In an afterword to a book on silence and prayer recently authored by Cardinal Robert Sarah, Benedict XVI praised the prelate as a spiritual model given the depth of his interior life, saying the liturgy is safe in his hands.
“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,” Benedict XVI said.
The emeritus Pope added that we ought to be grateful to Pope Francis for his 2014 appointment of Cardinal Sarah as prefect of the Congregation of Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.
The liturgy, Benedict said, has a certain type of “specialization” which ultimately “can talk right past the essential thing unless it is grounded in a deep, interior union with the praying Church, which over and over again learns anew from the Lord himself what adoration is.”
“With Cardinal Sarah, a master of silence and of interior prayer, the liturgy is in good hands,” he said.
Benedict’s afterword to Cardinal Sarah’s book marks one of the rare occasions he has spoken publicly or published any sort of document since his retirement in 2013.
Although Cardinal Sarah’s book, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, was published last month, future printings will include Benedict’s afterword, which he wrote during the Easter Octave. The full text of the essay was published by First Things May 17.
The book is in interview format, and was conducted by French journalist and author Nicolas Diat, who also collaborated on Cardinal Sarah’s 2015 interview-book God or Nothing.
In his afterword, Benedict reflected on the topic of silence itself, pointing to the letter of St. Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians that reads: “It is better to keep silence and be (a Christian) than to talk and not to be.”
Referring to Christ as a teacher, the text says that “even what he did silently is worthy of the Father. He who has truly made the words of Jesus his own is able also to hear his silence, so that he may be perfect: so that he may act through his speech and be known through his silence.”
Benedict then reflected on what it means to hear Christ’s silence and to know him through it, noting that in the Gospels we learn that Christ spent many nights “alone on the mountain” in prayer and conversation with the Father.
“We know that his speech, his word, comes from silence and could mature only there,” he said. “So it stands to reason that his word can be correctly understood only if we, too, enter into his silence, if we learn to hear it from his silence.”
Although historical context is necessary in order to interpret Christ’s words, that in itself is not enough “really to comprehend the Lord’s message in depth,” Benedict said.
Those who today read the “ever-thicker” commentaries on the Gospels often still end up “disappointed” he said, because they learn “a lot that is useful about those days and a lot of hypotheses that ultimately contribute nothing at all to an understanding of the text.”
“In the end you feel that in all the excess of words, something essential is lacking: entrance into Jesus’s silence, from which his word is born,” he said, adding that “if we cannot enter into this silence, we will always hear the word only on its surface and thus not really understand it.”
Pointing to Cardinal Sarah’s book, Benedict said the prelate “teaches us silence — being silent with Jesus, true inner stillness, and in just this way he helps us to grasp the word of the Lord anew.”
Although the cardinal rarely speaks of himself in the text, Benedict said his answers reveal the depth of his spiritual life.
In response to one of Diat’s questions on whether in his life he has ever felt that words were too “cumbersome” or heavy, Cardinal Sarah responds by saying, “In my prayer and in my interior life, I have always felt the need for a deeper, more complete silence…The days of solitude, silence, and absolute fasting have been a great support. They have been an unprecedented grace.”
This answer, Benedict said, makes visible “the source from which the cardinal lives, which gives his word its inner depth.”
“From this vantage point, he can then see the dangers that continually threaten the spiritual life,” he said, noting that this also goes for priest and bishops.
This threat endangers the Church as well, “in which it is not uncommon for the Word to be replaced by a verbosity that dilutes the greatness of the Word,” Benedict said.
He then pointed to another passage of the book which he said is a good examination of conscience for every bishop: “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,” Cardinal Sarah said.
Benedict said that given the depth of Cardinal Sarah’s own spiritual life, he is a “spiritual teacher” who, because of his silent prayer with God, has something to say to everyone.
By Elise Harris