The French Catholic novelist François Mauriac inspired Elie Wiesel’s Night, specifically the image of the hanged boy as the suffering of God. Mauriac also inspired Shusaku Endo to produce a book Silence, about the silence of God before the Japanese sea. He was described by Graham Greene as one of the century’s greatest writers. If I had to speak this weekend about the tragedy in Japan, I would start here. Camus’s questions meet religious answers. Let me know if you use it.
Shusaku Endo was one of Japan’s great 20th century authors, and like Walker Percy and Graham Greene, he is a Catholic who spent a good portion of his literary life writing about his faith and his struggle with it. As a Catholic, Silence is a book that really makes me think. I don’t know that Endo provides any answers, but he asks a question that I think most Catholics don’t want to face.
Endo picks an awesome setting for his question: the period of Christian persecution in Japan in the late 1500s and 1600s, when many Japanese Catholics and European priests were tortured and forced to apostatize. Endo’s “silence” is the silence of God in the face of these awful events. After experiencing one of these events, one of Endo’s characters writes: I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God…..the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”
But while Endo’s main character, the priest Sebastian Rodrigues, struggles with this question and his faith, I found the book as a whole to be faith-affirming. Like Miguel de Unamuno’s San Manuel Bueno, Martir (the story of a priest who doesn’t believe in the resurrection), the loss of faith equates to a loss of purpose, a loss of strength and a loss of humanity which paints the power of God — silent though He may be — much more powerfully than words could ever do. While engaged in the struggle, Rodrigues (and his brother priests and Christians) have a strength to which we gravitate. When they lose their struggle, they become (repeatedly Endo uses this word to such powerful effect): “servile.” How ironic. When characters place themselves at the service of God, they are pillars of strength. When they reject their faith-driven duty, they become servile
Endo’s 1966 novel Silence portrays the visit of a Portuguese Jesuit priest to Japan in the 17th century. In one scene, the priest looks out over a ruined village, and prays: “The village had been burnt to the ground; and its inhabitants had been completely dispersed. The sea and the land were silent as death; only the dull sound of the waves lapping against the boat broke the silence of the night. Why have you abandoned us so completely? he prayed in a weak voice. Even the village was constructed for you; and have you abandoned it in its ashes? … Have you just remained silent like the darkness that surrounds me? Why? At least tell me why. We are not strong men like Job who was afflicted with leprosy as a trial. There is a limit to our endurance. Give us no more suffering. So he prayed. But the sea remained cold, and the darkness maintained its stubborn silence.”
The Scottish composer James Macmillan’s Symphony No. 3, “Silence” is based off of Endo’s novel. It’s an incredibly powerful piece of music–a jarring yet hopeful musical exploration of the “silence of God in the face of terrible events.” Here is an excerpt from Macmillan’s program notes:
“Endo’s ‘silence’ is the silence of God in the face of terrible events springing from the merciless nature of man: torture, genocide, holocaust. After experiencing one of these events, one of Endo’s characters writes: ‘I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God… the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish, God remains with folded arms, silent.’
For Endo, though, this silence is not absence but presence. It is the silence of accompaniment rather than “nihil”. This is a notion that has many musical analogies. Music itself grows out of silence. The emptiness and solitude of a composer’s silence is nevertheless pregnant with the promise of possibility and potency.