Musings on Silence

I watched the Martin Scorsese film Silence the other day and had a lot of thoughts. Here they are in rough form. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, there are spoilers ahead.

Silence is a haunting film. At the level most easily accessed by myself, it is about Christianity in Secularity. The Japanese State is presented as sophisticated, tolerant and world-wise. Its Buddhism of overcoming illusions and transformation is presented as the essence of Christianity when its dogmatic accretions have been sloughed off—the sort of religion easily accommodatable to the modern world. The Christianity of the Jesuits on the other hand appeals mostly to the poor, undereducated, peasants and seems to have nothing to recommend for itself but suffering and hope in paraiso.

In the film’s early portrayal of the lives of Christians in Japan, one is struck by their seeming senseless commitment to their faith. Being discovered as a Christian means torture and death at the hands of the state. Being Christian does not open one to a broader solidarity: Because of the fear of persecution, Christians do not travel far beyond their own villagers, leaving Christian groups isolated and alone. Adopting the Buddhist faith of the region would open up a world of social belonging, a canopy of meaning, symbols to understand the world they inhabit: all these sociological benefits are shunned by the Christians. Instead they are forced to hide their faith, meet in secret, risk being betrayed by their neighbours, undergoing extreme suffering while holding out the hope for paraiso. To make matters even worse, these Catholic Christians, have been without a priest for a long time and for that reason have not been able to take communion or do confession. The film seems to be suggesting a Christianity that is broken; its institutional and dogmatic husk forcing these Christians to an absurd, otherworldly faith. At the same time, the genuine faith and steadfastness of the villagers under torture is an inspiration to the Jesuit priests.

There is also a dark side to both the Jesuits and the Japanese State. The apparent toleration and mask of civility of the officials seems overlaid on a sickening cruelty and ingenuity with torture. This is a rational, anesthetized, cruelty that parallels the hidden violence of modernity. The Jesuits on the other hand, are not simply priests proclaiming the good news of Christ’s love to open hearts; but, as their captors point out, they are engaged in a colonialist project. Behind their evangelistic zeal, hides a state apparatus that wants to make inroads visa vis Christianity. When Fr. Rodrigues is told that Christianity is like a tree that cannot grow in the swamps of Japan, he retorts that it is the truth and the truth is universal. Here is the justification for the colonialist project in the universal Lordship of Christ—and the roots of secularity itself and its own “development crusade.” The captor and his captors seem for a moment indistinguishable. It is interesting that near the end of the film the Japanese officials refer to their conflict with the Jesuits in military terms, as a war essentially: in other words, the ‘spiritual’, ‘otherworldly’ rhetoric of the Jesuits hides a prideful quest for power. The Jesuits and the Japanese are both fighting over the same, scarce resources, they are both fighting on the same, material plane. In an interesting twist of irony, the Jesuits are persecuted by the Japanese “inquisitor” (The Jesuits were instrumental in the original inquisition): The Jesuits own rejection of the powerless way of the cross is mirrored in the violent persecution that is now meted against them. As Dostoyevski’s inquisitor tells Christ:

Hadst Thou taken the world and Caesar’s purple, Thou wouldst have founded the universal state and have given universal peace. For who can rule men if not he who holds their conscience and their bread in his hands?

If only we could force people to submit to our way of thinking, to ‘the truth’, to ‘the truth’, then we could have the “universal state” and “universal peace”…

What are we to make of the debate between Fr. Rodrigues and his captors: Did Christianity die in poisoned soil or can it simply not grow in the swamp? Fr. Ferreira—the priest who nurtured Fr. Rodriguez in the faith but later apostatized under torture—suggests that the linguistic and cultural differences make it impossible for the Christian dogma to be understood. Fr. Rodriguez counters that he has seen genuine Christians, martyrs and that he cannot question their faith, “They did not die for nothing!” (The expressed hope of the Japanese Christians in paraiso seems to give lie to Fr. Ferreira’s claim that “The Japanese cannot think of an existence beyond the realm of nature, nothing transcends the human!”) Fr. Ferreira’s response cuts close to the heart of the film: “No, they’re dying for you.”

