Political change tends to come about in moments of contradictory impulses. The ebullience of freedom nearly always contends with fear and paranoia. Slates wiped clean often become the place where primite animosities are rekindled and the optimism of revolution provides a pretext for the reenactment of ancient tragedies. The liberation of Guinea was no exception. In 1958, the Fourth French Republic was in shambles. Facing multiple colonial independence movements in Algeria, Indochina, and Africa, Charles de Gaulle offered the colonies a referendum: more autonomy within a new “French Community” or immediate independence, severing the colony from the French yoke (and benefits). Guinea and its brash new leader Ahmed Sékou Touré opted for independence. “We prefer freedom in poverty to opulence in slavery” became the rallying cry.
To say things fell apart would be an understatement. The French left, and Touré immediately consolidated power. Gaining support from Communist Bloc countries, the government became a one-party system with a completely nationalized economy and began confiscating privately owned land. The economy tanked. Foreign policy became fraught.
When relations with the Ivory Coast tensed, students studying abroad, including seminarians, were forced to return to Guinea. When Church property began to be confiscated and repurposed, those same young students were forced back into secular state-run schools. The Church fled underground, into living rooms and ad hoc sanctuaries, though it was never quite dislodged from the hearts of the faithful or the displaced seminarians. One of them, Robert Sarah, would go on to become quite a renowned cardinal.
It’s fitting that Sarah’s origins are in such a roiling political cauldron—but not, perhaps, for the obvious reasons. Most who know the cardinal probably associate him with what might be considered “conservative” positions taken within the Church. His warm words praising the peacefulness of Muslims in his Islamic-majority country get overshadowed by his mentioning the “pseudo-family of ideologized Islam which legitimizes polygamy, female subservience, sexual slavery, child marriage.”
Sarah has criticized the imposition of contemporary European sexual mores onto African countries in terms akin to ideological colonization, even going so far as to call a United Nations speech given in 2012 by Ban Ki-Moon urging African nations to repeal anti-homosexual laws “stupid.” And during the 2015 Synod on the Family, Sarah said that ” [w]e need to be inclusive and welcoming to all that is human; but what comes from the Enemy cannot and must not be assimilated. You cannot join Christ and Belial! What Nazi-Fascism and Communism were in the 20th century, Western homosexual and abortion Ideologies and Islamic Fanaticism are today.” Sarah’s bluntness, his words that seem passionately hot, searing even, often read on the page as if they had been yelled. Yet the volume of those pronouncements tends to get amplified over the profound spiritual wisdom of the cardinal himself: his faith, his humility, and, counterintuitively perhaps, his silence.
In trying to shoehorn Sarah’s statements on society and politics into our narrow, contemporary, secular paradigm, we lose sight of the vast pool of humility from which they spring. Sarah writes in the conclusion to what might be his most spiritually profound book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, “God is incomprehensible, inaccessible, invisible. How can we dare to speak about a person whom we have not met or touched when our hearts are impure?”
That doesn’t sound like the strident statement of a firebrand. The only thing it seems to hold fast to is what Keats called “negative capability,” which is at its root just a radical openness to the notion that, in the totality of its grandeur, the cosmos is larger and more complex than any of us could hope to comprehend. It’s an orientation that points one towards wisdom through the silencing of self and ego. And it’s an essential trait for a spiritual teacher. As Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI writes in a concluding statement in The Power of Silence, “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 of us.”
Silence might seem like a counterintuitive trait for any teacher, even a spiritual one, but, as Sarah writes, “In order to speak about God, it is necessary to begin by keeping quiet.” Why? Sarah, channeling both biblical text and the teaching of the Church Fathers, tells us that this silence is the source and transmitting element of all spiritual truth. For one, it’s the only proper way to convey reverence.
Sarah writes: “Silence teaches us a great rule of the spiritual life: familiarity does not promote intimacy; on the contrary, a proper distance is a condition for communion. Humanity advances towards love through adoration. Sacred silence, laden with the adored presence, opens the way to mystical silence, full of loving intimacy.” The silence that Sarah speaks of here isn’t necessarily only a literal physical silence. He means, of course, an interior calm in which the frenetic din of the world is momentarily quieted. A silence so quiet that it almost can’t be heard by human ears.
