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by shūsaku endō
foreword by martin scorsese
picador, 256 pages, $16

a film directed by martin scorsese
paramount, 161 minutes, $19.99

Vincent Shiozuka’s life was a failure. Raised Christian in Japan, he fled to Manila in 1614 to avoid the growing Christian persecution in his native land, only to return in 1636 as a Dominican priest, hoping to preach the Gospel even at the price of martyrdom. He was captured immediately upon his arrival and was sent to Nagasaki to be tortured. Without having preached a single sermon or celebrated a single sacrament for the salvation of his people, he submitted to his interrogators and apostatized.

Stories like this form the backdrop for Shūsaku Endō’s novel Silence, which follows two idealistic Portuguese Jesuits, Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues and Fr. Francisco Garrpe, as they journey to Japan to discover the fate of their former teacher, Fr. Christóvão Ferreira, a celebrated missionary who is rumored to have apostatized. Japan proves to be rather more than they were expecting. After various struggles with the unromantic face of persecution and martyrdom, Garrpe dies trying to save apostate Christians from death, and Rodrigues chooses to apostatize to save others from torture and death, urged on by the apostate Ferreira to this “greatest act of love.”

Written in 1966 and translated into English in 1969, Endō’s novel has returned to prominence thanks to the film adaptation that director Martin Scorsese had been struggling to make for twenty-six years. Yet the novel never left the forefront of the Catholic literary imagination. Graham Greene endorsed the novel, saying, “Endō, to my mind, is one of the finest living novelists,” and from that moment Silence has been firmly ensconced in the Catholic literary canon of the twentieth century, along with the works of Greene himself, Flannery O’Connor, and Walker Percy.

At first it may seem difficult to explain its prestige. In Japanese the novel is clumsy and repetitive, employs distractingly flawed narrative techniques, and even stoops to basic literary gaffes, mixing metaphors to create unappealing descriptions like “a blanket of rain enveloped the whole plain like the strings of a harp.” The English translation makes matters worse, replacing Endō’s few successful figures with the translator’s own awkward inventions. Both in English and Japanese, Endō seems to be out of his depth.

Even so, Endō’s work has a staying power that will be enhanced by Scorsese’s adaptation, which admirably translates Endō’s story to film while avoiding many of its artistic weaknesses. Scorsese concludes his film with a simple message in white text on a black background, “For the Japanese Christians and their pastors,” followed by the Jesuit motto: AMDG, ad maiorem Dei gloriam, for the greater glory of God. Viewers of the movie are left to themselves to discover how this story of faith and betrayal serves that lofty goal. Religious ambiguity, rather than verbal brilliance, is the source of the story’s power.

“Christianity had a foreign scent for me,” wrote Endō, describing his early struggles with the faith his mother baptized him into at age twelve. The Christianity that Fr. Rodrigues, the story’s protagonist, brings with him to Japan is redolent with this foreign scent, mixed with the sickly sweet odor of idealism. His goals are simple, even naive: to discover the status of Ferreira and, in the process, to work for “the conversion of Japan and the glory of God.” The prospect of persecution and martyrdom remains remote—almost unimaginable.

Rodrigues has never met a Japanese person, and is horrified when he finally encounters one in a bar in Macao: the filthy, drunk, deceitful Kichijirō, whom he later discovers to be a Christian apostate who fled Japan in ignominy. He and Garrpe have difficulty reconciling the real existence of a “weak shoot” like Kichijirō with the stories they have heard of the courage of the Japanese in the face of persecution; Garrpe even asks him incredulously, “Are you really a Japanese?” Likewise, when they land in Japan, Rodrigues discovers that he both admires and fears the simplistic faith of the Japanese, and is plagued by the awareness of their miserable food, their lice, and their smell. Knowing that the spirit is willing, he is distressed to find their flesh—and his own—to be weak.

When Rodrigues and Garrpe arrive in Japan in 1639, they have been formed by years of European romanticizing of the Japanese martyrs, found in books like the 1630 volume The Palme of Christian Fortitude, Or, The Glorious Combats of Christians in Iaponia. In these tales, Japanese Catholics die “with their eyes fixed on heauen, inceffantly calling vpon thofe holy names of Iefus and Maria . . . not fo much as fhrinking, or giuing the leaft figne of griefe or paine.” When Alphonsus Liguori wrote his celebrated Victories of the Martyrs one hundred and fifty years later, he included more than a hundred pages about the Japanese martyrs. One speaks of how “Little James, without being frightened by the death of his father, knelt as he had done, kissed the collar of his garment, and received also the death-blow, while he was saying, ‘Jesus, Mary!’” The historical Ferreira, upon whom Endō’s Ferreira is based, wrote similar accounts of the Japanese martyrs, one of which is quoted at the beginning of the novel.

