Anyone who missed Martin Scorsese’s big-screen interpretation of Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence hasn’t had much of a wait for its video release. Having read the haunting novel several years ago, I jumped at the chance to experience the screen version when SILENCE appeared on the marquee of my small-town theater during Lent. I knew its dark content would unsettle me, just as the novel did, but it’s the kind of unsettling that makes for a good examination of conscience.
It’s well known (spoilers ahead) that the book is based on the persecution of Japanese Christians and the apostasy of Jesuit missionaries in the 17th century. Silence is a tragic, troubling read. Sebastian Rodrigues’ voice, through letters documenting his journey into Japan, aches with love of Christ, zeal to exonerate Ferreria (the priest who recruited him and is rumored to have apostasized) and admiration for the Japanese Christians who endured excruciating martyrdom rather than trample the fumi-e, an image of Christ’s beloved face.
The priest’s demise into apostasy is, for the faithful Christian, horrifying when it occurs. However, we’re given foreshadowings that this priest may not end his mission as well as he began it. In the days after I viewed Scorsese’s Silence, I returned to the novel to ponder Endo’s hints that the adventurous missionary would ultimately waver.
“Why did we endure all this?” Rodrigues asks after completing the grueling voyage around the coast of Africa, across to India and finally to the caterpillar-shaped island of Japan. “We priests are in some ways a sad group of men:
Born into the world to render service to mankind, there is no one in the world more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task.
This line foreshadows all that follows, and finally we may contrast the apostatizing Ferreria and Rodrigues (both of whom end defeated by their captors) with the faithful Garrpe, whose life ends in a beautifully tragic effort to serve to the end his people and his Lord.
There has been much speculation about the intentions of Endo as well as Scorsese in applying their artistic gifts to bring forth a story of apostasy. One feels empty and perplexed at the conclusion of both works, and Scorsese’s mitigating touch (which I won’t spoil) only adds to the confusion.
But the beauty of Garrpe and the martyrs in the film version touched me deeply. In returning to the novel with a prayerful hope that I might end with oil still in my lamp, foreshadowings of Rodrigues’ end formed a Silence-inspired examination of conscience.
First question: As I follow Christ, am I seeking approval, honor and glory for myself or for my Savior?
Rodrigues’ early letters are enamored of the martyr’s heroism; he believes he, too, is a hero. “Where is my martyrdom, my glorious martyrdom?” he asks longingly early in the novel. His over-eagerness is evident in the film as well, as he and Garrpe press for permission to go to Japan. Though both are sincere, their hidden motives are unmasked by the way each man ends. That will be true for each of us as well.
A people-pleaser by nature, I know all too well that our motives for following Christ are frequently mixed, an aspect of our fallenness. As we grow in understanding that all good comes from God, we may also prayerfully grow in likeness to Christ, who seeks the glory of God alone. Whenever we’re caught up in the quest for glory–numbers of followers, admiration for the “humble” way we handle opposition, or even the glory of martyrdom–we are not undertaking our mission for Christ, but for a glory we seek for ourselves.
Second question: How much of my faith is subtly motivated by hero-worship rather than all-or-nothing worship of Christ?
Rodrigues’ undoing escalates when he discovers the unthinkable has in fact happened: his hero, Ferreria, has apostatized. Disappointed and shocked when he first meets Ferreria in his fallen state, Rodrigues comes to accept his mentor’s justification of his new life aiding the Japanese government as “doing some good here.” Rodrigues need not have accepted his hero’s rationalization. The real “good” Rodrigues could have done would have been to remain faithful no matter what, as Garrpe did.
How often in my immature faith have I become overly exited about a Christian whose ministry has elevated him or her to celebrity status? Do I let my faith tailspin when word leaks out about a fall into immorality or when one of them leaves the faith entirely?
How often have we all seen church attendance rise in proportion to the charisma of popular priest, then drop when the favored one leaves? This signals worship of the creature rather than the creator. Such “involvement” for the sake of an effective leader turns out not to be about Christ at all.
It is possible to be shocked without wavering when leaders fall and possible as well to carry on in the Church even when our favorite leader is moved. We must slowly grow out of our attachment to particular people and lean on Christ in good times and bad.
Third question: when tempted to sin and desert my post, have I asked whether the “voices” I hear under duress are really the Holy Spirit or my own justifications for doing what I want?
The “voice” Rodrigues hears suggesting that Christ is inviting him to trample on his face sounds more like the priest’s own need to avoid more suffering than it does Christ, who bore mistreatment for our sake, and told us not to fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.
Christians often justify sin under far less duress than the persecuted priest had to face! How often do we figure “God will understand” when we choose sin over faithfulness? (“Shall we continue to sin that grace may abound?” St. Paul asked. “Certainly not!”) How often do we say we “prayed about” our infidelity and “felt good about it” rather than seeking the advice of a faithful leader or simply trusting what God has already said and following it whether the choice feels good in the moment or not?
Fourth question: Am I more lukewarm than I believe I am?
The fierce persecution in Silence exposes the utterly tepid faith posing as Christianity in much of the West, where playoff games and late Saturday nights are considered valid reasons to stay home on Sunday, and where Christians who are unshakably faithful to something as small as church attendance are sometimes seen as unreasonable and hyper-religious.
How frequently we whine about persecution simply because we’re being misrepresented on The Big Bang Theory or in a poorly-researched You Tube. If a little social exclusion makes us pathetic victims of “persecution,” we’ve forgotten what persecution is.
Perhaps we could start facing our meager opposition by praying for our enemies. We might show greater our solidarity with the truly persecuted by upping our activity in support of Christians in the Middle East.
Of course we must avoid the hubris of Peter when he declared he would never forsake the Lord without understanding what the horror of the cross would do to his promise. Of course we trust in the mercy of Christ, who not only forgave Peter but gave him a great mission after his fall. In light of Peter’s failure we can humbly acknowledge our own weakness and increase our spiritual vigilance by taking the unsettling history behind Silence to heart.
In the increasingly secular 21st century, American Christians are still incredibly far from the type of persecution that sent the once-flourishing Japanese Church into hiding and caused many a once-zealous priest to apostatize.
Silence offers a sobering occasion to examine our own spiritual state, praying for greater zeal here and now and also for faithfulness even unto death.
Liam Neeson (who plays the apostate priest Ferreria in the film version of Silence) narrates an informative documentary about the first Catholic mission to Japan in Xavier: Missionary and Saint, available as a video download or for DVD purchase at Amazon.