Book Review: The Power of Silence

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Robert Cardinal Sarah and Nicolas Diat,
The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise
Ignatius Press, 249p.

This book has generated a fair amount of comment and recommendation since its release in April. I picked it up a few months ago and recently finished it. I’m currently waiting for my wife to finish it so I can read it again.

Cardinal Sarah was born in Guinea, West Africa. Made an Archbishop by Pope John Paul II and a Cardinal by Pope Benedict XVI, he was named the Prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments by Pope Francis in 2014. He speaks about silence with impressive depth.

“This is the tragedy of the modern world: man separates himself from God because he no longer believes in the value of silence.”

p. 80

This is not another “social media is destroying our world” book. There is some talk of technology, but that is not the focus. Cardinal Sarah looks much deeper into who we are, who God is, and how we enter into his presence.

One of the gleanings from this book was discovering the Carthusian order. These monks live mostly silent, contemplative lives in prayer. If you want to spend a few hours getting a feel for how they live, check out Into Great Silence.

There are many challenging pages in this book, and as many enlightening ones. His views on poverty were new to me, but profound.

“Most of our troubles result from some form of lack of poverty.”

p. 171

Sarah draws a distinction between being poor and being destitute. To be poor is to have little; to be destitute is to not have what you need. He points to the blessings of poverty, as espoused by Jesus, as an example of the necessity of simplicity and silence. The two concepts really go hand in hand.

While not a polemic against the entertainment industry, he does have some hard words concerning our cultures, especially in the West.

“Modern existence is a propped-up life built entirely on noise, artificiality, and the tragic rejection of God…societies are sworn to an implacable hatred of silence, which they regard as a contemptible, backward defeat.”

p. 173

If you fail to notice this — because you are swimming in it — take a week in the woods without being plugged in and then walk into a shopping mall or airport terminal in the United States. The amount of screens and noise is startling. Our society constantly vies for our attention in order to catechize us into libertine consumers.

But the problem is not just our need to unplug and close the door. That is the beginning of the struggle.

“Our interior temple is often so ugly that we prefer to live on the outside of ourselves in order to hide in worldly devices and noises.”

p. 210

We are used to using noise (be it audio, visual, or both) to distract ourselves from ourselves. When the noise goes away, we are left with our self, and forced to see what is really going on inside of us. This can be very uncomfortable. It is also vitally necessary.

I experienced this the summer between high school and college working in a factory where one of my tasks was to stack  thin pieces of metal on a machine and watch while it welded them together. With my earplugs in, I couldn’t hear anything, and the work was dreadfully boring. It forced me into myself in a very uncomfortable way that I did not appreciate at the time. Looking back on it, it was in those interminable hours that I came to some clarity that helped me set my course going forward in life.

“We seek silence because we seek God.”

p. 193

This is the bottom line of the book. If you are seeking after God, this is a book worth reading. If you find that more podcasts, videos, and seminars are not bringing you closer to God or enabling you to live the life you want, I would recommend this book. Cardinal Sarah has given us a gift in this book. We owe it to ourselves to take some (quiet) moments to read and reflect upon it.


This book is also bound very well for a paperback. It has integrated end-flaps that work well as bookmarks and it has sewn folios that are glued into the binding. What that means is the pages aren’t going to start falling out anytime soon and if you wear the cover off, you can have it rebound.

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Is it Superstition or Devotion?

Consider two similar scenarios with me.

In the first,  imagine a soldier far away from home. He carries a picture of his wife with him everywhere he goes, and before going to sleep each night, he pulls it out, whispers, “I love you,” and gives it a quick kiss.

In the second, imagine a Christian who carries a small crucifix with him everywhere he goes, and before going to sleep each night, he pulls it out, whispers, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner,” and gives it a quick kiss.

Now the question, would you classify these acts as devotion or superstition? I would postulate that most people would see the first as an act of devotion to the soldier’s wife, but that the second would generate more controversy with some labeling it as superstition.

Are these labels accurate?

The soldier’s actions have no direct affect on his wife. She has no way of knowing if her picture is in her husband’s pocket when he is away or not. She has no way of knowing what his actions with that picture are. We can also envision this scenario occurring and the wife never knowing about this act of devotion.

