Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Power and the Glory of "Silence" (revised)

On January 5, Martin Scorsese's film Silence opens in theaters across the country. (It had a limited release before Christmas so as to qualify for the awards season.) The film had been Scorsese's dream project for almost thirty years, ever since he read the novel by Shusaku Endo (“the Japanese Graham Greene”). 

I read the book around the same time as Scorsese, and while it did not grip me with the desire to make the definitive motion picture version, it did leave an indelible impression on me. When a line in a book stops you, stays with you and continues to prod, provoke and pursue you for twenty years, you know that you are dealing with something more than a “novel.” Come to think of it, Graham Greene's The Power and the Glory did the same thing to me (as it did to Bl. Paul VI, who remarked to the author that it was his favorite novel—despite its being on the Vatican's Index of Prohibited Books!).

I am not going to see the film, even though I suspect it will be Scorsese's masterpiece. I watched the trailer (you can see it at the bottom of this post), and that is quite enough for someone who gets sensory overload after an hour in a museum. And, like I said, I read the book and it has stayed with me. But I have also read reviews/commentaries by persons who have neither seen the film nor read the book, and are tied up in knots about it. This has led me to reflect a great deal. Today's anxious Catholic writers resemble the Japanese Catholics who rejected Endo's book when it was first released, and probably also the persons who had The Power and the Glory put on the Index. And I totally understand them, because I was also scandalized by Silence.

Endo's story of an apostate missionary and of the fervent young priests who set out to “seek and save what was lost” is not the story we typically tell about persecuted Christians. I myself wanted Endo's protagonist to be the Edmund Campion of Asia, triumphant in that gloriously paradoxical way we love about martyrs. Instead, like Graham Greene's whisky priest in The Power and the Glory, we get what looks for all the world like failure, but may nevertheless be a flawed faithfulness.

A critical point in Silence is the devil's choice presented to the surviving young missionary, when he is challenged to trample upon an image of Christ in return for the release of Christian villagers undergoing horrific tortures. Would it be an act of apostasy? Materially, yes. And yet from the pervading silence comes a voice that insists, “It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world.” (Honestly, isn't that line alone enough for your meditation throughout the Christmas season?)

I remember how my heart sank when I first read this passage. I was disappointed with the outcome, because I had completely missed the point. Endo's protagonist had the human qualities to withstand what he was being put through, but his perseverance still “fell short of the glory of God” (cf. Rom 3:23) who chooses the weak, the “things that are not” (cf 1 Cor 1:27). Even if the young priest continued in ministry, in his own eyes both ruined and obedient, he would be unable to boast or take pride in an unbroken public confession of faith, knowing the ambiguity of publicly committing iconoclasm while convinced interiorly that God had inexplicably willed it. He would be in profound communion with his fallen parishioners. Would that it were so.

In Roman times, there were thousands, perhaps even a million martyrs whose stories we still read, whose anniversaries we still commemorate. But there were also many, probably more Christian holders of “libelli,” documents certifying that the bearer had offered due sacrifice to the gods—had, in other words, made a public act of apostasy or idolatry. (It should also be noted that the libellatici included priests.) In fact, there were so many of these libellatici that the Church actually made a step forward in sacramental theology, thanks to the controversies about what to do with them when they repented (ex opere operato, anyone?).

It didn't matter to the persecutors (then or now) whether the act was sincere or not: the outward conformity alone was sufficient. The Romans didn't care if you believed in Jupiter, as long as you brought incense to his altar. Bishop Barron writes, "the secular establishment always prefers Christians who are vacillating, unsure, divided, and altogether eager to privatize their religion." Moreover, the story is incredibly relevant today. On Christmas Day I read a New York Times story about two women in Qaraqosh, Iraq forced by the Islamic State to spit on a cross and trample on an image of the Blessed Virgin. “ 'Sorry, Mary, that I did that,' [one] recalled thinking. 'Please forgive me'."

Most of us still do not know what martyrdom really is, or what it is like. We can only imagine it, and perhaps we imagine from within our own limited and comfortable perspective right now. We do not know what it would be like to be filled with terror at the prospect, or so filled with the Holy Spirit that, like the Japanese Jesuit martyr Paul Miki, we would continue to preach, exhort and encourage from the wood of an actual cross.

We can—and should—aspire to the heroic victory of a Paul Miki, of a Felicity or Agnes, an Edmund Campion or a Jean de Brebeuf, but history (if not hagiography) is full of also-rans, and Greene, Endo (and Flannery O'Connor, too) use their art to bring us face-to-face with them. It makes me squirm because it is too much like a mirror, pointing to the very real possibilities in my own life for failure, apostasy or just plain mediocrity. Endo (and Scorsese with him) will not allow me to bask in imaginary glory.

Another term for the “silence” of the title could be Dark Night of the Soul. In that darkness of God's seeming absence, we learn to distrust our own ways of thinking, seeing, interpreting in order to be open to God's mysterious, often painfully inscrutable ways, to surrender to a wisdom that makes no sense to us.

I am praying that Scorsese's Silence will be an invitation to faith for those to whom God is absent, silent; for the Simone Weils of the world who feel that they are on the doorstep of the Church, unable to enter until everyone else has at least read the world “Welcome” on the mat. Who knows? Maybe Silence will itself be that Welcome mat.

- - - - - -
Bishop Barron, a big Scorsese fan, writes about Silence: http://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/scorseses-silence-and-the-seaside-martyrs/5360/

Dale M. Coulter (in First Things) offers a very beautiful and nuanced reflection on the book and history the movie is based on: https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2017/01/shsaku-ends-silence-and-faithfulness (added to this list on January 3, 2017).

Paul Elie in the New York Times on Scorsese's dream of producing Silence: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/27/magazine/the-passion-of-martin-scorsese.html


Anonymous said...

Your review of "Silence" stirred me. Intrigued me. Maybe scared me a little.
I'm simple and like tales with a happy ending. Maybe in a sense this movie/book comes close in a twisted way. I'll have to see it.
From the time I was a little kid sitting through b&w Tarzan movies, watching natives with spears and painted faces stalking him -- I asked myself if I could ever be a martyr. Believe me, the jury is still out.
Thanks, Sister Ann. You write so well.

Sr Anne Flanagan said...

Wow, thanks. I recommend Bishop Barron’s review far above mine. I wrote on the basis of my memories of the book and the many current articles about the movie. It never crossed my mind that the protagonist would be an anti-hero, but I think this is where it ends up. As Barron suggests, maybe Endo was saying that the Church of Japan is founded upon the faithful, lowly martyrs, the uneducated ones of this world and not the highly educated, “Navy SEAL” trained missionaries who recanted—even if, as Scorsese hints, they secretly clung to Jesus.
I love that Barron nailed the culture’s desire that faith be kept private; compromised in public—that is what the culture demands, not caring what goes on in the privacy of our hearts as long as we outwardly conform. The Church in Japan stayed in the shadows for centuries, but it was alive, living with only the sacraments of Baptism and Matrimony and the handing on of the faith from generation to generation.