The best use of literature bends not toward the narrow and the absolute, but to the extravagant and possible – Mary Oliver
It’s a rough read, so I am stunned that Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence is now a three hour film directed by Martin Scorsese. Here’s the plot: Father Ferreira, a 17th century Portuguese priest is sent to Japan to care for the young church. Well received at first, he and all priests soon face widespread, systematic and effective persecution. Ferreira ceases communication with his superiors; troubling rumors of apostasy (renunciation of his faith) trickle home.
Father Rodrigues, the protagonist of the story and a former Ferreira student, is sent to find him. Landing in Japan he finds pockets of “secret Christians;” he ministers to them, is soon betrayed and, in captivity, is given an impossible choice: he can apostatize – step on fumie, an icon of Jesus – and deny his faith or listen to the moans of Japanese Christians who have been hung upside down over a pit, bleeding to death by a small cut behind their ears. Keeping his faith means the death of the faithful in his care. Personal fidelity or life for others. Truth or Grace. And through it all, the priest (the author, the reader) is aware of God’s silence. It is the dark ocean in Endo’s story, the quiet, still waters that move without purpose or meaning, forever covering all, pushing forward and retreating, signifying nothing.
I have a good friend who once said that we can only learn Truth through Story. He’s smarter than me and that’s annoying, so I pshawed him at the time but in hindsight recognize that he was more right than not. I’d modify his statement a bit and suggest that the only truths we humans care about in the end, the truths we hope answer the chilling questions that keep us awake at 3 a.m., are only graspable through a narrative.
Consider: I am sitting at a brown table. That is a true statement, verifiable and dull. I love my wife is also a true statement, but I know and tell the love-truth differently than the table-truth. I can point to the brown table, but I can’t point to love. I can, however, tell the story our life together and though it has rough patches, it contains goodness and laughter and healing and when I tell her I love her I am summing up my admiration for her, my gratitude and the fact that she’s super cute. Think also of the statement: God is love. I believe that to be true too, but the proposition only makes sense because it is enfleshed in the suffering servant, the baby in the manger and the “terrible exchange” at calvary.
So with Shushasku Endo’s Silence. It is a brilliant, monumental, beautiful (I could go on with superlatives) effort to communicate something true in the midst of God’s silence. Endo asks the hard question – Why only silence? – without blinking, straight on, and brings the reader with him. Like I said, it’s a rough read. Nobody finishes Silence and wants to pop right back in again. And attempting a summary of his “answer” would be frustratingly futile, but I can provide a few brush strokes that hint at the final canvas.
Endo was a Japanese Catholic author and is most often compared to Graham Greene. Their stories are raw, gritty, gripping, despairing at times and still infused with faith. Not the triumphant faith Paul in Romans, but the faith of Abraham trudging up the dusty hill, tortured and unknowing but still, somehow, obedient. It’s the faith of the whiskey priest in Green’s The Power and the Glory, betrayed by a thoroughly noxious character, knowingly and haltingly walking into martyrdom to deliver a sacrament, giving his life to give a grace.
Likewise, faith for Endo is found only in the midst of the suffering servant of Isaiah, he who “is despised and rejected of all, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” Debasement as redemption, or the necessary precursor to redemption. It was an idea that Endo explored often. So this from his short story, “The Martyrs,”
Even today the moist, grieving eyes of dogs somehow remind me of the eyes of Christ. This Christ I speak of is, of course, not the Christ filled with assurance of his own way of life . . it is the weary Christ of the fumie, trampled upon by men and looking up at them from beneath their feet.
Endo’s Silence is rooted here and in some strange, grim way, it works. Not in the sense that one comes away from the novel and says; “Well that jolly well ties up all those troubling questions of God’s silence.” Rather, it suggests a hope that might provide a mustard seed of faith when God seems so very, very absent. But it’s a love-truth not a table-truth. You have to enter the book to hear the answer, because it’s muted and quiet and all wrapped up in the awful story of Rodrigues’ final, impossible choice and the patient, moist eyes of the fumie, always waiting.