The captors constantly torment Fr. Rodrigues with this: What are these martyrs dying for? Are they dying for Fr. Rodrigues own visions of a glorious martyrdom? For his pride? For the imperial power of Portugal? Is it not better to undergo the simple formality of stepping on Christ’s icon than to let all these people die? In probing these questions, Silence is perusing the mystical, apophatic path: questioning that which is not God. As Simone Weil writes, everything we can conceive of, think of, formulate—even our very conception of God—all this belongs to the earth, all this is not yet God or the Good.

We must know that nothing that we touch, hear or see, nothing that we visualize to ourselves, nothing that we think of is the Good. If we think of God, that is not the good either. All that we conceive in the mind is imperfect, as we are, and what is imperfect is not the Good. The Good represents for us a nothingness, since no one thing is in itself Good. But this nothingness is not a non-being, not something unreal. Everything which exists is unreal compared to it. This nothingness is at least as real as we are ourselves. For our very being is nothing else than this need for the Good. (N, 491)

At another level, it is worth asking, as the film does not: Who is giving me these options? Who has set up this diabolical choice between apostasy and the torture of five people? Why is the act of apostasy so desired by Fr. Rodrigues captors if it is a mere ‘formality’? The fact is, it is the “inquisitor” who demands this choice—and behind him the imperial power of the state. The act of martyrdom—to witness—exposes the violence and shocking cruelty of an ostensibly rational and sanitized regime. Perhaps one reason the captors are so eager to extract a denial of faith is that they cannot bear to look too long at their own dark shadow revealed by the light of witness. The contrast between Fr. Rodrigues genuine humanity and compassion, his tears and anguish; and the stoic and expressionless faces of the captors while they are slaughtering yet another peasant reveals the horror of a rational, anesthetized violence. (Even more horrifying than irrational violence) Just so, the horror of the ‘lethal injection room’ puts the United States aura of enlightenment and authority into stark relief; the unmarked graves of Canadian residential schools strip naked the holy garb of the Church (and the vainer of ‘friendly’ ‘politeness’ of the Canadian Nation); the maimed bodies of the Ukrainians reveal the twisted piety of the Russian regime. Why do Fr. Rodrigues’s captors torture him? Why do they want him to apostatized? Is it not because they want to mold his body to move in lockstep with the regime, to abandon his thinking and adopt theirs? They want the ways of Christ’s kingdom to be conformed to the ways of the regime.

In the culminating scene of the film Fr. Rodrigues is told to step on an icon of Christ, signifying apostasy. As he stands, looking down at the icon, he hears the voice of Jesus:

Come ahead now. It’s all right. Step on Me. I understand your pain. I was

born into this world to share men’s pain. I carried this cross for your pain. Step.

RODRIGUES (in a whisper) Oh Jesus….

VOICE OF JESUS Your life is with Me now. Show Me your love.

Fr. Rodrigues moves forward and steps on the icon, then collapses on the floor, weeping. The final scenes of the movie show Fr. Rodrigues fully integrated into Japanese society. He and Fr. Ferreira are seen inspecting objects for hidden Christian messages. (Have they simply exchanged one civilization and world of politics and piety for another?) The narrator, who is giving a report for Fr. Rodrigues superiors back home, says: “But I must relate to you, Fathers, that he never acknowledged the Christian God. Not by word or symbol. He never spoke of Him and never prayed. Not even when he died.” The film closes with a shot of Fr. Rodrigues’ funeral pire going up in flames as the narrator describes the events: “The body was treated in the Buddhist manner. And he was given a posthumous Buddhist name. I believe you will have to accept, Fathers, that he was lost to God.” The camera panes inside the funeral pire where, between Rodrigues’ folded hands, a tiny cross has been placed. The narrator continues: “But as to that, only God can answer.”

I must admit, dear reader, that I am confounded by this brilliant and perplexing ending. The film seems to suggest that despite Rodrigues’ apostasy, he still, in some sense, retains his faith. The ending reminds me in some ways of the ending of 1984, where Winston, after undergoing torture, thinks “I Love Big Brother”, just as a bullet goes through his head. While Rodrigues seems to have resigned himself to the regime, its colonization of his mind and body does not seem to be so complete: in his hidden inwardness, his faith remains.

