Shusaku Endo, the Catholic author of the novel Silence, answers this question in a manner that is typical of most Catholics who are confronted with silence in the face of suffering. It is somewhat disappointing to read the obsequious justification that Silence ultimately makes to excuse the silent Deity at all costs, especially when it is through the powerful and sympathetic character that Mr. Endo has created.
Sebastian Rodrigues is a Portuguese missionary, who is dispatched to the remote heathen islands of 17th century Japan. Buddhist and otherwise Pagan Japan had shown great promise as a soil that would bear much Christian Fruit. Catholic missionaries were welcome in Japan through the later portion of the 16th century, and many converts were made for the Catholic Faith. But at some point early in the 17th century, the Japanese feudal lords grew more suspicious of the new Christian Faith, mostly due to news of the divisive and never-ending religious wars in Europe. Their solution was simple: outlaw Christianity in Japan. So while Catholicism flourished in other far-eastern outposts like Philippines, Japan demanded all Christian converts to apostatize. Large monetary prizes were placed on the heads of Christians, with Catholic priests garnering the greatest reward. Once fertile Japan had become a swamp.
Silence places the story in this environment. To simply be a Christian meant torture or death administered from samurai authorities. The young Catholic priest Sebastian Rodrigues and his retinue must brave the unforgiving ocean journey to Japan, then sneak onto the Japanese islands without being caught by the authorities. Rodrigues is certain that he will be able to find Japanese Christians who hold onto their Catholic Faith in secrecy, and it is to these desperate believers that the Catholic priest must minister, dispense the elements of the Mass, and hear confession. But Rodrigues has another official mission that he finds more personal. Rumors persist that his old mentor, Father Christovao Ferreira, was not rewarded with a most glorious martyrdom. The rumors that Rodrigues could not dare to believe were that his beloved mentor apostatized under torture by trampling on the image of the blessed Virgin and renouncing his faith. As a priest, Rodrigues lived to serve his Catholic flock, but he also longed to find Ferreira and dispel the unbelievable rumors of his apostasy.
All Christians who take their Faith seriously can understand the terror that can accompany doubt and the absence of God. Lori McFarlane read this book at a time when she struggled with her own Faith, and found that the graphic descriptions of doubt mirrored her own. But even as a non-believer, I found it was easy to sympathize with the Christian missionaries in a foreign land. Christians were on the receiving end of atrocities, and it would have been very easy for me to view the whole scenario as absurd. I could easily just mock the superstition and folly of the characters. “Just apostatize and be done with it!” But the book is so well written, that such mockery on my part would have been irresponsible. The characters may have been fictional, but they were based on real people. The Portuguese missions to Japan and the torture of Christians were historical events. I have to engage with the story and characters. Why won’t the Japanese converts make even an outward showing of apostasy? The novel offers grisly clues. It involves promises of a glorious martyrdom, and the threat of being classed among the weak Christians. The one weak Christian who is prominently featured is a constant torment to Rodrigues, and is considered no better than a dog by Christians strong enough for martyrdom. Death cults have no room for such weaklings.
The novel is full of shocking ironies. Apostasy, torture and death follow Sebastian Rodrigues like a plague. To Rodrigues’ surprise, martyrs are not killed as witnesses to Catholic glory. They are instead slaughtered like dogs. The young priest’s fervent prayers are answered in ways familiar to every Christian believer - the sounds of buzzing flies and the lonely wind. Like every Christian believer, Rodrigues can not understand why God is persistently, incessantly silent in the face of such torture. Rodrigues can only imagine the voice of his mocking God in the sound of the ocean waves. He can only see the face of his Jesus in moonlit shadows, like deluded believers today who see the face of Jesus in the crust of a toasted tortilla. There are several powerful sequences in Silence where Rodrigues privately questions the existence of his Deity. I think I understand Rodrigues’ desperation to find his mentor Ferreira. If his mentor has indeed apostatized, if he has renounced his Faith and trampled on the fumie, then there is nothing to reinforce his own wavering faith. The most disturbing irony of all comes late in the book. Rodrigues curses his ignorant and snoring prison guard while he is continually tormented by his absent and silent Deity. As he curses his prison guard … well, you will just have to read the book to discover this terrible irony for yourself!
I definitely recommend this novel for any Christian or sympathetic non-believer. I earlier wrote that I was disappointed a bit with how the Rodrigues must justify reasons for his silent, non-existent Deity. But I think that is my rational mind interrupting, because such justifications are realistic. What else can the devout Christian tormented by the silence of God do?
Thanks again to Lori McFarlane for introducing me to Shusaku Endo. Read Lori’s review of Silence HERE.