What effects do his devotion have? It is arguable that it has an effect on the husband. By these actions he is reminding himself each day of his love for his wife, even if he has limited ways to tangibly express it to her. He is working to “keep the flame alive” in his heart for her. This devotion—if it does have this effect—will have results that the wife will realize. When her husband returns, he will have been faithful to her and will be happy to be reunited with her. He may be more loving (however we choose to define that) to her upon return than if he had not kept up this devotion.

The one way in which this might become unhealthy is if the soldier is professing that he is performing this devotion to his wife. This could be an attempt to somehow manipulate or give a false impression to his wife. It would also highlight any other shortcomings he may have. It is not a stretch to imagine a wife in such a scenario saying to such a husband, “That’s great, but how about…” and listing any number of shortcomings.

I don’t think any of this is controversial, and I think the parallels to the second scenario are fairly obvious. There is one significant difference, however. Jesus is able to know when the person with the crucifix prays. Whether it is the vocalized prayer or the act of a kiss, Christ knows that it is happening. So all of the “benefits” of the soldier’s act of devotion are present plus the object of affection—in this case Jesus—actually observes, actually receives the affection. The same caveats apply to this second scenario as well. If this person is telling others of his “private” act of devotion, we may rightly question his motive.

Devotion, like prayer, is largely about what it does to us, for us, and in us. The goal of religious life is not to bend God to our ways, but to mold ourselves to his. If I thought I was somehow obligating God to me through an act of devotion, that may be superstition. If I am doing it as a tangible reminder of my relationship to God, a way to keep him ever before me, it is devotion.

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Book Review: Toward God

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Casey, Michael, Toward God: The Ancient Wisdom of Western Prayer
Ligouri/Triumph: Ligouri, Missouri, 1996. 176p.

Michael Casey has been one of my favorite authors since I first read Living in the Truth about 5 years ago. A Cistercian monk living in Australia, he writes with wisdom garnered from decades of prayer and teaching. This is the fourth book of his I have read and in my estimation, it is his best work.

Toward God is not an academic survey of Western prayer. Casey freely admits in the opening lines that it is a personal account of one who has been steeped in the Western spiritual tradition. He quotes heavily from The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich and Bernard of Clairvaux. While the book is personal, it is not autobiographical. It is what I imagine sitting in retreat with him might be like — encouraging, honest, practical.

While this is an accessible book, I am not sure it is a book for beginners. Well, maybe it is, but only in the sense that in the ways of prayer, we are always beginners. He presents no seven-step plans, no formulas for advancement. What he does offer is sound counsel to continually and relentlessly place ourselves humbly and honestly before God.

Casey is realistic about what prayer is and what it is not. His decades of experience allow him to write about dryness because he has experienced it. It also allows him to share that what we perceive as dryness is not always so. He keeps reminding us that the goal of prayer is not about our feelings, but about our growth in God.

“Our glory is to be transparent. If the face of God shines through us, we will be perfect in both beauty and happiness. Efforts to leave our mark result only in obscuring that radiance.”

p. 158

Ultimately, Casey reinforces that prayer is not about us influencing God, but allowing ourselves to be influenced by him. The proper aim of prayer is not to use God to order the world to suit us, but to place ourselves in God’s presence so he can shape us to suit him. At different times, this prayer can happen with or without words. It may seem like nothing is happening most of the time and yet we must persevere if we are to truly know God and be known by him.

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Well Done

If you haven’t seen Mandy Harvey’s audition on America’s Got Talent (or even if you have), take a moment to watch this video. I’ve watched it about a dozen times in the last month and I get teary eyed every single time.

Let’s clear up a few things. First, she’s been working at singing while deaf for 10 years. She has 3 albums already, singing mostly jazz standards. She tours. She has also performed for various Christian and charity events and causes. She didn’t just decide, “Well, I’m deaf. I guess I’ll go try to sing on AGT today.” To get where she is, she worked hard before she lost her hearing, and she works hard now. She’s not “just” deaf (as if…); her connective tissue disorder affects her every day.

And yet, it’s a beautiful story and a great song. It’s not a story unrelated to what she’s doing on stage. Her being on stage is completely related to, and in defiance of, her deafness.

I really like how unassuming she is. I’m touched by how she gets choked up when everyone stands on their feet halfway through her song and she starts singing with her eyes closed so she can finish.

In a small way, I identify with her story. I was up to my neck in music in high school and had thoughts of studying music in college. Like her, it was a music theory class that crushed that dream. I didn’t sing; I played various woodwind instruments. But to really do music, to do music theory, you need to be able to sing, at least a bit.

