Martin Scorsese's film 'Silence', starring Andrew Garfield, hit the screens at the start of the New Year and had a premiere before Christmas at the Vatican. The film is based on the historical novel by Japanese Catholic author, Shusako Endo. The novel and film portray a Portuguese Jesuit priest, Fr Sebastian Rodrigues witnessing his Christian flock being tortured and killed. He suffers with them. He asks, "Where is our God? Why does he keep silent?"
Finally captured himself, he seems on the surface to deny his faith by trampling on the image of Christ. But he does so to obtain the release of those under torture – that is the promise of his torturer. This is the crux of the story. To obtain their release, should he trample on the image of Christ or not? It is here that Christ breaks his seeming silence. Christ speaks to Rodrigues, "Yes, you may put your foot on my image. I, more than anyone, know of the pain in your foot. You may trample. It was to be trampled on by others that I came into this world. It was to share human pain that I carried my cross." For Endo, these comforting words of Jesus are the very purpose of his novel 'Silence' and of the many portraits of Christ which followed in later years.
I live in Yokohama and tucked into a lovely flower park quite near the Sacred Heart cathedral is a small but very interesting literature museum. In 2011, the museum published letters of Shusaku Endo written when he was writing this novel. They are written to his friend Professor Yoshie Hotta. Endo tells Hotta that he is aiming to portray the gentle, warm figure of God in Jesus – a God who fully understands and accepts human weakness. He is a God in Jesus who stands beside us in our human suffering – he is a God who actually suffers with us.
To emphasise this theme Endo's chosen title for this novel was Hinata no Nioi (The Aroma of Sunshine). Endo was emphasising the warmth of God. However, the publishing company thought such a title would not sell and so they recommended 'Silence'. When published in 1966, the initial reviews and reactions concentrated on the apparent despair and apostasy of Rodrigues and the seeming silence and powerlessness of God. Overlooked was the warmth and words of a kind God who fully understands human weakness.
The Yokohama Literature Museum has 31 letters of Endo written to his friend Hotta while writing this novel. Endo describes how during his long confinement in hospital he experienced the kindness and gentleness of family and nursing staff. Endo realised that this consoling support was a reflection of God's warmth as He accompanies us in the journey of life – especially in suffering. These letters tell us that this very warmth triggered Endo to write his novel, 'The Aroma of Sunshine' (aka 'Silence').
The Literature Museum's curator, Ms Yoko Nomiyama said in an interview that 'Silence' is often misinterpreted. She said she herself misinterpreted it until these letters came to light. She challenged people to read 'Silence' again to discover the deep and intended message of Endo. The message is that God at times seems to be silent but that he stands beside us always. God suffers with us. In the last page of the book, Rodrigues says to Jesus, "Lord, I resented your silence." Jesus answers, "I was not silent. I suffered beside you."
Fr Barry Cairns has been a Columban missionary in Japan for more than forty years.
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