In this way, Rodrigues is following the footsteps of the Radical Reformation Spiritualists; a defuse movement which emphasized the inner, spiritual essence of the faith, opposing it to outward signs, sacraments, rituals or confession. This emphasis on the inner, spiritual relationship with God, led some of the most radical of the Spiritualists to see little or no value in Church membership, baptism, the ‘literal’ truth of scripture, or religious or confessional boundaries. Historians have a hard time identifying the size of the movement because:

“they tend to be highly individualistic and idiosyncratic. they also tend to keep to themselves, with few exceptions, and are nearly impossible to count. A true spiritualist, by definition, does not need to make himself or herself known, or even break openly with any established church. Only those few who dare to speak out and those who claim to follow them can ever be truly counted.” (Eire, 277)

David Joris (1501-1556) went as far as to tell his followers to not worry about deceiving the authorities about their faith. The inner essence—the relationship with God—was safely hidden inside:

Joris attracted many followers, who came to be known as Davidists. Joris dispensed with boundaries between true religion—which was always inward and spiritual—and whatever might be deemed false worship, and he advised his followers to dissemble, arguing that it was perfectly acceptable for any truly spiritual person to feign his or her religious convictions in order to escape persecution. After locking horns with Menno Simons, Joris took his own advice and moved to Basel in 1544, where he lived under the alias Johann van Brugge, pretending to be a faithful reformed protestant while he penned spiritualist texts.(Eire, 281)

In a different way, the film A Hidden Life, (In many ways the same film) plays with the theme of silence or hiddenness. A Hidden life is preoccupied with historically hidden acts, and Franz Jägerstätter’s seemingly politically insignificant refusal to give into the Nazi regime. Silence, on the other hand, is preoccupied with the hidden faith and the silent God: both of which are not outwardly noticeable or directly present.

Silence is preoccupied with the hidden God. (and the hidden faith) A line from Kierkegaard comes to mind: “Why is God so elusive? Precisely because He is the truth and by being elusive desires to keep men from error.” One is reminded also of Simone Weil here who sees in the creation of the world, God’s abdication. “God withdraws in order to let his creatures be.” (Cayley) It is our ‘fall’, to assume that we can exist without God, that we can pridefully assert our own selves, or create God in our own image. Yet it is our deepest longing to be united with God, a union that can only happen in our death: the death of ego, the death of false conceptions. We cannot even seek God, or will belief: we can only deny that which is not God and wait:

Each man imagines he is situated in the centre of the world….We live in a world of unreality and dreams. To give up our imaginary position as the centre, to renounce it, not only intellectually but in the imaginative part of the soul, that means to awaken to what is real and eternal, to see the true light and hear the true silence.

What are we to make of that climatic scene of the film, where Rodrigues stands before the icon? The lighting of the extended scene is striking, its dark, orange hue gives it a hot, hellish feel. There is the sense that Rodrigues (and presumably Fr. Ferreira before him) is at the hellish bottom of something. “He descended into hell.” The crucifixion imagery is all over the scene (and the rest of the film). Fr. Ferreira tells Rodrigues that he is prideful to put himself in the place of Christ. Rodrigues quotes Jesus own famous words from the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus words at the icon, “step”, and “Show Me your love”, bring to mind Jesus at the cross crying out “Into your hands I commit my spirit,” as he breaths his last. A rooster crows as Rodrigues weeps on the floor. (Peter rather than Judas?) The film seems to be suggesting that in Rodrigues renunciation of the heroic path to martyrdom—comparing himself to Jesus—he is most like Jesus. In his self-emptying, in his weakness, in his reaching the end of his own self, and his own moral and social standing; there he acts in imitation of Christ. As Fr. Ferreira tells him: “You believe in yourself! You set yourself above them. It’s your salvation that obsesses you, not theirs. You dread to be the dregs of the church, like me. Is that your way of love? A priest should act in imitation of Christ. If Christ were here…” Is it Rodrigues love for Christ that is holding him back? Or his fear of the judgement of the Church, the opinion of his superiors, his dreams of great martyrdom?

