The number one trusted online resource for Catholic values
A+ A A-

Silence Versus the World’s Noise


"Cardinal Sarah is a spiritual teacher, who speaks out of the depths of silence with the Lord, out of his interior union with him, and thus really has something to say to each one of us."

— Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI

The greatest things are accomplished in silence — not in the clamor and display of superficial eventfulness, but in the deep clarity of inner vision; in the almost imperceptible start of decision, in quiet overcoming and hidden sacrifice.  Spiritual conception happens when the heart is quickened by love, and the free will stirs to action.  The silent forces are the strong forces.  Let us turn now to the stillest event of all, stillest because it came from the remoteness beyond the noise of any possible intrusion — from God.— Romano Guardini, The Lord

sarah767NICOLAS DIAT: In the anthology Voix cartusienne, the Carthusian Dom Augustin Guillerand correctly writes that "solitude and silence are guests of the soul.  The soul that possesses them carries them with it everywhere.  The one that lacks them finds them nowhere.  In order to re-enter silence, it is not enough to stop the movement of one's lips and the movement of one's thoughts.  That is only being quiet.  Being quiet is a condition for silence, but it is not silence.  Silence is a word, silence is a thought.  It is a word and a thought in which all words and all thoughts are concentrated."  How are we to understand this beautiful idea?

Robert Cardinal Sarah:

1.  There is one great question: how can man really be in the image of God?  He must enter into silence.

When he drapes himself in silence, as God himself dwells in a great silence, man is close to heaven, or, rather, he allows God to manifest himself in him.

We encounter God only in the eternal silence in which he abides. Have you ever heard the voice of God as you hear mine?

God's voice is silent.  Indeed, man, too, must seek to become silence.  In speaking about Adam in paradise, Saint Augustine wrote: "Vivebat fruens Deo, ex quo bono erat bonus" (He lived in the joy of God, and, by virtue of this good, he himself was good.") By living with the silent God, and in him, we ourselves become silent.  In his book I Want to See God, Father Marie-Eugène de l'Enfant Jésus writes:

God speaks in silence, and silence alone seems able to express Him.  For the spiritual person who has known the touch of God, silence and God seem to be identified.  And so, to find God again, where would he go, if not to the most silent depths of his soul, into those regions that are so hidden that nothing can any longer disturb them?

When he has reached there, he preserves with jealous care the silence that gives him God.  He defends it against any agitation, even that of his own powers.

2.  At the heart of man there is an innate silence, for God abides in the innermost part of every person.  God is silence, and this divine silence dwells in man.  In God we are inseparably bound up with silence.  The Church can affirm that mankind is the daughter of a silent God; for men are the sons of silence.

3.  God carries us, and we live with him at every moment by keeping silence.  Nothing will make us discover God better than his silence inscribed in the center of our being.  If we do not cultivate this silence, how can we find God?  Man likes to travel, create, make great discoveries.  But he remains outside of himself, far from God, who is silently in his soul.  I want to recall how important it is to cultivate silence in order to be truly with God.  Saint Paul, drawing on the Book of Deuteronomy, explains that we will not encounter God by crossing the seas, because he is in our heart:

Do not say in your heart, "Who will ascend into heaven?" (that is, to bring Christ down) or "Who will descend into the abyss?" (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead).  But what does [the law] say?  The word is near you, on your lips and in your heart (that is, the word of faith which we preach); because, if you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.  (Rom 10:6-9; Deut 30:12-14, 16)

4.  Through Sacred Scripture, when it is listened to and meditated upon in silence, divine graces are poured out on man.  It is in faith, and not by traveling in distant lands or by crossing seas and continents, that we can find and contemplate God.  Actually, it is through long hours of poring over Sacred Scripture, after resisting all the attacks of the Prince of this world, that we will reach God.

Dom Augustin Guillerand is on the right track: what men possess in themselves, they find nowhere else.  Unless silence dwells in man, and unless solitude is a state in which he allows himself to be shaped, the creature is deprived of God.  There is no place on earth where God is more present than in the human heart.  This heart truly is God's abode, the temple of silence.

5.  No prophet ever encountered God without withdrawing into solitude and silence.  Moses, Elijah, and John the Baptist encountered God in the great silence of the desert.  Today, too, monks seek God in solitude and silence.  I am speaking, not just about a geographical solitude or movement, but about an interior state.  It is not enough to be quiet, either.  It is necessary to become silence.

For, even before the desert, the solitude, and the silence, God is already in man.  The true desert is within us, in our soul.

Strengthened with this knowledge, we can understand how silence is indispensable if we are to find God.  The Father waits for his children in their own hearts.

6.  It is necessary to leave our interior turmoil in order to find God.  Despite the agitations, the busyness, the easy pleasures, God remains silently present.  He is in us like a thought, a word, and a presence whose secret sources are buried in God himself, inaccessible to human inspection.

Silence is not an absence.  On the contrary, it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences. 

Solitude is the best state in which to hear God's silence.  For someone who wants to find silence, solitude is the mountain that he must climb.  If a person isolates himself by going away to a monastery, he comes first to seek silence.  And yet, the goal of his search is within him.  God's silent presence already dwells in his heart.  The silence that we pursue confusedly is found in our own hearts and reveals God to us.

Alas, the worldly powers that seek to shape modern man systematically do away with silence.

I am not afraid to assert that the false priests of modernity, who declare a sort of war on silence, have lost the battle.  For we can remain silent in the midst of the biggest messes and most despicable commotion, in the midst of the racket and howling of those infernal machines that draw us into functionalism and activism by snatching us away from any transcendent dimension and from any interior life.

For many mystics, the fruitfulness of silence and solitude is similar to that of the word pronounced at the creation of the world.  How do you explain this great mystery?

7.  The word is not just a sound; it is a person and a presence.  God is the eternal Word, the Logos.  This is what Saint John of the Cross declares in his Spiritual Maxims when he writes: "The Father spoke one Word, which was His Son, and this Word He always speaks in eternal silence, and in silence must It be heard by the soul."  The Book of Wisdom already pointed out this same interpretation in regard to the way in which God intervened to deliver his chosen people from their captivity in Egypt.  This unforgettable act took place during the night: "While gentle silence enveloped all things, and night in its swift course was now half gone, your all-powerful word leaped from heaven, from the royal throne" (Wis 18:14-15).  Later on, this verse would be understood by the Christian liturgical tradition as a prefiguration of the silent Incarnation of the Word in the crib in Bethlehem.  The [contemporary French] hymn for the feast of the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple also sings about this Coming: "Who among us can understand what begins here noiselessly, the offering of the grain as the first-fruits?" Saint John Chrysostom, in his Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, does not hesitate to add: "Therefore [the fact] that He was of us, and of our substance, and of the Virgin's womb, is manifest from these things, and from others beside; but how, is not also manifest.  Do not either thou then inquire; but receive what is revealed, and be not curious about what is kept secret."  Let us accept it in silence and faith.

8.  God achieves everything, acts in all circumstances, and brings about all our interior transformations.  But he does it when we wait for him in recollection and silence.

In silence, not in the turmoil and noise, God enters into the innermost depths of our being.  Father Marie-Eugène de l'Enfant-Jésus was right when he wrote in I Want to See God: "This divine law surprises us.  It goes so much against our experience of the natural laws of the world.  Here below, any profound transformation, any great external change produces a certain agitation and noise.  The great river, for example, reaches the ocean only by the sounding onward rush of  its water."  If we observe the great works, the most powerful acts, the most extraordinary and striking interior transformations that God carries out in man, we are forced to admit that he works in silence.  Baptism brings about a marvelous creation in the soul of the infant or the adult who receives this sacrament in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.  The newly baptized person is immersed in the name of the Trinity; he is inserted into the Triune God.  A new life is given to him, enabling him to perform the godly acts of the children of God.  We heard the words of the priest: "I baptize you . . . "; we saw the water flow on the infant's forehead.  Yet we perceived nothing of this immersion into the inner life of the Trinity, grace, and creation which requires nothing less than the personal, almighty action of God.  God has uttered his Word in the soul in silence.  In that same silent darkness, the subsequent developments of grace generally come.

9.  In June 2012, in a luminous lectio divina at the Basilica of Saint John Lateran, Benedict XVI explained the reality and the deep meaning of baptism:

We have already heard that the Lord's last words to his disciples on this earth were: "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (cf. Mt 28:19).  Make disciples and baptize them.... Why is it necessary to be baptized?  . . . A first door opens if we read these words of the Lord carefully.  The choice of the word "in the name of the Father" in the Greek text is very important: the Lord says "eis" and not "en", that is, not "in the name" of the Trinity — as when we say that a vice-prefect speaks "on behalf " of the prefect, an ambassador speaks "on behalf " of the government: no.  It says: "eis to onoma", that is, an immersion into the name of the Trinity, a being inserted in the name of the Trinity [that is, a silent, invisible but real and life-giving] interpenetration of being in God and of our being, a being immersed in God the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; just as it is in marriage, for example.  Two people become one flesh, they become a new and unique reality with a new and unique name. . . . Consequently, being baptized means being united to God; in a unique, new existence we belong to God, we are immersed in God himself.

Unless silence dwells in man, and unless solitude is a state in which he allows himself to be shaped, the creature is deprived of God. 

It is the same with priestly ordination.  In silence, through the sacrament of Holy Orders, a man becomes not only an alter Christus, another Christ, but much more: he is ipse Christus, Christ himself.  At that moment nothing appears externally, but in the silence, in  the depths of his being, there is a true and real identification with Christ.  Saint Ambrose, in his treatise On the Mysteries, exhorts us, saying: "You saw there the deacon, you saw the priest, you saw the chief priest [i.e., the bishop].  Consider not the bodily forms, but   the grace of the Mysteries."  Externally, as priests, we remain sinners, but in reality we are as though "transubstantiated" and configured  to Christ himself.  In the act of transubstantiation, the priest takes the role of Christ.

10.  The transubstantiation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ, the most extraordinary, the most momentous transformation, occurs in the utmost sacred silence.  We hear the priest pronounce the words of the consecration, but the miracle of transubstantiation comes about imperceptibly, like all the greatest works of God.  Silence is the law of the divine plans.

11.  God's being has always been present in us in an absolute silence.  And a human being's own silence allows him to enter into a relationship with the Word that is at the bottom of his heart.  Thus, in the desert, we do not speak.  We listen in silence; man enters into a silence that is God.

How can we define silence in its simplest meaning, in other words, the silence of everyday life?  According to the Petit Robert [a French dictionary], silence is "the attitude of someone who refrains from speaking".  It refers to "the absence of noise or agitation, the state of a place where no sound can be heard".  Can silence be defined in no other way than by negation?  Is the absence of speech, noise, or sound always silence?  Similarly, is it not paradoxical to try to "speak" about silence in everyday life?

12.  Silence is not an absence.  On the contrary, it is the manifestation of a presence, the most intense of all presences.  In modern society, silence has come into disrepute; this is the symptom of a serious, worrisome illness.  The real questions of life are posed in silence.  Our blood flows through our veins without making any noise, and we can hear our heartbeats only in silence.

13.   On July 4, 2010, in a homily for the eighth centenary of the birth of Pope Celestine V, Benedict XVI gravely insisted on the fact that "we live in a society in which it seems that every space, every moment must be 'filled' with projects, activities and noise; there is often no time even to listen or to converse.  Dear brothers and sisters, let us not fear to create silence, within and outside ourselves, if we wish to be able not only to become aware of God's voice but also  to make out the voice of the person beside us, the voices of others."  Benedict XVI and John Paul II often conferred a positive dimension on silence.  Indeed, although it is associated with solitude and the desert, silence is by no means self-absorption or muteness, just as true speech is not garrulousness but, rather, a condition for being present to God, to neighbor, and to oneself.

