If you know me a little or a lot, you’ll probably know that I like to read. What you may not know is that for most of this decade I’ve been trying to read material by female authors of color as a way of diversifying the narratives with which I surround myself. One of the most profound books I’ve read (that admittedly meets only one of these criteria) is Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Recommended to me in the month it emerged as a major motion picture, I devoured it, and it has endured as one of my favorite pieces of literature - one of those that calls to be read annually.
(Side note: In order to make more meaning of this post, you should go back and read “02 disorientation”.)
In this piece of historical fiction, Endo, a Japanese Catholic, recounts the journey of two Portuguese Jesuit priests who embark on a mission to Japan to recover their long lost mentor, who has reportedly apostatized (renounced the faith). Full of hope, they wash ashore and find themselves in a country more desolate and dark than they expected. The local Christians have been driven to worship in secret because the threat of persecution is imminent. Government officials promise relief from persecution if only believers will trample an image of Christ and apostatize.
For some time, the priests go about their sacramental duties in secret - bringing much comfort and solace to Christians in desperate circumstances. Time and time again, they find themselves at the mercy of these local Christians. The Christians hide them and protect them.
One of these Japanese Christians, named Kichijiro - the ultimate Judas figure (he could be a whole separate post - so tormented and complex) - eventually hands the priests over to the government officials for money. While in captivity, the priests are forced to watch Japanese Christians be persecuted in their place. Unless they (the priests) apostatize, the government officials will not relent. This was not the martyrdom the priests expected. They’re not the ones enduring suffering on their way to glory. No, they’re watching others suffer on their behalf. And so they struggle to decide what to do - remain faithful or show mercy?
Among many things, one of the most striking aspects to me about the novel is the presence of silence. On the first read, I noticed that the word “silence” (or some form thereof) appeared on nearly every page. I began circling it every time I encountered it, and as I flip through the text now, indeed “silence” pervades every inch of the text.
As he waits in hiding from the Japanese officials, the priest is deafened by the silence of God. As he endures the mental torment of watching the persecution of these local Christians, the priest encounters only silence. And in the priest’s silent and lonely exile, a recurring image of the face of Christ in his mind’s eye was his only consolation. In his most desolate moments, he’d see the face of Christ before him:
“Just as a young man might envisage the face of his intimate friend who is far away, the priest from long ago had the habit of imagining the face of Christ in his moments of solitude. And yet since he had been captured - especially during the nights of imprisonment in that copse when he had listened to the rustling of the leaves - a different sensation filled his breast when the face of that man rose behind his closed eyelids. Now in the darkness, that face seemed close beside him. At first it was silent, but pierced him with a glance that was filled with sorrow. And then it seemed to speak to him: ‘When you suffer, I suffer with you. To the end I am close to you.’” (172)
In his silent anguish, he was met by the simple and personal presence of Jesus.
At a time when my own spiritual experience was marked with divine silence, this was incredibly meaningful. The early years of this decade were marked by rich experiences of divine intimacy. The latter years, however, have been marked with an absence of the divine voice - call it unanswered prayer or simply an inability to sense God. These years of silence have been hard and discouraging. I’ve felt deeply alone and left to navigate the world on my own. Is God still there? How do I meet God? Who is God? Is God working for our good, my good? Why does it feel like God is working against us, against me?
And thus, the priest’s experience of desolation and eventual consolation in the person of Jesus is a quiet reassurance to me. Indeed, this is the central reason I love this book. Though I’ve come to question so much of the trappings of Christianity over the past decade, the thing I can’t walk away from is the person of Jesus. His actual presence in history and his teachings of love, forgiveness, and upside-down power keep me coming back.
In my disorientation, in the darkness and silence, I am reminded that Someone is present. And this Presence, be it often faint and silent, reorders me, softens me, and even heals me. It’s like despite all the silence and loneliness and disorientation and cynicism, Jesus whispers those very words to me, “When you suffer, I suffer with you. To the end I am close to you.”