Even when true in their general outline, these accounts make a crucial error. Japanese people are portrayed as somehow spiritually different from Western man, divided sharply into demonic persecutors and angelic martyrs. In portraying Rodrigues’s struggle to reconcile this idealized vision with the concrete reality of the Japanese people, Endō and Scorsese wish us to see the universal experience of human weakness.

The confrontation with weakness shakes Rodrigues. When Christian-hunting government officials first come to the village where he and Garrpe are hiding, he prays that the “terrifying silence” that follows the officials’ interrogation of the gathered villagers would quickly vanish. Later we discover that this silence surrounded the courageous refusal of the villagers to betray each other, their priests, or their faith. Rodrigues thereby finds himself in a strange position, a priest who prays that his people will be less stalwart in trial.

Rodrigues goes farther with his prayers. As persecution intensifies, he urges his people—and later Garrpe—to follow the officials’ orders to apostatize by stepping on a sacred image called a fumie. With this public act, they can save their lives and carry on with a hidden Christianity.

Soon enough, Rodrigues crashes disastrously on the rocky shoals of true martyrdom. Each death he witnesses sickens him with its brutality and unnecessary cruelty. No glorious angels descend from heaven to claim the souls of the victorious dead; the sun does not hide its face from the sight; only grief and death remain. He turns from the true witness of the martyrs’ spiritual strength because he fears and despises the misery it brings about.

He comes to believe that this misery is his fault. After witnessing their first martyrdom, he and Garrpe part ways and go into hiding to prevent further vengeance being wrought on the village that has sheltered them. Rodrigues is rapidly captured and brought to the official leading the persecution, along with several Japanese Christians. There the official asks Rodrigues the question lurking behind his willingness to have the Japanese outwardly apostatize in order to maintain the lives they had before he and Garrpe landed on the island: “How much do you think those people will suffer because of you?”

Endō’s novel and Scorsese’s film are both at their best in portraying Rodrigues’s true spiritual crisis: On the one hand, he wants to believe that his presence in Japan as one of the few remaining priests is an invaluable sign of the unconquerable Gospel, like “a single candle burning in the catacombs.” Alongside this flattering vision, however, he must come to terms with the Japanese officials’ plan to torture and murder Japanese Christians until—and only until—no priests remain. After confronting the ugly reality of martyrdom, he undergoes a moment of deep spiritual purification, asking himself, “What you’ve been wanting, it’s not real, secret martyrdom; it’s a death for glory’s sake, isn’t it? Isn’t it because you want believers to praise you, to pray to you, to say ‘That priest was a saint’?”

In Eliot’s words, he discovers himself willing to commit the “greatest treason / To do the right deed for the wrong reason”—to let others be weak in the spirit so that he can be strong.

After witnessing more brutal deaths—including that of Garrpe, who dies trying to save Christians who are being killed despite having apostatized under torture—Rodrigues at last meets his former teacher, Ferreira. Living under a Japanese name with a Japanese wife and children, he is a broken man who spends his days writing two treatises: one on natural science, and one proving the errors of the Christian teachings.

Having spent twenty years in the country as a missionary, Ferreira has come to the conclusion that “This country is a swamp. . . . Whatever seedlings you plant in it, the roots start to rot. The leaves yellow and wither. We have planted the seedling of Christianity in this swamp.”

Rodrigues rejects but cannot refute this idea. He is locked into the same prison cell in which Ferreira carved a message of Christian hope before his own apostasy: Laudate eum, Praise him. The next night, Rodrigues is disturbed by strange sounds he mistakes for a droning, persistent snoring. Ferreira, coming to him in the darkness, explains that the sounds are the cries of apostate Christians suspended upside down in pits, condemned to remain in agony until Rodrigues himself apostatizes. “Christ would surely have apostatized for them,” Ferreira says. “Christ would have apostatized. Out of love. Even if it meant sacrificing his all.”