I have lost the profound joys of my peace and quiet, and I seem to have risen externally, while falling internally.

What is the correct understanding of exterior silence?  "God is  the friend of silence.  See how nature — trees, flowers, grass — grows in silence; see the stars, the moon, and the sun, how they move in silence", Saint Teresa of Calcutta said poetically [in her book A Gift for God ].

14.  The episode of Jesus' visit to the home of Martha and Mary, related by Saint Luke (Lk 10:38-42), eloquently illustrates the priceless character of silence in everyday life: "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things" (Lk 10:41).  Jesus rebukes Martha, not for being busy in the kitchen — after all, she did have to prepare the meal — but for her inattentive interior attitude, betrayed by her annoyance with her sister.  Since the days of Origen, some commentators have tended to heighten the contrast between the two women, to the point of seeing in them respectively the example of an active life that is too scattered and the model of the contemplative life that is lived out in silence, listening, and interior prayer.  In reality, Jesus seems to sketch the outlines of a spiritual pedagogy: we should always make sure to be Mary before becoming Martha.  Otherwise, we run the risk of becoming literally bogged down in activism and agitation, the unpleasant consequences of which emerge in the Gospel account: panic, fear of working without help, an inattentive interior attitude, annoyance like Martha's toward her sister, the feeling that God is leaving us alone without intervening effectively.  Thus, in speaking to Martha, Jesus says: "Mary has chosen the good portion" (Lk 10:42).  He reminds her of the importance of "calming and quieting the soul" (see Ps 131:2) so as to listen to one's heart.  Christ tenderly invites her to stop so as to return to her heart, the place of true welcome and the dwelling place of God's silent tenderness, from which she had been led away by the activity to which she was devoting herself so noisily.  All activity must be preceded by an intense life of prayer, contemplation, seeking and listening to God's will.  In his Apostolic Letter Novo millennio ineunte, John Paul II writes: "It is important however that what we propose, with the help of God, should be profoundly rooted in contemplation and prayer.  Ours is   a time of continual movement which often leads to restlessness, with the risk of 'doing for the sake of doing'.  We must resist this temptation by trying 'to be' before trying 'to do'."  This is the innermost, unchangeable desire of a monk.  But it happens also to be the deepest aspiration of every person who seeks the Eternal One.  For man can encounter God in truth only in silence and solitude, both interior and exterior.

15.  The more we are clothed in glory and honors, the more we are raised in dignity, the more we are invested with public responsibilities, prestige, and temporal offices, whether as laymen, priests, or bishops, the more we need to advance in humility and to cultivate carefully the sacred dimension of our interior life by constantly seeking to see the face of God in prayer, meditation, contemplation, and asceticism.  It can happen that a good, pious priest, once he is raised to the episcopal dignity, quickly falls into mediocrity and a concern for worldly success.  Overwhelmed by the weight of the duties that are incumbent on him, worried about his power, his authority, and the material needs of his office, he gradually runs out of steam.  He manifests in his being and in his works a desire for promotion, a longing for prestige, and a spiritual degradation.  He is harmful to himself and to the flock over which the Holy Spirit set him as guardian to feed the Church of God, which God acquired for himself by the blood of his own Son.  We all run the danger of being preoccupied with worldly business and concerns if we neglect the interior life, prayer, the daily face-to-face encounter with God, the ascetical practices necessary for every contemplative and every person who wants to see the Eternal One and to live with him.

