“He is so gentle and patient with them, the blessed Spirit of God.” Journal 1898
Silence. My copy of this classic novel, by Shusako Endo, remained unopened on our library table for weeks. Never have I approached reading a book with such a mix of emotions: anticipation of a highly acclaimed book; reluctance given the subject of persecution and apostasy.
The story of the 17th century effort to eradicate Christianity in Japan was told largely through letters of the Jesuit priest, Rodrigues, who against all counsel, made the dangerous two-year journey from Portugal to Japan, knowing that his life would be in mortal danger. His purpose was two-fold: to determine the truth about his mentor who was rumored to have apostatized; to be a priest for the hidden Japanese Christians. Having survived the treacherous journey, he was to learn, first-hand, the unspeakable torture Christians suffered for their faith. The Christian was given a choice between the repudiation of their faith or relentless persecution. The way of freedom was seductively simple: stepping on the fumi-e (a bronze relief sculpture of Christ or Mary mounted into a wooden frame) as a public act of apostasy. (“Do it. You don’t even have to mean it.”)
Through the brilliantly nuanced narrative, Endo took me with Rodrigues, to depths of despair, I would rather not have traveled even in print. Through the complexity of the characters drawn and situations encountered in this account, I was confronted with suffering – physical, spiritual, moral – that I would hope not to face in a lifetime. And I wondered: What would I have done in the same situation?
Such was Lilias’s experience living and working among the Arab Muslims. Knowing the importance of young Christians boldly proclaiming their faith – whether through adherence to Biblical teaching or abstaining from the disciplines of Ramadan – she gained a growing awareness of the suffering for the same. Her heart ached with compassion for the persecution of these “baby souls” for their faith in Jesus. Social ostracization, loss of jobs – or husbands – was only the beginning of their torment. They were subject to physical abuse and physiological intimidation in the form of poisons, drugs and “spells” wearing down first their bodies and then their wills. She developed a deeper understanding for what she called a ‘Nicodemus” or secret disciple writing, “He is so gentle and patient with them, the blessed Spirit of God.”
It is impossible to associate any form of discomfort or unease I might experience resulting from living out my faith in a post-Christian society with either the 17th century Japanese Christians or 19th century Algerians – or for that matter the persecuted Christian throughout the world today. But I have to ask myself if there are, perhaps subtle or even subconscious, ways in which I apostatize – “trample the fume-i”? Are there instances in which my silence betrays Christ? Or my indifference or nonchalance minimize my faith? Does a glib self-satisfaction belie the very essence of my true condition – and God’s grace?
This I can say with certainty: having read this book, I will never see things quite the same way again. As this is neither a book review nor a critique (much less a spoiler), I will only allude to themes which, in the reading, shook me to the very core of my being: the perceived “silence” of God amidst the unthinkable suffering for His sake. . . the Judas-like character, Kichijiro, who shows up on Rodrigues’ first day in Japan then dogs his steps from that point on, seeking absolution then betraying, denying and apostatizing – again and again. . . Rodrigues’ driving determination to not, above all things, deny the Jesus he dearly loved – only to face, in the end, the most unimaginable moral dilemma. . .
Endo does not let us off easy. He forces the reader to watch and to experience the ambiguity of all the above – and much more. He does not offer simple answers or pithy take-aways. Enough is left unsaid as to elicit discussion and disagreement with others – if not in one’s soul. Yet enough is said to leave us with hope.
My take-away – along with an ongoing soul-searching – is a far greater compassion for others in their crisis of faith or tension of choices – large or small. . . a greater generosity toward the limitations or weaknesses of others – along with more honesty with those of my own. . . a desire to be more passionate in living for and loving Jesus the Redeemer. . .
Perhaps the strongest “take-away” is summed by Philip Yancy in his Foreword to Silence and Beauty, Makato Fugimura’s companion book to Endo’s Silence. “Every one of Jesus’ followers, from the first disciples down through history to the present day, knows the feeling of betrayal. Sharp-edged gossip, the stab of envy, that colleague we humiliated, the racist comment that drew a laugh, a sudden and inexplicable cruelty, apologies to our children deserved but never made, a furtive fantasy, a stolen kiss, callousness toward another’s misery, an addiction to what demeans or even destroys – in ways small and large we too step on the fumi-e. Our only hope is the forgiving gaze of the betrayed Savior, the still point of Endo’s novel.”
He is so gentle and patient. . . the blessed Spirit of God.