Authored by Daniel Conigliaro
It’s a new year at St. Clement’s and Our Lady of Grace Seminary, so we are introducing a new theme for our seminarian blog! This semester, each of us will write about a book we read recently that we recommend to others. Over Christmas break, I read Shusako Endo’s novel “Silence,” the basis for the new movie directed by Martin Scorsese. “Silence” is a very powerful book (and film) that grapples with several complex themes: martyrdom and apostasy, East vs. West, suffering, and the silence of God.
The story is about two Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century, Frs. Rodriguez and Garrpe, who go to Japan during the height of the Christian persecution in search of their mentor, Fr. Ferreira, who has reportedly apostatized (renounced) the faith. Upon arriving in Japan, they are put in touch with the underground Christian community and begin to celebrate the Sacraments in hiding. It is not long, however, before word of their arrival reaches the officials, who try to capture the priests. In one of the most moving scenes of the book and movie, three of the Japanese Christians are taken into custody and crucified as punishment for not turning over Rodriguez and Garrpe. The two missionaries decide to separate, and the reader follows the story of Rodriguez. Shortly after, Rodriguez is captured by the Japanese and is told to apostatize by stepping on an image of Christ, the fumie. Rodriguez is ready to suffer for his faith, but rather than torturing him, the Japanese inquisitor, the notorious Inoue, begins torturing and killing Japanese Christians until Rodriguez apostatizes. Throughout the story, Rodriguez grapples with the seeming silence of God in the midst of such great suffering, and the reader follows him through his moments of clarity and confusion, consolation and desolation, as he prepares for his martyrdom. His greatest trial comes when he is brought face-to-face with Ferreira, who in fact did apostatize and is now living with a Japanese name and wife. That night, Rodriguez witnesses the torture of several Christians in “the pit,” and is told that, if he apostatizes, he will be set free. Overwhelmed, he steps on the fumie and apostatizes. He lives afterwards in Japan, a hollow, broken man, grappling with the weight of his sin but still holding on to his Christian faith in his heart.
The two most important themes of the book are suffering and mercy. Endo begins the story from Rodriguez’s perspective, giving insight into his psychology and inner questioning. Rodriguez struggles to hear God’s voice in the midst of his suffering. How could God be silent when so many of His children are suffering such brutal tortures? It is a question asked by all devout believers at some point in their faith journey. In spirituality, this approach to God is known as the apophatic way, or the way of darkness—the “dark night of the soul,” according to St. John of the Cross. Apophatic spirituality recognizes that God is often closest to us when He is most hidden, and His silence at times is meant to strengthen us in faith and help us trust in Him. The temptation throughout these periods of darkness is to think that God simply doesn’t care, or that He isn’t even there. Rodriguez asks himself often whether he is praying to silence, or if God is really there. It is only at the end of the book, as he is grappling with the sin of his apostasy, that He finally realizes the truth: God never was silent, but had always suffered with Him. It was precisely in his suffering that he was most united to God.
As Rodriguez comes to understand God’s presence in his sufferings, he also comes to understand His mercy and forgiveness. This is best represented in Rodriguez’s relationship with Kichijiro, the drunkard former Christian who led Rodriguez and Garrpe into Japan. Kichijiro apostatized several times in the book, even betraying Rodriguez to the authorities, and each time returned to him asking for confession. At the beginning of the novel Rodriguez feels contempt for this sorry man, but his heart slowly turns to pity him in his weakness. After he betrays him, Rodriguez likens Kichijiro to Judas but still grants him absolution when he returns to confess his sin. Only after his apostasy does Rodriguez realize just how alike he and Kichijiro. Both denied their Lord; both, also, are able to receive forgiveness for their sin. Rodriguez, having suffered much internally for his apostasy, is brought to love God in a new way, in the way of a repentant sinner. It is the parable of the woman who washed the feet of Jesus with her tears: “he who is forgiven much, loves much.”
Many have criticized “Silence” because of the seeming defeat of Christianity at the end. It is true that the story does not allow the reader/viewer to rejoice over the defeat of the Japanese persecutors. To focus on this, however, misses the mark of what the story is about. “Silence” is a well-crafted story, masterfully written, and compellingly delivered. It is ultimately a story about the struggle of faith in each of us, and grapples with two of the most important questions to any seeker of truth: where is God in the midst of suffering, and is forgiveness possible? Its response is unequivocally Catholic: that God suffers with us, through His Son’s Passion and Death, and that all sins, even the most grievous, can be washed away by the Blood of the Lamb. That is definitely a cause for rejoicing.