A Novel by
In your back-story I would guess there are some traumatic images you would like to un-see and some painful words you would prefer to un-hear. Do you also have in your memory a troubling book you wish you could un-read? For years, Silence by Shusaku Endo, fell into that category for me. A historical novel considered to be a masterpiece and a classic of literature, this brilliant and disturbing book gives, through the fictional character of Jesuit priest Father Sebastian Rodrigues, a distilled version of the ordeal of faith endured by Japanese Catholics and Jesuit missionaries at the end of the Christian Century in Japan (1550 – 1650). Author Endo converted to Catholicism at age eleven under the guidance of his mother and aunt and remained a Catholic his entire life, although not without tremendous emotional and spiritual battles.
In Silence, Endo explores, through the protagonist, the great, and sometimes unfulfilled, desire of believers to receive encouragement from God in seasons of hardship, and he especially laments over God’s silence during times of persecution. In this story about a devout Catholic priest, one who lives with marginal success, betrayal, fear, and failure, Endo portrays Father Rodrigues as though he were balancing on a treacherous tightrope suspended between heaven and hell. After many perilous events, Endo finally brings Father Rodrigues into a seemingly impossible dilemma of faith, one that demands a harrowing decision on the part of the priest.
In the “Translator’s Preface” to Silence, William Johnston gives the reader a helpful short history of the setting of Silence, which takes place in what is sometimes called the Christian Century in Japan: “Christianity was brought to Japan by the Basque Francis Xavier, who stepped ashore at Kagoshima in the year 1549 with two Jesuit companions and a Japanese interpreter.” Johnston states that Xavier didn’t stay long, but his mission bore great fruit, and there were soon 150,000 Japanese Christians in the area of Nagasaki.
Johnston writes that the missionaries, from 1570 to 1614, enjoyed a privileged position in the Japanese court, but around 1587 things started to change. By virtue of an edict of a Japanese lord in 1597, Christianity was forbidden and the public execution of Christians began.
In 1614, when it was seen that the public martyrdom of Japanese Christians had failed to destroy the Christian faith, Japanese shogun Tokugawa Bakufu established a horrific system of torture that was designed to make Christians apostatize. Soon this torture/apostasy structure became the most effective method of discouraging the spread of Christianity. There were about 300,000 Christians in Japan at the time. Johnston says, “From the beginning of the mission until the year 1632, in spite of crucifixions, burnings, water-torture and the rest, no missionary had apostatized. But such a record could not last; and finally the blow fell. Cristovao Ferreira, the Portuguese Provincial, after six hours of agony…gave the signal of apostasy.”
It is important to the plot of the story to know that the final action of apostasy called for by the Japanese authorities was for the Christians to step on a fumi-e. A fumi-e was a work of art, often a framed bronze relief, that depicted a holy image such as Jesus on the cross. The image, or fumi-e, was placed on the ground and the apostates would dishonor Christ by placing a foot on the art work in the presence of authorities. This symbolized complete disregard for the Lord and an authentic turning away from Christianity; therefore the life of the apostate would be spared. Father Ferreira, Rodrigues’ former mentor and teacher, was compelled to step on a fumi-e, as were all the others who apostatized during this time.
Endo begins the story of Father Sebastian Rodrigues (based on the historical figure of Father Giuseppe Chiara,) the main character in Silence, during these days of terror in the Christian Century in Japan. As the narrative commences, two young, idealistic Jesuit priests are shocked to learn that their former instructor, Father Ferreira (based on the historical figure of Father Cristovao Ferreira,) had apostatized. The young priests then begin to petition for permission from their superiors to leave their monastery in Portugal to serve in Japan and to find Father Ferreira, with whom the monastery had lost contact. The priests are eventually permitted to go to Japan.
As soon as Father Rodrigues and his traveling companion, Father Garrpe, enter Japan their trials begin. Endo describes their situation with stark clarity and directness. Here is part of a letter Rodrigues writes about the conditions that existed in the hut where the priests lived: “Rain again today. Garrpe and I are lying in the darkness on the straw that serves us for a bed. Tiny little lice are crawling over my neck and back so that sleep is out of the question. Japanese lice keep quiet during the day, but at night they walk all over our bodies — brazen, unmannerly wretches!”
The idea of God’s silence is one focus of the book, and there are several instances when we see Rodrigues struggling to understand why God is silent. Rodrigues constantly beseeches God for help to endure his trials, but he rarely has the impression that God hears his prayers. Rodrigues also suffers from frequent periods of isolation and faces the problems of learning a new language in a foreign land; these become another type of silence. Endo contrasts this silence with sounds of nature — rain, the sea, and especially the chirring of the cicada.
Another trial that Rodrigues faces is the fear that there is no God. This thought haunts him in particular after he has witnessed the martyrdom of two members of his clandestine church: “In the woods a cicada was singing hoarsely. Everywhere else was silent…Supposing God does not exist?… I ran, slipping down the slope. Whenever I slowed down the ugly thought would come bubbling up into consciousness bringing an awful dread. If I consented to this thought, then my whole past to this very day was washed away in silence.”
Father Rodrigues continues his ministry to the Japanese Christians until he himself is taken prisoner, faces torture and must choose whether he will apostatize or not.
As I mentioned above, for many years Silence remained a troubling book for me, but a recently published volume by world renowned visual artist and Japanese-American Christian, Makoto Fujimura has changed my thinking. Silence and Beauty is Fujimura’s thorough and helpful response to Endo’s Silence, and I hope to review it here soon. In the meantime, here are some good reasons to read Silence – even if it is disturbing.
1.It is a superb, powerful, and time-transcending volume about Christianity and Japan. Today less than 1% of Japan’s population is Christian, and Silence can help us to understand why this is so.
- The questions that Endo addresses in Silence through the character of Father Rodrigues are pertinent not only to Rodrigues’ situation in the book, but to Christians anywhere in the world who struggle with God’s silence during times of trouble or persecution.
- Film director Martin Scorsese plans to release a movie by the same name in 2016, and has written a forward for the 2016 re-printing of Silence published by Picador Modern Classics. (Silence was originally published in 1969 by Monumenta Nipponica.)
- God’s love is inexplicable. Shusaku Endo’s writing has been compared to that of English, Catholic novelist Graham Greene; Greene wrote this: “You can’t conceive, my child, nor can I, nor can anyone, the appalling strangeness of the mercy of God.” Silence is, without a doubt, a consummate example of Greene’s statement.