. Silence represents this link in obvious ways. Real Christian silence must become sacred silence, in order to become the silence of communion.
In front of his divine majesty, we run out of words. Who dares to break silence when faced with the Almighty? When God revealed his Glory before Isaiah, the prophet cried: “Holy! Holy! Holy!”. He used the Hebrew word quadosh, which means both “holy” and “sacred”. Then he exclaimed: “I am lost!” We could translate this as: “I am reduced to silence!” (Isaiah 6:5).
Men of all cultures and religions know that before God we are lost, and before His greatness our words are stripped of all meaning. They are not at the level of the Infinite. In Africa, after the songs and dances, sacrifices to divinities are surrounded by an impressive silence.
Certainly, sacred silence from Christians goes further. God doesn’t inflict silence on men as an obstruction, in order to jealously guard his power. On the contrary, the true God prescribes his sacred, adoring silence in order better to communicate with us. “Silence before the Lord God!” cried the prophet (Zephaniah 1:7); but Isaiah explains: “Listen in silence before me!” (Isaiah 41:1).
In Pope John Paul II’s apostolic letter of 1995, Orientale Lumen, he reminded us:
All, believers and non-believers alike, need to learn a silence that allows the Other to speak when and how he wishes … In the humble acceptance of the creature’s limits before the infinite transcendence of a God who never ceases to reveal himself as God – Love, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ in the joy of the Holy Spirit, I see expressed the attitude of prayer … We must confess that we all have need of this silence, filled with the presence of him who is adored.
A refusal of silence (one that is suffused with awe-filled faith and adoration) is a refusal of God’s right to seize us with his love and presence. Sacred silence permits man joyfully to hand himself over to the service of God. It allows him to escape that arrogant mindset which prescribes that God is at the disposal of all his children’s whims.
What creature can boast that he possesses his Creator? On the contrary, a sacred silence delivers us from the incessant, profane tumult of our immense cities. It lets us be seized by God. A sacred silence is really the place where we can meet God, because we approach Him with the true attitude of the man who trembles, and holds himself at a distance, all the while waiting with confidence.
Sacred silence is the only truly human, and Christian, reaction when faced with God’s irruption into our lives. It seems that God himself is teaching us that he expects this silent, sacred worshipful adoration from us. “Exalt the Lord in your praises as high as you may – still He surpasses you. Exert all your strength when you exalt Him, do not grow tired – you will never come to the end. Who has ever seen Him to describe him? Who can glorify Him as he deserves?” asks Ben Sira (Sirach 43:30-31).
When God appears, only praise should spring from our hearts. Conversely, all form of display giving the impression of a spectacle must disappear. Why display the vanity of a profane action or of a mundane word when faced with His infinite grandeur? “But Yahweh is in his holy Temple: let the whole earth be silent before him” (Habakkuk 2:20).
At only this moment can He take the initiative and join us. For God is always the first to love. Our sacred silence becomes the silence of joy, intimacy and communion: “Wisdom can only be touched by silence” (Sirach 9:17).
Silence teaches us the great rule of spiritual life: that familiarity does not favour intimacy – on the contrary, the correct distance is a necessity for communion. Humanity must arrive at love through adoration.
The sacred silence, charged with adored presence, opens on to a mystical silence, full of loving intimacy. Harnessed into the yoke of secular reason, we have forgotten that worship and that which is sacred are the only entry points to spiritual life.
This is an extract from La Force du silence by Cardinal Robert Sarah with Nicolas Diat, translated by Miguel Cullen and used with the kind permission of M Diat. A full English translation of the book will be published by Ignatius Press in April
This article first appeared in the December 23 2016 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here