His Eminence Robert Card. Sarah was interviewed by a French newspaper at the time of the release of his latest book on the power of silence. The book is, as I write, available in French. The National Catholic Register has made a translation of the interview available in English.
Shall we have a look at excerpts which deal with liturgical worship? My emphases and comments:
Cardinal Robert Sarah on “The Strength of Silence” and the Dictatorship of Noise
Q: What role to you assign to silence in our Latin liturgy? Where do you see it, and how do you reconcile silence and participation? [The usual sobriety of worship in Latin usually includes much more silence than the Novus Ordo generally affords. Silence is more natural in the older, traditional form.]
Cdl. Sarah: Before God’s majesty, we lose our words. Who would dare to speak up before the Almighty? Saint John Paul II saw in silence the essence of any attitude of prayer, because this silence, laden with the adored presence, manifests “the humble acceptance of the creature’s limits vis-à-vis the infinite transcendence of a God who unceasingly reveals Himself as a God of love.” To refuse this silence filled with confident awe and adoration is to refuse God the freedom to capture us by His love and His presence. [There is an apophatic dimension to our worship that is fostered with silence.] Sacred silence is therefore the place where we can encounter God, because we come to Him with the proper attitude of a human being who trembles and stands at a distance while hoping confidently. [This is almost exactly what I have been talking about for years. Our worship must create for us an encounter with MYSTERY which is tremendum et fascinans, frightening and alluring.] We priests must relearn the filial fear of God and the sacral character of our relations with Him. We must relearn to tremble with astonishment before the Holiness of God and the unprecedented grace of our priesthood. [Do I hear an “Amen!”?]
Silence teaches us a major rule of the spiritual life: familiarity does not foster intimacy; on the contrary, a proper distance is a condition for communion. It is by way of adoration that humanity walks toward love. Sacred silence opens the way to mystical silence, full of loving intimacy. Under the yoke of secular reason, we have forgotten that the sacred and worship are the only entrances to the spiritual life. Therefore I do not hesitate to declare that sacred silence is a cardinal law of all liturgical celebration.
[I must step out of this for a moment. How many times have I written in these electronic pages that revitalization of our sacred liturgical worship of God is the sine qua non for any initiative we undertake in the Church? Everything comes from worship and flows back to worship. Anything that isn’t rooted in worship and directed back to it, no matter how clever, fancy or well-planned and financed, is going to fail if it is not rooted in worship. Also, take careful note of that bit about “familiarity does not foster intimacy”. Now turn your mind to consider Holy Mass “facing the people” and Mass ad orientem.]
Indeed, it allows us to enter into participation in the mystery being celebrated. Vatican Council II stresses that silence is a privileged means of promoting the participation of the people of God in the liturgy. The Council Fathers intended to show what true liturgical participation is: entrance into the divine mystery. Under the pretext of making access to God easy, some wanted everything in the liturgy to be immediately intelligible, rational, horizontal and human. But in acting that way, we run the risk of reducing the sacred mystery to good feelings. Under the pretext of pedagogy, some priests indulge in endless commentaries that are flat-footed and mundane. [The way I put that is: Mass is not a didactic moment.] Are these pastors afraid that silence in the presence of the Most High might disconcert the faithful? [YES. They themselves cannot handle silence! And they are, furthermore, now conditioned to see themselves as the ones who entertain.] Do they think that the Holy Spirit is incapable of opening hearts to the divine Mysteries by pouring out on them the light of spiritual grace?
Saint John Paul II warns us: a human being enters into participation in the divine presence “above all by letting himself be educated in an adoring silence, because at the summit of the knowledge and experience of God there is His absolute transcendence.”
Sacred silence is the good of the faithful, and the clerics must not deprive them of it!
Silence is the cloth from which our liturgies ought to be cut out. Nothing in them should interrupt the silent atmosphere that is their natural climate.
Q: Isn’t there a kind of paradox in stating the need for silence in the liturgy while acknowledging that the Eastern liturgies have no moments of silence (no. 259), while they are particularly beautiful, sacred and prayerful?
Cdl. Sarah: Your comment is wise and shows that it is not enough to prescribe “moments of silence” in order for the liturgy to be permeated with sacred silence.
Silence is an attitude of the soul. It is not a pause between two rituals; it is itself fully a ritual.
Certainly, the Eastern rites do not foresee times of silence during the Divine Liturgy. Nevertheless, they are intensely acquainted with the apophatic[WINNER!] dimension of prayer before a God who is “ineffable, incomprehensible, imperceptible”. The Divine Liturgy is plunged, as it were, into the Mystery. It is celebrated behind the iconostas, which for Eastern Christians is the veil that protects the mystery. [NB] Among us Latins, silence is a sonic iconostas. Silence is a form of mystagogy; it enables us to enter into the mystery without deflowering it. In the liturgy, the language of the mysteries is silent. Silence does not conceal; it reveals in depth.
