Lessons from Silence

If Lent is a time for spiritual reflection and introspection, consider Shusaku Endo’s 1966 celebrated novel, Silence, recently adapted in a Martin Scorsese film of the same name.

Silence is set in 17th century Japan at a time of great upheaval. After a visit by Francis Xavier in 1549, Christianity grew rapidly in favor and within 60 years claimed over 300,000 followers, in addition to Christian colleges, seminaries, hospitals and a growing local clergy. However, for a variety of mostly economic reasons, the Shogun, seeking to wipe out every vestige of Christianity, issued an edict of expulsion which led to brutal persecution of Christians, via crucifixion and other methods.

However, an underground missionary effort was sustained and in Silence, a young Jesuit, Sebastian Rodriguez, one of many missionaries seeking to serve the embattled Christians, enters Japan by stealth. What he quickly discovers is that the persecution is brutal and he himself is soon captured and made to witness the grisly details of persecution. As the story continues, a Christian allegory unfolds with Rodriguez imagining a glorious martyrdom for himself, even involving a flawed Judas-like character. But doubts creep in; despite his frequent prayers to Jesus, the Jesuit feels nothing but a disconcerting silence.

Instead of the glorious martyrdom he had envisioned, Rodriguez is offered the opportunity to save his own life and the lives of several Japanese Christians, but only if he will trample a sacred Christian image. While at first incomprehensible, this public act of apostasy gradually becomes alluring and his experience is that Jesus finally breaks the silence and tells Rodriquez that the act of apostasy is a selfless act of love.

Alluding to the paradoxical lines of the Beatitudes, Endo in his later A Life of Jesus speculates that after his 40 days in the wilderness Jesus returned changed: “His heart was like a maternal womb to engender an image of God which more closely resembles a gentle mother.” Like Rodriguez, can we learn that the love of God is mysterious, that He is always present, even in his silence, and leaves much to the ways of man with all of his imperfections?


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