Rodrigues is at last overcome. Officials set a sacred image on the ground before him, and he lifts his foot, knowing that what he is doing “is not just for form’s sake,” but a true trampling of everything he has ever known to be beautiful and holy. At that moment, he hears a voice speak to him from the image:

You may step on me. I know the pain in your foot better than anyone. You may step on me. I was born into this world to be stepped on by you. It was to take your pain that I bore the cross.

The real drama of the story’s vision of Christianity begins after Rodrigues’s apostasy. We see him working for the government, inspecting items imported into Japan to discover if Christian goods are being smuggled in among other, secular products. He, too, takes a Japanese name and inherits a wife and child from an executed man. He eventually dies of old age, having submitted periodic disavowals of Christianity and regularly stepping on a holy image throughout his life to guarantee his continued apostasy.

Unlike Ferreira, however, he is not presented as a tragic failure, but as a man who shares in the true nature of Christ. “What defeated me,” he tells his interrogator in a later vignette, “were the Christian teachings in my own heart.” In the closing lines of the novel, Rodrigues says, “Everything that has happened up to today was necessary for me to know that love. Even now I am the last Christian priest in this country. So Christ has not been silent. And even if he had been silent, my whole life till now would have spoken of him.”

What vision of Christianity does this leave us with? After being purified of his initial romanticism and discovering the vanity of his own spiritual pride, Rodrigues realizes a religion of pure spirit, where the actions of the body are essentially unrelated to the convictions of the inner man. He can publicly renounce the name of Jesus and trample on his image without in any way harming his relationship with Christ. This is because that relationship is a purely spiritual one, forged by the union of Rodrigues’s own weakness and the limitless weakness of Christ. Still more, Rodrigues actually deepens his relationship with Christ by denying and betraying the one who came into the world to be denied and betrayed.

Only by rejecting Christ from his heart is Rodrigues able to be a true priest for the Japanese Christians, enabling their union with God by his own acceptance of humiliation and self-emptying. His former interrogator makes the point clear: Now that the last priest in Japan is a public apostate, persecution has ceased, and the remaining Japanese Christians are free to live their hidden lives in peace. Again we are presented with a paradox: Betraying his priesthood sets him free to be a priest, and rejecting Christ sets him free to accept him. Scorsese adds a final touch to make the point clear, having Rodrigues’s wife slip a small crucifix into his corpse’s hand, immediately before he is taken to be cremated. Here is the true Christian: one who has the courage not to speak of Christ.

In a postscript to the novel, Endō acknowledges that “some people think Rodrigues’ final beliefs are close to Protestantism,” but says this simply reflects his own thought and can’t be helped. Later, he revised this position: “to tell the truth, I feel that in these words is to be found a kind of reconciliation of Catholicism and Jōdo-shū [Pure Land] Buddhism.”

The latter is closer to the truth, both in Endō’s and in Scorsese’s version. The story leaves us with a new form of Christianity, ostensibly born from the “swamp” of Japan, but actually born in the deserts of the ancient Near East: Gnosticism. The real heart of Christianity, we discover, is the knowledge of the weakness of God, which is experienced as a purely interior union. For those who are less initiated, like the poor Japanese Christians, a religion of outward practices is permissible, but that too tends of its nature towards an ever less visible and more spiritual mode of being. The spirit is in fact the only thing that matters; the particular actions of the body and forms of worship are only more or less useful tools to discover the true life of the spirit, and once that is found they can—and should—be cast aside. Endō leaves us with a vision of Christianity that embraces the Spirit of Christ at the cost of his Body. Christ is no longer the God who took on human flesh that he might be scourged and scorned, and so bring the body into glory. He is a disincarnate Christ who cannot be trampled.

Vincent Shiozuka, that great failure who represents a group of people Endō excludes from his narrative—native Japanese priests—discovered a different way of realizing a place in Catholicism’s symphony for weak men and women, Japanese and European alike. After his apostasy, he was thrown back in prison with priests who had been captured with him. They stayed up all night nursing his wounds, encouraging him, praying with him, and eventually hearing his confession. In the morning, he presented himself to the guards as a Christian and was murdered. Filled with the Spirit of Christ, he bore the wounds of his savior on his own body.

Gabriel Torretta, O.P., is a friar of the Dominican Province of St. Joseph.