Toward the end of the movie, The Grey, Liam Neeson’s character—on the run from wolves in Alaska following a plane crash—cries out to the heavens. He asks God to show himself. The response? Silence. Gray sky. Black treetops. “Fine,” says Neeson’s character, “I’ll do it myself.”
In fact, if our movies and literature have been asking any question about God in the past 100 years, it’s this question: Where are you? Ours has long been an age marked by doubt, and from Hemingway to Ingmar Bergman to The Grey any possible conception of God is accompanied by the opposite: the possibility that there is no God, that nothing will change, that faith is a farce.
While we’re familiar with the Western concept of doubt, the Eastern is another matter. For all the popularity of yoga and gurus in America, we’re naïve about much of the Eastern mindset. Sure, your doctor hails from India and you’ve watched some Chinese films (great martial arts), but Eastern values are largely swallowed by pragmatism and capitalism on their way across the Pacific.
Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence (first published in 1966 in Japan), offers a first point of remedy. Endo, a Japanese Catholic, represents the intersection of east and west. And his novel traces the story of the beginning of the intersection, in 17th century Japan. There, Christianity has been sown by Francis Xavier, and Portuguese priests have seen hundreds of thousands of Japanese convert. Yet, encouraged in part by fears of a Portuguese invasion, authorities in Japan began to persecute Christians—first in the 16th century, and then systematically in the 17th. Following a 1638 rebellion, Christianity went completely underground.
But there were reports. Missives. Stories told in Macao. All Japanese were tested by their willingness to trample on a fumie—a crude representation of Christ. And one priest, Father Ferreira, famously apostatized after being tortured.
Into this historically-accurate world sail the fictional Fathers Rodrigues and Garrpe. From the opening sentence of the book, “News reached the church in Rome” (a strange way, one might note, to begin a book entitled Silence), we see the gradual shift from West to East, from a land of concrete, black and white answers to a land of grayness and silence.
The astute reader can see, from the opening paragraphs that tell of Father Ferreira’s apostasy, and from the title of the novel, that we’re hurtling toward a story of ambiguity, a story of that values questions over answers—a story of silence.
And the idea of silence permeates the entire book. The word itself appears on almost every page, whether a character falls silent or the priest is surrounded by quietness. Even in Macao, before embarking to Japan, Rodrigues writes in his letter: “On the wall is a great cockroach. Its rasping noise breaks the solemn silence of the night.” It won’t be the last time Rodrigues faces silence at night, or the last time the rasp of an insect is the only noise.
But before we turn to insects, let us turn to Kichijiro. The drunken Japanese peasant leads the missionaries into the forbidden land. They hide in a hut outside a village, ministering to the locals. But somehow the Japanese officials get wind of what’s going on: the missionaries split from each other and go on the run. The narrative follows Rodrigues, who meets up with Kichijiro. The peasant feeds him heavily-salted fish; when Kichijiro goes to get water for the priest, he comes back with the authorities.
It’s here the novel changes narrators. No longer told by Rodrigues’ personal letters, Endo choose a third-person narrator, showing us Rodrigues taken to prison to be judged and persecuted for his faith. Yet, the priest begins a sort of conversion in prison. He reflects on the sound of the guards laughing outside:
“Sin, he reflected, is not what it is usually thought to be; it is not to steal and tell lies. Sin is for one man to walk brutally over the life of another and to be quite oblivious of the wounds he has left behind. And then for the first time a real prayer rose up in his heart.”
According to this definition, Rodrigues sins, however, not long after. His interpreter comes in and they spar in a battle of theologies. At the end, Rodrigues wins with wordplay. The interpreter “was lost for words and reduced to silence.” In the distance, a cock crew.
Yet, we’re also left with this troubling phrase: for the first time a real prayer rose up in his heart. For Endo to write this about a priest in prison for his faith is a subversive move: he alludes to the idea that Rodrigues does not have real faith before this; it’s only through suffering and trial that his faith becomes real.
And, if Endo is saying this, we must ask: is this true of everyone? Or is it only a fictional truth, convenient for the narrative?
The trials for Rodrigues will only grow more intense. A man who often imagines the face of Christ—the serene, peaceful, beautiful face that gives him strength—is eventually presented with the fumie. He’s give a crude representation of a peasant Christ, a person looking dumb and foolish, and told to trample it. At the novel’s climax, tempted by Ferreira, Rodrigues stands before this face. “Trample!” he imagines it saying to him.
God, for Rodrigues, finally is not silent.
It’s as if, and the novel attests to it, God had been there all along. In the quiet and silence of the prison, only the sound of cicadas and cockroaches and flies: God is even there. In the nameless faces of the people as Rodrigues is paraded past them before his final persecution: they are like flies, and even God is there.
We must find God, says Endo, in the silence, in the suffering, in the trial; or we will never find God. The dogmatic, positive theology of the West must find common ground with the apophatic and paradoxical theology of the East.
His novel is true for our age, an age which has pushed God to the periphery in art, cinema, music. Yet, songs and movies and books are still haunted by the idea of God, by the possibility of God. Except, we have all found God to be the same, whether Hemingway or Liam Neeson: eerily silent.
The French mystic Simone Weil tells a parable I’ll embellish: A prisoner is alone in a cell. In solitary. After months of imprisonment, he finally cries out and slams his hands against the wall. He cannot take the suffering any longer. In the moments that follow, his hands bloody from the rough stone, slouched against the wall and breathing heavily, he hears a tap. Then another tap. He knocks on the wall himself. A third tap.
Someone is on the other side of the wall.
Over months and years they develop a language told through taps; they converse; the prisoner has something to live for. He has another prisoner on the other side of the wall. They are connected by the wall, even though they are separated by it.
Weil tells us it’s the same with us and God: every separation is a link. Endo, I’ve no doubt, would agree.