The ordeal that Rodrigues undergoes can be seen as the ordeal of Christianity in secularity. Under the conditions of secularity, subject to withering critique and scientific explanation, much of what has previously belonged to the ‘religious’ has been described in other terms. Religion is frequently described (or reduced) in terms of sociology, anthropology, psychology and so on. Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of a “religionless Christianity.” Under these conditions, “what is left of what formerly belonged to religion? According to David Cayley, what remains for Ivan Illich and Dietrich Bonhoffer, is ‘Faith’. Silence, it seems, gives the same answer. In an interview with Commonweal, director Martin Scrosese describes the process of ‘stripping away’ to get to the kernel:

I knew that stripping away everything ultimately comes down to God and you. The priest can be there to help, to guide, to sustain; an institution of the church. It can be very helpful. But what if there isn’t any? What if you’re alone? In Silence ultimately it’s him alone, God and him. That’s what it comes down to. And it comes down to the examination of what is God, who is God? The silence of God; [‘The voice of God is] is in the silence’

As Rodrigues undergoes most excruciating affliction, he is stripped bare of everything: Silence goes as far to even strip away external belief, confession; He no longer feels God’s presence, and hears only silence. Alone, abandoned, unable to rely on his spiritual heroes or fellow believers: Fr. Ferreira has apostatized, his fellow Jesuit is dead; his dreams and ‘imagination’ shattered are: glorious martyrdom, being a heroic priest; his self isolated from the communities that he identifies with Portugal, the church, his family, and he is in an utterly foreign country and civilization. Stripping it all away, we come to the naked man before God. Gone are all conceptions, ideas, rituals, beliefs: only ‘inwardness’ remains. One is reminded of Luther’s famous distinction between ‘faith’ and ‘works’: it is in the death of the self rooted in ego, status, ‘works’ that the real heart of faith and love of God is found. The saint is Simul Iustus et Peccator, simultaneously saint and sinner. At one point in the film, after hearing yet another confession from his betrayer Kichijirō, he asks God, “How can Jesus love a wretch like this?” Kichijirō himself asks Rodrigues: “I was made weak, where is the place for a weak man in a world like this?” How can one love a wretch like this? Where is the place in the world for the weak? Surely these questions take us to the heart of the gospel. Rodrigues finds that he can love and forgive Kichijirō only when he stops trying to be a martyr and recognizes that he is himself weak.

In a critical review of Silence, Alex Sargeant criticizes Scrosese for turning Rodregues into a saint, and framing his act of apostasy as a heroic act:

We can’t muster any glee at our transgressions, but we find ways to justify them as necessary. And so we want to read Rodrigues not as an apostate but as a new kind of saint. The truest faith might be denial of faith, we solemnly equivocate.

It seems strange to me to turn a work of art like Silence into a simple 1:1 moral lesson, as if you could extract a meaning, hold it up against contemporary Christianity and find the faith of the characters wanting. The film is too ambiguous, haunting and open ended to do that. Also, Sargeant’s critique seems to me to be founded on a misunderstanding: Rodregues is not presented as saint, the ending of Silence is not without ambiguity. We are not presented with a man who has found the inner kernel of the gospel and now lives in joy and peace: Rodregues, despite the narrator’s insistence that he “seems at peace”, looks hollowed out, resigned. Some spark of resistance, seems to have died in him. He, and Fr. Ferreira alongside him, go through their daily tasks with a mechanical precision. In what sense can it be said that the seed of the kingdom continues to be present in them? Both have resigned themselves to the regime, and stand numbly by (and even participate in) as Christians continue to be persecuted and slaughtered.

I am struck especially by Fr. Ferreira’s presence at the climactic scene. He describes Rodrigues’ act as an imitation of Christ, as fulfilling “the most painful act of love that has ever been performed.” Yet what these comments obscure is that what Rodrigues is being forced into is entirely unnecessary: it is not Rodrigues who is torturing the 5 Christians, it is not Rodrigues who has slaughtered all the villagers, it is not Rodrigues who has set up this diabolical choice. It is the Japanese regime and Fr. Ferreira working with them who are responsible for the deaths, the killing, the violence. Their clean, rational rhetoric hides this violence and projects it on to Rodrigues and his ‘irrationality’, but, like Pilate, they cannot wash the blood from their hands. Rodrigues apostasy then, is not simply a choice between external confession and saving the lives of five Christians: it is the choice between cleaving the peaceful way of the cross and submitting the regime. Perhaps this why he appears so hollowed out at the end of the film.

And yet, Silence holds out the hope, finds a place in this world for the weak, for those who cannot be heroes. “I understand your pain, I was born into this world to bear men’s pain, step on me,” Christ tells Rodrigues. And we weak, hollow men, we who give into the violence a thousand times, we who step on Christ daily: “I was born into this world to bear men’s pain.”

3 thoughts on “Musings on Silence

  1. This is fantastic Julian. I love this book, and this film, though they have a somewhat different emphasis toward the end. In both cases I think the crucial moment is when Rodrigues steps on the fumie; this breaks his pride, and in that moment he becomes just like Kichijiro, the “apostate” whom Rodrigues despises for his weakness. In the book this is a crossroads for Rodrigues, and his betrayal is due not to stepping on the fumie (in which he is given the mercy by which he can discard his pride), but afterward, as he abandons this moment of grace and cooperates with the machine of the Japanese state. Conversely, Rodrigues in the film is seen as remaining faithful to Christ in some hidden way after stepping on the fumie, all the way to the end of his life–here Judas himself is suggested as a necessary and sympathetic figure to the Christian story. But in both versions, Kichijiro, unlike Rodrigues, acknowledges his wretchedness throughout the persecution and repents, again and again and again. Where is there a place for a weak man such as Kichijiro in the Kingdom of Heaven? His place is precisely in his weakness in the face of God’s silence, and in the faithful repentance that follows. Only in brokenness can one imitate Christ.


    1. Thanks for this thoughtful comment “Max”. I haven’t read the book yet but definitely should, though to be honest this was such a heavy movie that I’ll be looking for something lighter for the time being. 🙂
      I noticed there was a LOT going on with Kichijaro, and connections with betrayal (Judas and Peter) but hadn’t put the pieces together the way you helpful did here. The stepping on the fume as the breaking of his pride illuminates so much about Rodregues’ interactions with his captors and with fr. Ferrera. (I think the background of Portugal hoping to make inroads into Japan via the missionaries is also important–this is a civilizational struggle as much as, if not more than a spiritual struggle: Is it a marterdom for the kingdom of Christ or the kingdom of Portugal?) I also LOVE how you point out the difference between Kichijiro continually coming to repent, while Rodrigues seems self assured in his own righteousness: Kichijiro asks where the place of the weak is in the kingdom and he embodies the answer. (Interestingly in the end of the film it is suggested that he finally is sent off to a martyrdom of his own.)
      I wondered a lot about Fr. Ferrera’s own spiritual turmoil: Are we to assume he went through exactly what Rodrigues faced? Does he too have a ‘hidden faith’?
      I’m interested in how you describe the act of betrayal not in the stepping on the fume, but in what happens afterwards: “as he abandons this moment of grace and cooperates with the machine of the Japanese state.” I thought part of what was going on there is that Rodregues had undergone such a ‘stripping away’ that he saw no difference in participating in the machinery of Christendom vs the machinery of the Japanese state: Niether advance the kingdom, but are entirely earthly realities. The nonchalance with which he sorts ‘christian’ and ‘none-christian’ seems to suggest that he sees this as an entirely cultural, political reality.
      I’m not entirely satisfied with this because I wonder what kind of a reality faith can actually be said to have it it takes no material form whatsoever. In what way IS Rodrigues still a Christian if he just goes on with his life in this way? In the way that most of us are? Just going about our lives, doing small acts of kindness and generosity, while participating in and upholding the Powers of this Age? In this way, Rodrigues has just exchanged one cultural-political framework for another even as he hides his faith. What do you think of all of that?


  2. I hadn’t thought of that angle for sure, I tend to think less in political terms and more in the personal, psychological sphere (although I am the one that brought up “the machinery” of the state). But you’ve made a great point about the “machinery” of Portugal (and by implication, Christendom itself) and the “machinery” of Japan being seen as two sides of the same coin by Rodrigues in the end. This is why I love this story so much–it seems to always give readers/viewers more to talk about no matter how many discussions have taken place. In your observation, perhaps Rodrigues is not such a traitor in cooperating with the Japanese insofar as he realizes that there isn’t so much difference between their “machine” and the one he was formed in. In the film at least it is suggested that he remained faithful to Christ in some way, and perhaps that’s the point–that it is Christ whom one must remain faithful to, not any particular institution. But then this begs the question you asked: “what kind of a reality faith can actually be said to have it it takes no material form whatsoever?” This story just keeps handing us questions…


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