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In Shusaku Endo’s Silence, Rodrigues’s devotion to the face of Christ becomes the key to understanding his particular path to Calvary….

“Born into the world to render service to mankind, there is no one more wretchedly alone than the priest who does not measure up to his task… Yet God bestows upon man a better fate than human knowledge could possibly think of or devise.” —Rodrigues, Silence

Silence by Shusaku Endo (Tuttle Publishing, 1969)

silenceNovelist Shusaku Endo has been called a “Japanese Graham Greene” because his writings grapple with the darkest tangles of human weakness and the reprieve of divine grace. But Mr. Endo wrote from a rare perspective—that of a Japanese Catholic in a culture that maintained a centuries-long stringent persecution of Christianity.

Mr. Endo’s work has recently garnered renewed attention with Hollywood big-wig Martin Scorsese’s adaptation of his most famous novel, Silence. Yet the book, alternately revered and reviled by Mr. Endo’s critics, is too beautiful and complicated a work of art to be seen merely through Mr. Scorsese’s lens. Mr. Endo’s Silence deserves undivided attention of its own.

Silence traces, via a deeply introspective narrative, the sufferings of a Jesuit missionary of fervent and resolute faith, Rodrigues, who sneaks into Japan during the harshest attempt by Japanese authorities to stamp out all public vestiges of Christianity. With grim realism and authentic spiritual insight, Mr. Endo crafts Rodrigues’ journey of ministry to the brutally impoverished Christian Japanese peasants, through his capture and imprisonment, to his ultimate trial of having to choose between the torture of the faithful or his own public apostasy.

Rodrigues is tortured interiorly by the seeming silence of God in the face of such terrible suffering.  Yet, in Scripture there is one time when the Lord is silent: in His passion. The silence of God that so hurts and perplexes Rodrigues is the silence of the suffering Christ on the cross, who bears the weight of human sin without complaint, even when challenged to prove His power by coming down. “Stop! Stop! Lord,” prays Rodrigues in the height of his spiritual agony, “it is now that you should break the silence. You must not remain silent. Prove that you are justice, that you are goodness, that you are love. You must say something to show the world that you are the august one.” Ultimately, Rodrigues confesses, “Lord, I resented your silence.” “I was not silent,” comes the reply, “I suffered beside you.”

The events of Christ’s Passion and Death play a defining role in Mr. Endo’s narrative, reflecting and paralleling the suffering of the Jesuit padre. Rodrigues sees his betrayer, the cowardly drunkard Kichijiro, as his personal Judas. In a special way, Rodrigues’s devotion to the face of Christ becomes the key to understanding his particular path to Calvary. He envisions and adores the face of Christ often during his time in hiding, imprisonment, and psychological torture by his captors.

Behind his closed eyelids he would pass through every scene in the life of Christ. From childhood the face of Christ had been for him the fulfillment of his every dream and ideal.… Even in its moments of terrible torture this face had never lost its beauty. Those soft, clear eyes which pierced to the very core of a man’s being were now fixed upon him. The face that could do no wrong, utter no word of insult….

Yet, eventually, it is in communion with the downtrodden face of Christ that he must find his vocation. Faced with an abominable decision—to be faithful at the price of the extensive suffering of his flock—Rodrigues caves and, with deep pain, tramples when commanded on the fumie, an image of the face of Christ used by Japanese officials to weed out faithful Christians.

In this decision, the face of Christ becomes for the missionary both companion and mirror—the face of His beloved and the incarnation of his own fate. Reflecting on the fumie: “It was a not a Christ whose face was filled with majesty and glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by endurance of pain; nor was it a face filled with the strength of a will that has repelled temptation. The face of the man who then lay at his feet was sunken and utterly exhausted…. It was this concave face that had looked at the priest in sorrow. In sorrow, it had gazed up at him as the eyes spoke appealingly: ‘Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.’”

The physical and psychological torture that Rodrigues endures mitigates to some degree the outright sin of a public denial of Christ. But Rodrigues’ real martyrdom, his real priesthood, comes in a life lived under the stigma and humiliation of apostasy—to live in virtual anonymity as an unremarkable Japanese citizen, for the remainder of his years, publicly considered an apostate, under guard in Nagasaki.

The “wretched loneliness” of his failed priestly mission, even as his priestly fidelity continues in secret, is his unique sanctification. His role in the body of Christ is to bear the shame, the humiliation of those souls not strong enough for martyrdom. God permits his succumbing to public (though not interior) apostasy, in order that, by falling in the public estimation to the lowest place, the place of a betrayer of Christ, he may truly be compassionate to the sinners in that very place.

Before this trial, he was unable to look with compassion on his betrayer, the apostate drunkard Kichijiro: “Our Lord had searched out the ragged and the dirty… people with no attraction, no beauty.… True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters. Theoretically the priest knew all this; but still he could not forgive Kichijiro. Once again near his face came the face of Christ, wet with tears. When the gentle eyes looked straight into his, the priest was filled with shame.”

After Rodrigues’s public apostasy, he is stripped of any cause for pride, so that he may regard Kichijiro not merely as his personal Judas, but as a brother. When Rodrigues suffers the silent ignominy of knowing he has trampled on the face of the one he loves, he can treat Kichijiro as an equal, not with contempt, and love him as Christ loved all sinners. As Rodrigues reflects afterward: “I fell. But Lord, you alone know that I did not renounce my faith…. I am not concealing my weakness. I wonder if there is any difference between Kichijiro and myself.”

Rodrigues merits neither a glorious martyrdom nor a legacy of evangelization. His singular vocation is a total decreasing so that Christ may increase—becoming so small in the eyes of other Christians that he can come to true communion with and love for Christ hidden in the disguise of the very “least” of the faithful—in fact, those who are the very least faithful. He measures out a life of effacement, heaped with “every kind of insult,” shame, and abuse. Like the Japanese Christians who kept the forbidden faith in secret for centuries, Rodrigues’s martyrdom is a life of silence.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Endo’s is a fascinating and challenging story, and this is a helpful essay that offers much food for thought. I’m not sure what to make of Silence, I admit. How, for instance, might we resolve Rodrigues’s public apostasy with the words of the Lord Jesus Christ: “So have no fear of them, for nothing is covered that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. What I tell you in the dark, say in the light, and what you hear whispered, proclaim on the housetops. And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows. So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven.” The stress put on public confession of faith and the severe warning against the public denial of Jesus Christ is given here in the context of the extreme danger that such a confession will entail. And, yet, Christ admonishes us to hold life cheap, knowing that our Father oversees all and rewards faithfulness. This seems at odds with the words supposed to be Christ’s which call Rodrigues to trample on the fumie and deny him and his faith.

    • That’s easy to say when you’re not being tortured. Remember – even Peter denied Jesus three times, mainly because he was afraid.

      • Of course it is, but it also doesn’t address the real point. More, there’s a long, bloody line of martyrs who refused to deny their Lord whatsoever torture and death they faced. To your example: Jesus didn’t say to Peter, “To be denied by you is why I came”, and, in fact, we see Peter grievously repent of that sin. The difficulty I find in Silence is precisely that the voice of Christ in the fumie sanctions (if not commands) Rodrigues to do something that seems an incredibly serious sin given the biblical testimony.

  2. I’m just finishing Makoto Fujimura’s book, Silence and Beauty, which is an extended commentary on Endo’s book and Christianity in Japanese culture. I can very warmly recommend it.
    From a faith perspective, Endo’s Silence is a difficult and challenging book, but Fujimura is uniquely placed to serve as a guide for it.

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