I have been profoundly moved by Shusaku Endo’s Silence, recommended to me by Sarah Fisher in my book discussion group. The novel is about Christian missionaries traveling to 17th century Japan at a time when Christians were tortured and killed if they were discovered. The “silence” in the title is the seeming silence of God, at least as experienced by Father Rodriguez, the young and idealistic Portuguese missionary.
Rodriguez sneaks into Japan thrilled by tales of heroic martyrdom. As he witnesses the suffering of the Christian converts, however, he begins to doubt God’s existence. For instance, we see these doubts after he watches three peasants get tied to stakes in the ocean and battered to death by the waves:
The sound of those waves that echoed in the dark like a muffled drum; the sound of those waves all night long, as they broke meaninglessly, receded, and then broke again on the shore. This was the sea that relentlessly washed the dead bodies of Mokichi and Ichizo, the sea that swallowed them up, the sea that, after their death, stretched out endlessly with unchanging expressions. And like the sea God was silent. His silence continued.
No, no! I shook my head. If God does not exist, how can man endure the monotony of the sea and its cruel lack of emotion? (But supposing…of course, supposing, I mean.) From the deepest core of my being yet another voice made itself heard in a whisper. Supposing God does not exist….
This was a frightening fancy. If he does not exist, how absurd the whole thing becomes. What an absurd drama become the lives of Mokichi and Ichizo, bound to the stake and washed by the waves. And the missionaries who spent three years crossing the sea to arrive at this country—what an illusion was theirs. Myself, too, wandering here over the desolate mountains—what an absurd situation! Plucking the grass as I went along I chewed it with my teeth, suppressing these thoughts that rose nauseatingly in my throat. I knew well, of course, that the greatest sin against God was despair; but the silence of God was something I could not fathom. “The Lord preserved the just man when godless folk were perishing all around him. Escape he should when fire came down upon the Cities of the Plain.” Yet now, when the barren land was already emitting smoke while the fruit on the trees was still unripe, surely he should speak but a word for the Christians.
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.
Rodriguez becomes particularly disturbed when he hears that his model, Father Ferreira, has “apostatized,” which is to say, publicly renounced his faith. To be sure, he might have done so because of the various tortures that are meted out, including being doused with boiling water or getting hung upside down over a pit. When Rodriguez finally meets Ferreira, however, he learns that he has apostatized of his own free will.
Except not entirely. The Japanese authorities have set it up so that Japanese Christians, even if they have apostatized, will continue to be tortured if the missionaries refuse to do so themselves. Neither Ferreira nor Rodriguez can bear that responsibility. Rodriguez even recognizes that he has been guilty of a kind of pride in his feelings of superiority. He finally agrees to trample upon the cross or “fumie”—the action the symbolizes apostatizing—because he hears his savior calling upon him to do so:
The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into the world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.
The cock crowing, of course, is a reference to Peter’s betrayal. Rodriguez has previously failed to acknowledge that we are all Peters at one time or another. This realization leads him to forgive a Judas figure, the lapsed Christian who has betrayed him. His revulsion for this character throughout the novel finally has to give way to recognition of their common humanity.
The priest knows that he will be condemned by the Catholic Church for his apostasy. Nor is he ever entirely sure if his actions were selfless or selfish. For instance, here he is imagining himself defending himself before the church authorities:
“What do you understand? You Superiors in Macao, you in Europe!” He wanted to stand face to face with them in the darkness and speak in his own defense. “You live a carefree life in tranquility and security, in a place where there is no storm and no torture—it is there that you carry on your apostolate. There you are esteemed as great ministers of God. You send out soldiers into the raging turmoil of the battlefield. But generals who warm themselves by the fire in a tent should not reproach the soldiers that are taken prisoner…” (But no, this is only my self-justification. I’m deceiving myself.) The priest shook his head weakly. (Why even now am I attempting this ugly self-defense?)
I fell. But, Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith. The clergy will ask themselves why I fell. Was it because the torture of the pit was unendurable? Yes. I could not endure that moaning of those peasants suspended in the pit. As Ferreira spoke to me his tempting words, I thought that if I apostatized those miserable peasants would be saved. Yes, that was it. And yet, in the last analysis, I wonder if all this talk about love is not, after all, just an excuse to justify my own weakness.
I acknowledge this. I am not concealing my weakness. I wonder if there is any difference between Kichijiro [the Judas figure] and myself. And yet, rather than this I know that my Lord is different from the God that is preached in the churches.
Endo doesn’t allow for any tidy conclusions. His novel captures the full complexity of our suffering humanity.