I had long read about martyrdom in the lives of the saints—how the souls of the martyrs had gone home to Heaven, how they had been filled with glory in Paradise, how the angels had blown trumpets. This was the splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams. But the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! – Silence, Shūsaku Endō
Lent is a time for silence, and part of the Lenten challenge is to have a plan for how to deal with spiritual silence without excuses. The celebrated 1966 novel Silence, by Shusaku Endō, may be a source Catholics turn to for inspiration during this Lent in particular, as many are beginning to feel the prick—or perhaps the paranoia—of persecution as the secular pressure on society tightens with threats to religious freedoms in the name of civil freedoms. We are living in tense and troubled times, no doubt, and we may well prepare for persecution, or even martyrdom in some form. And while Endō’s Silence may seem like a fitting work for those sojourning through the silence of Lent and the ominous silence of a creeping totalitarianism, be wary. Endō’s painful and punishing book wrestles with God with a robustness that can be reckless.
Silence is a work of historical fiction about the brutal persecution and martyrdom of Christians and Jesuit missionaries in seventeenth century Japan. It is a dangerous book because it dwells upon dangerous states of soul locked in a conundrum of Catholicism. A convert who was concerned with the cultural clash between West and East, Shusaku Endō tells of two young Portuguese missionary priests who travel clandestinely to Japan to find their old mentor—who has reportedly apostatized under torture—and to bolster the spirits of the poor Japanese Christians living in secret under the hostile magistrates. The conflict of the novel arises quickly and purposefully, like a handgrip on the throat.
Though valiant in many ways, the protagonist is a priest who does not understand the truth of suffering or the meaning of martyrdom—he does not know the face of Truth. As readers follow him through hiding, capture, and torture, they are forced with him to an unimaginable crisis point where he must make an unimaginable decision. He stands collapsing and convulsing over a sunken, exhausted image of Christ with orders to trample on the face ringing in his ears together with the groans of Christians hung by their feet bleeding through incisions behind their ears. Only his foot, his apostasy, can end it all.
What would God want? What would He say? Why is He silent?
Throughout these ordeals, both physical and psychological, the priest voices the doubts, fears, and frustrations of those who struggle with the Catholic Faith. Silence batters at the gates of heaven with both complaint and criticism as both priest and author wrangle with the problem of evil, of suffering, of martyrdom, and the ostensible silence of God through it all. The priest longs for glory when there is only grime. He longs for praise when there is only pain. He longs to be a hero, he longs to be like Christ, when he is only weak and pathetic. He longs for divine support, but there is only silence—silence through atrocious human suffering. The great and grim silence of a great and grim God, a God Who is unmoved while men cry in anguish. A God as impassive as the samurai. Though Christ is shown ultimately to be a sharer in human suffering, he seems to consent to or command what Christ would never consent to or command. Silence is a powerful story with an unsettling message.
The reason for this, and also the reason the novel is undermining Lenten material, is that Silence presents a fundamental misunderstanding of God and of human suffering and sacrifice which foments a type of persecution complex. It is a sad story that depicts the human race as wretched, priests as isolated, and missionary work as disillusioning and dissatisfying. Silence is a book that does not trust God, even though it longs to. This mentality of desiring some form of affirmation from God fans the flames of resentment and bitterness, especially when it is vigorously presented in the context of terrible trial and tribulation.
The pity and sympathy felt for the missionaries is overwhelming—but they are not vindications to put the Lord to the test, as Endō does. In this way, Silence pits charity against faith and hope, introducing division where we must all strive for unity. It makes apostasy seem a reasonable and even righteous option to prevent suffering. It invites, it even tempts, the acceptance that ends justify means and that man can make decisions that God refuses to make. God’s allowance is not His will, however, and just because one disagrees with what God permits, it is never permissible to assume the role of God when He does not act according to hope.
Silence plays into the relativism that is rampant in our day and age and gaining even more ground in the raging arguments over abortion, vaccinations, LGBTQ rights, religious convictions and practices, political machinations, and unreasonable laws that may be amounting to a soft tyranny. The novel concludes with a subjective interpretation of divine duty. When the priest realizes that he is not resilient enough to be like Christ, he chooses to become like Judas. When he looks on the face of Christ and fails to recognize him, the priest succumbs to betrayal, and it is then that the silence is broken—by the sound of a cock crowing.
Silence represents a persuasive pessimism as it misrepresents the Catholic Faith, a stumbling block we should flee from when the path is already beset with quite enough snares. Lent is a time to regain the hard-nosed optimism of the Resurrection—not to wring our hands in despair over the fall of man, or that suffering is all God’s fault, that humanity is barely worth saving, that Christianity is incompatible with happiness, or that God is cold and silent while mankind writhes and wails, “There is a limit to our endurance. Give us no more suffering… Lord, why are you silent? Why are you always silent…?”
God is not in the wind, or the earthquake, nor the fire. The still small voice is God’s, and it is not one to break the silence. Without silence, there would be no occasion for faith, and it is in the Lenten silence, in the wintry darkness, that Christians must go gaily and rejoicing. The silence of God is essential to faith; it is not an argument against faith, though Silence uses it to make eloquent argument. Silence is laced with a skepticism that should warn.
Endō may hunger for truth as a writer and as a man of faith, but if he has decided that Silence tells the truth, his book will do more to demoralize and devastate than enlighten and encourage. Though Endō attempts to offer a redemptive crumb, Silence rationalizes and makes excuse rather than standing firm in the Faith. There is enough relativism tearing at the Church today. Catholics are under persecution and Endō’s Silence could prove a further push towards a growing apostasy. Be wary.
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!