16.  Recall what Saint Gregory the Great wrote in a letter to Theoctista, the sister of the Byzantine Emperor Flavius Mauricius Tiberius, which is found in the collection Registrum Epistolarum.  Faced with a tension between monastic life and his papal office, with all the social and political responsibilities that the latter involved, he bitterly spelled out in these terms his difficulties in harmonizing contemplation and action: 

I have lost the profound joys of my peace and quiet, and I seem to have risen externally, while falling internally.  Wherefore, I deplore my expulsion far from the face of my Creator.  For I was trying every day to move outside the world, outside the flesh, to drive all corporeal images from my mind's eye and to regard the joys of Heaven....  "You cast them down while they were being raised up" [Ps 72(73):18].  For he did not say "You cast them down after they had been raised up," but "while they were being raised up," because the wicked and those who seem to rise up from outside, while propped up by a temporal office, collapse on the inside.  And so their being raised up is itself their ruin. . . . Indeed there are many who know how to control external successes in such a way that they in no way collapse internally because of them.  So it is written: "God does not despise the powerful; since he is powerful also [ Job 36:5]."

Saint Gregory underscores the conflict that he is experiencing; he wants to harmonize the contemplative life and the active life, symbolized by Mary and Martha.  A deep tension between silence and monastic peace and his new temporal duties could be resolved only by intensifying his interior life and an intimate relationship with God.

17.  Similarly, in a letter to Raoul le Verd, Saint Bruno writes with his characteristic tact, commenting on Saint Luke:

In any case, what benefits and divine exaltation the silence and solitude of the desert hold in store for those who love it, only those who have experienced it can know.  For here men of strong will can enter into themselves and remain there as much as they like, diligently cultivating the seeds of virtue and eating the fruits of paradise with joy.  Here they can acquire the eye that wounds the Bridegroom   with love, by the limpidity of its gaze, and whose purity allows them to see God himself.  Here they can observe a busy leisure and rest    in quiet activity.  Here also God crowns his athletes for their stern struggle with the hoped-for reward: a peace unknown to the world and joy in the Holy Spirit. . . . This life is the best part chosen by Mary, never to be taken away from her. . . . I could only wish, brother, that you too, had such . . . divine love.  If only a love like this would take possession of you! Immediately, all the glory in the world would seem like so much dirt to you, whatever the smooth words and false attractions she offered to deceive you.  Wealth and its concomitant anxieties you would cast off without a thought, as a burden to the freedom of the spirit. . . .

When he drapes himself in silence, as God himself dwells in a great silence, man is close to heaven, or, rather, he allows God to manifest himself in him.

For what could be more perverted, more reckless and contrary to nature and right order, than to love the creature more than the Creator, what passes away more than what lasts forever, or to seek rather the goods of earth than those of heaven?... It is rather divine love which proves itself the more useful, precisely to the extent that it is more in accord with right reason.  For what could be [so] beneficial and right, so fitting and connatural to human nature as to love the good?  Yet what other good can compare with God?  Indeed, what other good is there besides God?  [Hence] the soul that has attained some degree of holiness and has experienced in some small measure the incomparable loveliness, beauty and splendour of this good, is set on fire with love and cries out: "My soul is thirsting for God, the God of my life; when shall I enter and see the face of God?" (Ps 42[41]:2)

The desire to see God is what urges us to love solitude and silence.  For silence is where God dwells.  He drapes himself in silence.

In every era, this experience of an interior life and an intimate, loving relationship with God has remained indispensable for those who seek true happiness.

18.  Every day it is important to be silent so as to determine the outlines of one's future action.  The contemplative life is not the only state in which man must make the effort to leave his heart in silence.

In everyday life, whether secular, civil, or religious, exterior silence is necessary.  Thomas Merton wrote in The Sign of Jonas:

Exterior Silence — its special necessity in our world in which there is so much noise and inane speech.  As protest and reparation against the "sin" of noise.

. . . Silence not a virtue, noise not a sin.  True.  But the turmoil and confusion and constant noise of modern society are the expression of the ambiance of its greatest sins — its godlessness, its despair.  A world of propaganda, of endless argument, vituperation, criticism, or simply of chatter, is a world without anything to live for. . . .