I remember standing next to the upright piano in the music room while Dr. Montgomery played intervals. I was supposed to sing them back to him as part of a test. Thankfully, no one else was in the room. I couldn’t do it. Apparently I don’t hear music like most people hear music. I’m tone deaf.

There in about 10 minutes, my ideas about what I might do with music pretty well ended. My life took a different path, and with the perspective of almost 30 years, I can see how it was a good thing for my character. If I had been musically gifted, I could easily have become a prideful, insufferable jerk.

I still enjoy music. I still sing in the car when I’m by myself. But it’s just for me. I sometimes wonder what music sounds like to other people.

I also like Mandy’s video because it touches something else. We get to witness her being totally affirmed for a few brief moments. All of her years of hard work are recognized in a few glimmering moments. Those moments are rare in our lives. Even rarer is one so public as this.

I suppose I’ve had a few I can look back on. Two sermons come to mind (out of hundreds I’ve given). One blog post. Nowhere near a golden buzzer, but some genuine affirmation. It felt good. It was encouraging, but it was fleeting. No high lasts for very long.

I think we enjoy these kinds of moments, even vicariously, because they touch something even deeper within us. We are made to be part of something big. We are made to be God’s people and to have him be our God. As awesome as the golden confetti must be for those rare few on America’s Got Talent, how much more so if we hear our Lord say, “Well done.” That is worth striving for above any accolades we can earn from each other.

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I’m Stuffed

No more for me, thanks!

Independence Day affords us a long weekend. A chance to relax, enjoy family, and eat. I try to watch what I eat, to not over-eat, and to not eat too much of certain things that I know I’ll regret the next day. But food isn’t all that important. Jesus instructed the crowds, “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles man.” (Matthew 15:11)

Psalm 123 is a short “song of ascents.” Praying the last two verses today clarified a thought that had been slowly forming in my mind concerning them.

Have mercy upon us, O Lord, have mercy upon us,
for we have had more than enough of contempt.
Too long our soul has been sated with the scorn of those who are at ease,
the contempt of the proud.

Psalm 123:3-4 (RSV)

For years I read these verses along the lines of, “Have mercy on us because of all those nasty, proud people out there.” I still think this is a reasonable reading of the passage. But I think one more applicable to my life (and maybe yours) is also present.

I have had more than enough contempt in my soul. Contempt for those different than me. Contempt for those whom I deem less able than me. Contempt for those who injure my pride.

Too long has my soul been satisfied being at ease. Too long have I been willing to kick my feet up and coast. Too long have I not given my Lord the attention and obedience he deserves. (See verses one and two of the Psalm for what that should look like.)

Too long have I harbored the contempt of the proud. Too long have I launched scorn either silently or aloud at others.

Have mercy upon me Lord, have mercy.

May I not be filled with scorn, contempt, ease, and pride. When I am, I know that I will regret being so stuffed, either in this life or in the judgment to come.

I offer thee, O my God, all my thoughts, all my words, and all my actions of this day. Grant that they may be thoughts of humility, words of humility, and actions of humility — all to Thy glory.

Fr. Cajetan, Humility of Heart

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Book Review: Holy Writings, Sacred Text

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John Barton, Holy Writings, Sacred Text: The Canon in Early Christianity
Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, KY. 1997. 210 p.

Published in England as: The Spirit and the Letter: Studies in the Biblical Canon
SPCK, London, United Kingdom. 1997.

I first discovered this book about six years ago through the footnotes of Christian Smith’s provocative work: The Bible Made Impossible: Why Biblicism is not a Truly Evangelical Reading of Scripture. Smith challenges the presuppositions of what he terms “solo scriptura,” the evangelical (or even fundamentalist) view that the Bible is all-sufficient. In this view, anyone can read the Bible and discover what they need to know for salvation.*

He lists many problems with this view, but one of the most damning is the observation that if the Bible was really that clear, then why under this approach do we have such widespread interpretive diversity? Let’s park that thought for a moment and look into Barton’s book.

There are several interesting bits in Holy Writings, Sacred Text. Barton examines how different New Testament texts were handled in the early church, and whether or not those means of using them were consistent with how other Scripture (the Old Testament) was handled by these same authors.

He also examines different characteristics of what makes a work sacred, mostly from Judaism, and considers the possible implications for the New Testament. His insights into why Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs were questioned as being part of the canon are interesting.