The notion of silence as proper reverence towards the sublime can be taken even further. In practicing the cultivation of silence, we’re also imitating God. Sarah writes:
The Gospels say that the Savior himself prayed in silence, particularly at night, or while withdrawing to deserted places. Silence is typical of the meditation of the Word of God; we find it again particularly in Mary’s attitude toward the mystery of her Son. The most silent person in the Gospels is of course Saint Joseph; not a single word of his does the New Testament record for us. Saint Basil considers silence not only as an ascetical necessity of monastic life but also as a condition for encountering God. Silence precedes and prepares for the privileged moment when we have access to God, who then can speak to us face to face as we would do with a friend.
Besides literally quoting the silence of biblical figures, in what way does silence mimic God? Here, interestingly enough, Cardinal Sarah’s thought shares something with the French mystic-philosopher Simone Weil’s notion of “The Void.” Weil explained in Gravity and Grace: “All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity. Grace is the only exception. Grace fills empty spaces, but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void. The imagination is continually at work filling up all the fissures through which grace might pass.”
The cultivation of this interior void, a renunciation of self in order to let God enter, is itself, Weil thought, a parallel to God’s own original creative act and the crucifixion of Christ. Weil’s “void” and Sarah’s “silence” seem to me to be analogous. As Sarah writes, “In reality, true, good silence always belongs to someone who is willing to let others have his place, and especially the Completely-Other, God. In contrast, external noise characterizes the individual who wants to occupy too important a place, to strut or show off, or else who wants to fill his interior emptiness….” Both the void and the silence are interior spaces we create in order to let God find us. They are the same space.
The opposite of this void, of Sarah’s silence, is the din of the now. C.S. Lewis said that the music of hell is noise. Frenetic and distracting, the “dictatorship of noise” works against the cultivation of interiority and renunciation. It’s a phenomenon so familiar to us that it almost doesn’t have to be elaborated upon. A combination of social media, porous work-life balance, and the hectic pace of our day-to-day lives simply doesn’t allow us time to devote to something as esoteric sounding as “the cultivation of silence.” Time doesn’t so much speed up as become compressed into a permanent now, a sort of temporal jail cell. But silence, or Weil’s void, exists outside of now, in the place where now is pierced by and incorporated into the eternal. Silence makes time, makes duration, possible. Much of T.S. Eliot’s later poetry expressed this truth.
When Sarah writes, “Prayer is offering oneself to God like the fragrance of incense that ascends to God’s Throne to disappear in him,” he echoes some contemporary secular philosophers. In fact, the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes in The Scent of Time, “Time tumbles on like an avalanche, precisely because it no longer contains anything to hold on to within itself.” Han’s thesis echoes Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” where things infamously fall apart and the center cannot hold. What we learn from Cardinal Sarah is that perhaps what time holds onto, what holds the center together, is this silence in which we meet the eternal. Without it, time is experienced as something horrendous. Without it, time doesn’t have the resources to be itself.
These ideas, which are of course much more than ideas but gleamings of verities, might at first sound abstract. That’s only because they’re so close to us, so fundamental to ourselves and our lives. Everything, Sarah tells us, both begins in silence and leads to silence. Without understanding this, nothing makes sense. This is the key to understanding Cardinal Sarah’s less metaphysical-sounding pronouncements. There’s a section in his quasi-autobiography God or Nothing (he’s interviewed about his life by French journalist Nicolas Diat, a frequent collaborator) where he briefly describes his political experiences in Guinea, including torture, humiliation, and the Boiro camp. Without much of a segue, the following paragraph reads:
The physical experience of the cross is a grace that is absolutely necessary for our growth in the Christian faith and a providential opportunity to conform ourselves to Christ so as to enter into the depths of the ineffable. We understand, therefore, that in piercing the Heart of Jesus, the soldier’s spear revealed a great mystery, for it went farther than the Heart of Christ. It revealed God; it passed, so to speak, through the very center of the Trinity.
This is the larger context within which Cardinal Sarah’s more divisive comments are working. Agree or disagree with them, they came from silence and gesture towards silence. Because it isn’t that Sarah has politicized religion; it’s that he’s spiritualized the anodyne.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.