Saint John Paul II teaches us that “mystery continually veils itself, covers itself with silence, in order to avoid constructing an idol in place of God.” I want to declare today that the risk of Christians becoming idolaters is great. Prisoners of the noise of endless human talk, we are not far from constructing a cult according to our own dimensions, a god in our own image. As Cardinal Godfried Danneels remarked, “the chief fault of the Western liturgy, as it is celebrated in practice, is being too talkative.” Father Faustin Nyombayré, a Rwandan priest, says that in Africa “superficiality does not spare the liturgy or supposedly religious sessions, from which people return out of breath and perspiring, rather than rested and full of what has been celebrated in order to live and to witness better.” Celebrations sometimes become noisy and exhausting. The liturgy is sick. The most striking symbol of this sickness is the omnipresence of the microphone. It has become so indispensable that people wonder how anyone could have celebrated before it was invented! [Joseph Ratzinger used the image of Catholics like the Jews who worshipped the golden calf. The problem is that the Jews KNEW their golden calf wasn’t a “god”. They KNEW it was less than the Most High. They made it because they didn’t want the challenge of what the TRUE God asked. That is what happens when we stray from our true liturgical worship or distort it into something easy, comfortable, familiar. Liturgy should also involve the extremely difficult, the – yes -apophatic, something frightening which remains nevertheless alluring.]
The noise from outside and our own interior noises make us strangers to ourselves. In the midst of noise, a human being cannot help falling into banality: we are superficial in what we say, we utter empty talk, in which we talk and talk again… until we find something to say, a sort of irresponsible “muddle” made up of jokes and words that kill. We are superficial also in what we do: we live in a banal state that is supposedly logical and moral, without finding anything abnormal about it.
Often we leave our noisy, superficial liturgies without having encountered in them God and the interior peace that He wants to offer us.
Q: After your conference in London last July, you are returning to the topic of the orientation of the liturgy and wish to see it applied in our churches. Why is this so important to you, and how would you see this change implemented?
Cdl. Sarah: Silence poses the problem of the essence of the liturgy. Now the liturgy is mystical. As long as we approach the liturgy with a noisy heart, it will have a superficial, human appearance. Liturgical silence is a radical and essential disposition; it is a conversion of heart. Now, to be converted, etymologically, is to turn back, to turn toward God. There is no true silence in the liturgy if we are not—with all our heart—turned toward the Lord. We must be converted, turn back to the Lord, in order to look at Him, contemplate His face, and fall at His feet to adore Him. We have an example: Mary Magdalene was able to recognize Jesus on Easter morning because she turned back toward Him: “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” “Haec cum dixisset, conversa est retrorsum et videt Jesus stantem. – Saying this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there” (Jn 20:13-14).
[NB!] How can we enter into this interior disposition except by turning physically, all together, priest and faithful, toward the Lord who comes, toward the East symbolized by the apse where the cross is enthroned?
The outward orientation leads us to the interior orientation that it symbolizes. Since apostolic times, Christians have been familiar with this way of praying. It is not a matter of celebrating with one’s back to the people or facing them, but toward the East, ad Dominum, toward the Lord.
This way of doing things promotes silence. Indeed, there is less of a temptation for the celebrant to monopolize the conversation. Facing the Lord, he is less tempted to become a professor who gives a lecture during the whole Mass, reducing the altar to a podium centered no longer on the cross but on the microphone! The priest must remember that he is only an instrument in Christ’s hands, that he must be quiet in order to make room for the Word, and that our human words are ridiculous compared to the one Eternal Word.
I am convinced that priests do not use the same tone of voice when they celebrate facing East. We are so much less tempted to take ourselves for actors, as Pope Francis says! [Wow. Yes. The same goes for saying or singing Holy Mass in English or in Latin, whether in the Novus Ordo or the TLM! I know that I adjust. I catch myself.]
Of course, this way of doing things, while legitimate and desirable, must not be imposed as a revolution. I know that in many places preparatory catechesis has enabled the faithful to accept and appreciate the orientation. I wish that this question would not become the occasion for an ideological clash of factions! We are talking about our relationship with God. [Alas, Your Eminence, it is a clash of factions. Would that it were not. But there are people in power out there who truly fear Mass ad orientem. They will stop at nothing to prevent it from returning.]
As I had the opportunity to say recently, during a private interview with the Holy Father, here I am just making the heartfelt suggestions of a pastor who is concerned about the good of the faithful. I do not intend to set one practice against another. If it is physically not possible to celebrate ad orientem, it is absolutely necessary to put a cross on the altar in plain view, as a point of reference for everyone. Christ on the cross is the Christian East.
Friends, there is a lot more from this amazing man. Please read the rest there.
Card. Sarah is a deeply prayerful man, which you can tell both from reading his works and if you have a chance to meet him.
I’ll take his arguments for ad orientem worship compared to the flailing around and bullying of the opponents of “turning toward the Lord”.
Buy it. Get one for your parish priests.