While in graduate school I read Shusaku Endo's spare and elegant novel Silence for the first time. This masterpiece had a profound impact on me that would last all these years as I wrestled with the questions that this work asked and it was unsettling how inconclusive I was in asking them of myself.
For those who've never read Silence, Endo's story centers on a young Jesuit who's sent to Japan to investigate whether or not his mentor committed apostasy. What Rodrigues, the young Jesuit, learns is the truth of the Kakure Kirishitan (Hidden Christians) whom officials root out and take anyone suspected of being a believer out in front of their village. There, they force them into stepping on a fumi-e (the bronze image of Christ) as a way of not only renouncing their faith but to shame them so that others will not believe. Those who refuse are either imprisoned or killed by anazuri (hanging them upside down over a pit and slowly burned alive).
This is a real fumi-e worn smooth by all the many who had stepped on it
The illusion of the glory of martyrdom is stripped from Rodrigues as he witnesses this. Worse, he learns that Ferreira, his mentor, and other priests were told to either renounce their faith or watch as those believers were tortured and killed before them. The novel wrestles with doubt, shame, betrayal, and traumas' effects on faith.
This was one of those great masterpieces that made me ask myself, "What would I do in that situation? Would I renounce my faith in Christ to end the torture and suffering of others?"
These questions haunted me long after I had read this book. The more I ruminated on the painful, difficult questions of what am I willing to endure or have those around me endure for faith, the more I had to look at my own heart. To face the darkness of my own doubts. This came at a time when, having grown up in extremely conservative and fundamentalist churches, I had been taught that to doubt was to sin and so I wrestled with doubts in fear of what they meant.
In his new meditation on Shusaku Endo's masterpiece, Makoto Fujimura writes how Endo exposes the flaw in this line of thinking. "It does not express faith in God but instead faith in clarity and, as one of my friends puts it, 'our lust for certainty.' Faith can be rational, but only after a deeper journey toward mystery and transcendence."
Most of us do not like to sit with our doubt and want only to dismiss it, but both Endo's novel and Fujimura's new work make us face truths we don't like facing. Fujimura, who lived only a few blocks from the Twin Towers, writes of the trauma 9/11 had on his own faith. How it drove him to wrestle and try to come to grips with other horrors, such as Hiroshima. As he writes, "People experiencing trauma often do not dare to ask, because we know no answer will come back, only silence."
We don't like silence. We like to have the answers. It unsettles and unnerves us not have them.
As Endo writes in his novel:
I suppose I should simply cast from my mind these meaningless words of the coward; yet why does his plaintive voice pierce my breast with tall the pain of a sharp needle? Why has Our Lord imposed this torture and this persecution on poor Japanese peasants? No, Kichijiro was trying to express something different, something even more sickening. The silence of God. Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out; the black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of churches have fallen down; and in the face of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to Him, God has remained silent.
Both Shusaku Endo and Makoto Fujimura are outsiders who do not fit in within their cultures (Endo was a Christian in Japan and Fujimura is a Christian in the art world. Both cultures are unwelcoming towards faith). Yet in both men, this being the outsider has given them a wider perspective to objectively assess and address the cultures they're alienated from. It gives both "a language of hiddenness, of empathy, and visual beauty" they would not have otherwise.
Too often, in our consumer culture we only want mere entertainment. Entertainment comes from the Greek words meaning "to come between." Our entertainment is used not to enlighten or to cause us to question and think more deeply, but to keep us from doing exactly that. I have heard it said, "When I watch a movie, I don't want to have to think. I just want to be entertained." It is very much a fast-food approach to art and culture. But art should reveal "the power of the intuitive, capturing the reality hiding beneath the culture" (Fujimura). That's why, when we read a book like Silence, it strikes us so hard and shatters the illusions we like to hide behind in our entertainment.
In reading Silence, I am confronted by my own duplicity, my own weaknesses, my own doubts and fears. I am caused to question, "What would I do?" It's one thing to read a verse like Romans 8:18, "I consider our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed to us," but it's another to live that out when believing could cost not only your lives, but the lives of others. This is a very real fact of believers in many countries around the world where martyrdom is a cold, brutal reality.
To witness just such actions, such as these beheadings of believers by Islamic terrorists, makes me read Endo's words with a better understanding:
I do not believe that God has given us this trial to not purpose. I know that the day will come when we will clearly understand why this persecution with all it's sufferings has been bestowed upon us -- for everything that Our Lord does is for our good. And yet, even as I write these words I feel the oppressive weight in my heart of those last stammering words of Kichijiro in the morning of his departure: "Why has Deus Sama imposed this suffering on us?" and then the resentment in those eyes that he turned upon me. "Father", he had said "what evil have we done?"
Makoto Fujimura grapples with these questions as he makes a pilgrimage back to the what is now known as Martyr's Hill in Japan. In so doing, he begins to confront his own identity as an artist, as someone who struggles with belonging and with culture, with expressing his faith in Christ-hidden cultures, whether they be Japan or the art world.
His book is beautiful and thought-provoking. It moves through both Japanese culture and aesthetics masterfully, all the while wrestling with the underpinnings of belief and what does that mean for someone who wants to create meaningful art that has an impact on those who encounter it. One of my favorite lines in his book says, "Deep communication can only take place through a path of vulnerability." This is exactly what he is doing in this book. Fujimura's vulnerability in writing of his own painful experiences allows the beauty to come through of how he had "studied the arts of unbelief" (as William Blake wrote of Albion in his poem Jerusalem) and how it was that very poem which led Fujimura to the reality of Christ.
By having encountered Silence, Fujimura understands that a "willingness to spend time truly seeing can change how we view the world, how moving us away from "superficially scanning what we see" so that we can begin to "delve below the surface." That is where great art is born and that is where faith truly begins to mature and grow. We must confront the silence that we so fear. As Henri Nouwen wrote, " . . . it is precisely in silence that we confront our true selves." That is what Endo exposes in his novel, that is what Fujimura ruminates on his work.
Both Shusaku Endo and Makoto Fujimura are more concerned with going deeper, understanding that to contemplate the very things most of us try to ignore, are what lead to wisdom.
I came away from Endo's novel with questions that made me confront myself and my faith. I came away from Fujimura's Silence and Beauty realizing that I was not the only one. He helped me to see more than just another perspective on Silence but something much larger, richer and a wider perspective on Endo the man and artist, on Fujimura the man and artist, but Japanese culture and art, the hidden shame of those who are the "children of failed faith," and of the "paradoxes and the mystery of suffering," and ultimately of the light that is there even in the darkness, the beauty in the brokenness.
Silence and Beauty is a profound book that asks us to confront suffering and at the same time be confronted with the sublime beauty of grace.
Makoto Fujimura's "Silence Kairos"
Here's Makoto Fujimura talking about Beauty and Silence: