Evil Silence and Holy Silence

At the recommendation of my friend Gary Potter, I am reading — very slowly — Robert Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence. The book is as Gary describes it in his short piece on our website, and I will say a bit on it a few paragraphs down.

As I was reading Cardinal Sarah’s book, the thought struck me that his encomium to holy silence might be juxtaposed with another recent work with the word “silence” in the title. I refer to the film by Martin Scorsese, Silence. The film was praised by the celebrated LGBTQ-advocate, James Martin, who served as Scorsese’s advisor on things Jesuit.

I have never seen the film, and do not plan on doing so. However, I have read the book upon which it was based, by the Japanese Catholic novelist, Shūsaku Endō. The book is a masterpiece of prose, even in translation. The writing is compelling, credible, and gripping. It is also the single most disturbing book I have ever read in my life. That, for the simple reason that the reader is artfully secreted into the mind of a man — a priest and a missionary — who is brought to the very precipice of apostasy by means of a cruel yet refined psychological torture.

The action of the book, which is based upon real events, takes place after the times of most of the Japanese martyrs (e.g, Saints Paul Miki, James Kisai and John de Goto; Saint Philip of Jesus). As Wikipedia notes, “The story is set in the time of Kakure Kirishitan (“Hidden Christians”), following the suppression of the Shimabara Rebellion (1637–1638) of Japanese Roman Catholics against the Tokugawa shogunate.” By this time, the feudal lords of Japan have realized that mass martyrdoms were only helping the cause of the Church in their country. As a result, they settled upon a policy that was diabolically clever.

Instead of martyring the missionaries and their converts, the stratagem is altered to torturing — to death — only the converts, even if they have apostatized, all in the sight of the missionaries, who are informed that they can save their Japanese children by personally committing apostasy. The way that they would show their apostasy is by stepping on a crudely carved image of Christ (with or without the Blessed Virgin), called a fumi-e.

The torture to which the converts are put is truly horrific. With small slits cut behind their ears, they are suspended upside-down over a pit reeking of its fetid contents of rotting flesh and excrement. They slowly bleed to death in a terribly painful way, due to the gruesome circulatory effects caused by the smallness of the slit.

The eponymous “silence” that Endō writes of so disturbingly is the silence of God amid the trials and spiritual agony of the book’s protagonist, Father Sebastião Rodrigues, S.J. It is not a holy silence; it is the missionary’s feeling of utter abandonment by God.

Did I mention that this is the single most disturbing book I have ever read in my life?

In a remarkably sympathetic and incisive commentary on the book (and the film) Lieutenant Geoff Jablonski, writing for the Lepanto Institute, tries his best to hold up whatever elements in both are salvageable. However, he agrees with other Catholic commentators — e.g., John Paul Meehan in Martyrs Know Apostasy Can Not Be Justified — that apostasy can never be justified under any circumstances. Alarmingly, some so-called conservative Catholics were perfectly willing to justify apostasy (or apparent apostasy) in the comments section of Prof. Meehan’s article, where your humble servant found himself in a bit of a dustup last year. In these days of sentimental theology, what should one expect?

The subsequent history of those priests whom we learn have stepped on the fumi-e are no more heroic than their act of external apostasy. For they go on to live respectable lives in Japan (they are forbidden to leave), take Japanese wives, and work against the interests of Christianity in the land they had formerly worked to evangelize. In other words, this is real apostasy, not merely a dissimulation. Scorsese apparently parted from the book in this regard by giving the film a clever surprise ending; but, as Geoff Jablonski points out, this is still not morally satisfactory.

There is Catholic heroism in the book, and one of the missionaries dies in an attempt to save his spiritual children who are being drowned to death. In his admirable attempt at reading lessons of genuine Catholic spirituality into Endō’s work, Lieutenant Jablonski contrasts the heroism and spiritual solidity of this missionary with the prideful self-reliance of Father Rodrigues, whose behavior is considerably less than heroic. How accurate this reading is to Endō’s intention nobody can say, since Endō (who is a great artist) is himself quite silent on the matter.

In the end, whether the evil silence is the fault of Father Sebastião Rodrigues, the character, or Shūsaku Endō, the writer, the silence — and then the shockingly blasphemous breaking of the silence — is not holy; it is evil. It is a silence that drives a man to apostasy. It is a silence that leads him to imagine (or hear, if Endō is to blame) Christ granting permission for apostasy. A triumph of existentialist morality!

A holy silence is one that draws close to God. More to the point, it is one that envelopes us in God. It renders His presence, as it were, tangible. Such a silence is informed by, and, in turn, strengthens, the theological and moral virtues. It is a silence that is not solipsistic, narcissistic, indulgent, or even selfish in the least. It is a silence that is ascetical and attentive to God, without the prideful presumption that God is obliged to “speak” to the soul — not, at least, in an audible or extraordinary way. Such silence is described ably by Robert Cardinal Sarah, on page sixty-one of The Power of Silence:

Silence, man’s effort, runs alongside hope, the theological virtue. In reality, the divine power of the theological virtue lifts and directs the human and ascetical impact of silence. Then a second [virtue, this one a] moral virtue appears: fortitude. Its function is to remove the obstacle that prevents the will from obeying reason. Fortitude is active and takes the offensive. The thing is to apply oneself to cultivating this virtue, which drives back all that could prevent man from living in dependence on God. Silence and hope are two conditions allowing fortitude to find its nourishment.

Through this asceticism of silence, how can we not understand and appreciate better the lights offered by these different Bible verses? “When words are many, transgression is not lacking” (Prov 10:19). “He who guards his mouth preserves his life; he who opens wide his lips comes to ruin” (Prov 13:3). “Whoever uses too many words will be loathed” (Sir [Ecclus] 20:8). “I tell you, on the day of judgment men will render account for every careless word they utter” (Mt 12:36). “Make balances and scales for your words, and make a door and a bolt for your mouth. Beware lest you err with your tongue, lest you fall before him who lies in wait” (Sir 28:25-26 [Ecclus 28:29-30]).

May we all progress in the cultivation of holy silence.