Catholics who associate themselves with that kind of noise, who enter into the Babel of tongues, become to some extent exiles from the city of God.  (Mass becomes racket and confusion.  Tension — babble.  All prayer becomes exterior and interior noise — soulless and hasty repetition of rosary . . .).

The Divine Office recited without recollection, without enthusiasm or fervor, or irregularly and sporadically, makes the heart lukewarm and kills the virginity of our love for God.  Gradually our priestly ministry can become like the work of a well-digger who drills wells of stagnant water.  By living in a world of noise and superficiality, we provoke God's disappointment, and we cannot fail to hear the sadness and complaints of his heart.  Thus says Yahweh: "I remember the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness. . . . My people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water" ( Jer 2:2, 13).

Thomas Merton continues:

Though it is true that we must know how to bear with noise, to have interior life, by exception here and there in midst of confusion . . . , yet to resign oneself to a situation in which a community is constantly overwhelmed with activity, noise of machines, etc., is an abuse.

Let those who can stand a little silence find other people who like silence, and create silence and peace for one another. 

What to do?  Those who love God should attempt to preserve or create an atmosphere in which He can be found.  Christians should have quiet homes.  Throw out television, if necessary — not everybody, but those who take this sort of thing seriously. . . .

Let those who can stand a little silence find other people who like silence, and create silence and peace for one another.  Bring up their kids not to yell so much.  Children are naturally quiet — if they are left alone and not given the needle [i.e., teased] from the cradle upward, in order that they may develop into citizens of a state in which everybody yells and is yelled at.

Provide people with places where they can go to be quiet — relax minds and hearts in the presence of God — chapels in the country, or in town also.  Reading rooms, hermitages.  Retreat houses without a constant ballyhoo of noisy "exercises" — they even yell the stations of the Cross, and not too far from [the Abbey of ] Gethsemani either.

The Trappist then concludes: "For many it would mean great renunciation and discipline to give up these sources of noise: but they know that is what they need.  Afraid to do it because their neighbors would think they were bats."

Modern society can no longer do without the dictatorship of noise.  It lulls us in an illusion of cheap democracy while snatching our freedom away with the subtle violence of the devil, that father of lies.  But Jesus repeatedly tells us: "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free" ( Jn 8:31-32).

19.  Interior silence is the end of judgments, passions, and desires.  Once we have acquired interior silence, we can transport it with us into the world and pray everywhere.  But just as interior asceticism cannot be obtained without concrete mortifications, it is absurd to speak about interior silence without exterior silence.

20.  Within silence there is a demand made on each one of us.  Man controls his hours of activity if he knows how to enter into silence.  The life of silence must be able to precede the active life. The silence of everyday life is an indispensable condition for living with others.  Without the capacity for silence, man is incapable of hearing, loving, and understanding the people around him.  Charity is born of silence.  It proceeds from a silent heart that is able to hear, to listen, and to welcome.  Silence is a condition for otherness and a necessity if one is to understand himself.   Without silence, there is neither rest nor serenity nor interior life.   Silence is friendhip and love, interior harmony and peace.  Silence and peace have one and the same heartbeat. 

This is J. Fraser Field, Founder of CERC. I hope you appreciated this piece. We curate these articles especially for believers like you.

Please show your appreciation by making a $3 donation. CERC is entirely reader supported.



sarahRobert Cardinal Sarah. "Silence Versus the World's Noise." from chapter one of  The Power of Silence Against the Dictatorship of Noise (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2017): 21-32.

Reprinted with permission of Ignatius Press. 

The Author

sarah sarah1Robert Cardinal Sarah (born 15 June 1945) is a Guinean Cardinal Prelate of the Catholic Church. He was appointed as Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis on 23 November 2014. He previously served as Secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and President of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum. He is the author of The Day Is Now Far Spent, The Power of Silence Against the Dictatorship of Noise and God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith.

Copyright © 2017 Ignatius Press

Subscribe to our Weekly Update

* indicates required