Barton’s main goal in this book is to define the the term “canon” and to examine the implications of the various ways in which the term has been used over the centuries. He also tries to intuit what the Church Fathers thought about the New Testament in particular in terms of the various definitions of “canon.”

If you think this sounds like a niche book appealing mainly to those interested in theology with a bent toward epistemology, I won’t correct you. This is an academic work that is probably found mostly in theological libraries or as the text for graduate-level theological courses. But Barton does draw some conclusions that have implications for a much wider audience.

Much of the work deals with questions of authority, either explicitly or, more often than not, implicitly. After all, the question of canon is a question of what works are authoritative in the life of a believer. In the strictest sense, a canon is a body of works which are both granted authority and are deemed to be complete — no more can be added. This raises the secondary question (which Barton leaves largely untouched), “Who has the authority to grant this authority?”

Barton states this most explicitly in the middle of the book: “…it is universally true that traditions giving an authoritative interpretation of a written text are in effect — though not in intention — more authoritative than the text they interpret.” (p. 102) In other words, whatever person, institution, or “tradition” declares the teaching (or canon) of scripture to be authoritative has more authority than the scripture.

If that seems hard to swallow, consider a more humdrum parallel. When I have been overseas for extended periods, I have signed a general power of attorney for my wife in order to enable her to conduct business on my behalf. It is a very powerful document (and your attorney will caution you before you assign such power to anyone), but I can revoke it as well. If I can give and take away, I have more authority than the document itself, even if it can grant equal authority in terms of signing a lease or some other legal document.

Barton’s work placed a fundamental question in my mind when I first read it, and re-reading it recently has not changed it. “On whose authority do I accept that the Scripture is authoritative, trustworthy, and complete?”

Barton spends a fair amount of time considering the early church councils and the Church Fathers. He’s an Anglican priest in addition to being an Oxford scholar, so that isn’t all too surprising. I concur that those are authoritative sources, if for no other reasons than that they were much closer to the events recorded in Scripture than we are and large groups of people still appeal to them as authoritative.

For me, the real insight of Holy Writings, Sacred Text is that it forced me to examine what I thought about the role of tradition in my faith. It is a question for all believers to consider at some point. How do we know that what we believe is worth believing?


* Smith uses “solo” instead of “sola” purposefully to underline the ideal of “just a believer and a Bible.” Neither he nor I discount that Scripture can speak directly to a person, but as I detailed earlier, this is not normative. We need reason and tradition in order to protect us from drifting into heresy.

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Do What She Does

It is May, which, among other indications of spring, includes commencement exercises. At my daughter’s college commencement this past weekend, one speaker told of how he was taught basic dinner etiquette when an undergrad many decades ago. The faculty member he dined with told him to watch her and do what she did. Through this imitation he learned how to eat with fork and knife, and not just his spoon.

This lesson served him well soon afterward when he found himself the guest of a well-to-do family while traveling with a small group of fellow students. At dinner, a vast number of cutlery and dishes were on the table. None of the students were used to such finery and they quickly huddled to figure out how to not bring discredit upon themselves. The one who had recently learned how to use more than just a spoon knew what to do. He told the other to watch the hostess and do what she does. They did, and received praise for their fine manners at the end of the evening.

My mind took this image and ran, uncovering a true guide to life.

The WWJD (What Would Jesus Do) craze inspired by In His Steps was at its height several years ago. While motivated by a desire to follow Christ, it failed to be a solid tool for most people because of two main problems. First, none of us are first-century itinerant Jewish rabbis. Our context is so different from Christ’s that trying to pattern our life so directly after his is difficult. Second, Jesus did and said a lot. We have four Gospels full of things he did and said, many of which we may not be able to do.

We can benefit from a simple, concrete example that is no less profound, but may seem more attainable. It is not easier to do completely, but it is less complicated to understand.

Do what Mary did.

Mary’s recorded words and actions in Scripture are few and attainable for all of us. In fact we can sum them up in two phrases. First, when the angel Gabriel came to her to announce what the Father intended to do through her, she replied, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) Second, at the wedding in Cana, her one instruction to others, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:5)

In these two statements, we find the whole of the Christian life. Submit to God as a willing servant and guide others to do the same. May we watch Mary and imitate her life — quiet, faithful and devout — that we may receive her reward.

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