(WARNING: Contains major spoilers)
“Christ did not die for the good and beautiful. It is easy enough to die for the good and beautiful; the hard thing is to die for the miserable and corrupt.” -Shusaku Endo (Silence)
The recently released film Silence, based on the 1966 historical novel by Shusaku Endo, has stirred up quite the array of reactions. Some walk away from theaters disgusted, others inspired. Some have discouraged everyone they know from seeing it, others are convicted that everyone needs to see it. And then there are those who just aren’t quite sure what to make of it. It would be unrealistic for me to try to address and respond to every difficulty people are having with the film. What I have set out to do in this post is draw parallels between characters in this story with characters both in the Gospels and in real life to highlight the value of humiliation.
A brief synopsis of Silence may be helpful here. The film/novel takes place during the persecution of Christians that really did occur in 17th-century Japan. Two Jesuit priests (Fr. Rodrigues and Fr. Garrpe) requested to enter into this hostile territory in secret because they had heard rumors that their beloved and zealous mentor, Fr. Ferreira, had apostatized (that is, renounced his faith in Christ) amidst brutal persecution in his most recent mission. The two young priests set out to disprove these rumors and minister to the Japanese Christians who were living their faith in secret. When word got out that the priests were in Japan, the Japanese government punished the local Christians with brutal forms of torture and death. When they finally captured Fr. Rodrigues, they also had him undergo severe bouts of torture.
The cruel irony was that Fr. Rodrigues himself was not crucified, forced to dangle upside down in a pit, drowned, burned alive, or have boiling water continuously poured on his flesh like the Japanese martyrs experienced. Instead, he was told that they would continue to torture the Japanese Christians in these ways until he apostatized. What made it even more difficult was the spiritual battle inside Fr. Rodrigues’ soul where he experienced the frustrating “silence” of God at a time when he needed Him the most. When the sufferings of the faithful finally overwhelmed Fr. Rodrigues, he gave in and apostatized. He lived the rest of his life comfortably in Japan where he was forced year after year to renew the public denouncement of his faith.
One of the reasons why his apostatizing came as a surprise to many of the viewers (I could hear people gasp in the theaters) was because of how Fr. Rodrigues’ persona was portrayed throughout the film leading to that point. Martin Scorsese, director of the film, wrote a foreword in the recent edition of the novel. There he explains, “Sebastian Rodrigues represents what you might call the ‘best and the brightest’ of the Catholic faith…stalwart, unbending in his will and his resolve, unshakable in his faith.” Based on Fr. Rodrigues’ attitude and actions, one would think “he will be the hero,” “the Christ figure, with his own Gethsemane and his own Judas.” When Fr. Rodrigues realized the difficulties he was faced with were not the ones he expected or prepared for, he began asking God, “Why am I being kept alive? Where is my martyrdom? My glorious martyrdom?”
The film and novel flesh out these prideful intentions even more painfully in his thoughts towards a local man, Kichijiro. Kichijiro is portrayed throughout the film as the Judas/Peter of the story. Though he was once a “strong” Christian committed to enduring martyrdom like Peter, who had told Jesus at the Last Supper, “Though all may have their faith in you shaken, mine will never be…I will not deny you,” he too had apostatized and lived in great shame. When Fr. Rodrigues came to Japan, Kichijiro went to confession to the priest and asked him for absolution for his earlier act of betrayal. However, soon after his confession, he told the authorities where Fr. Rodrigues was hiding out and was rewarded three hundred pieces of silver (calling to mind the thirty pieces of silver Judas received). Sickened by what he had done in a moment of weakness, he came back to the imprisoned Fr. Rodrigues for confession once more. Fr. Rodrigues reluctantly absolved him with “a bitter taste on his tongue.” He looked down upon Kichijiro as “weak” for falling so frequently while considering himself as “strong” for remaining faithful. He then reflected in the novel, “Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, the heroes and those who respect them. In time of persecution the strong are burnt in the flames and drowned in the sea; but the weak, like Kichijiro, lead a vagabond life in the mountains.” When he himself apostatized, he reflected on the weakness he’d previously perceived in Kichijiro and finally came to the revelation, “I wonder if there is any difference between Kichijiro and myself.”
One of the main takeaways for me from the story was the humbling realization that I am more like Judas and Peter than I often am willing to admit. I’d like to think that I could persevere through any trial, that I could die a martyr’s death, that I have a strong enough friendship with Christ to never betray him. Yet, though I have never formally renounced my faith in Christ, I “betray” him every day when I sin. I can often take on the prideful, self-reliant attitude of Fr. Rodrigues that I am “strong” while looking down on others as “weak” (or at least weaker than myself). Much like the Pharisee in Luke 18, I tend to subconsciously pray, “God, I thank You that I am not like the rest of humanity: greedy, dishonest, adulterers, or even like this tax collector” (Luke 18:11). I go back to confession again and again, even though I pray at the end of the Act of Contrition, “I firmly resolve with the help of your grace to sin no more and to avoid the near occasion of sin.” It’s in those times that the Lord gently (or sometimes not so gently) leads me into encountering my own interior poverty so that I can honestly say, “I wonder if there is any difference between Kichijiro/Fr. Rodrigues/Judas/Peter/the tax collector and myself.”
This revelation is not meant to encourage us to self-condemnation to the point of despair over our sinfulness. That hopeless despair is unhealthy and has no value. What encountering our interior poverty should do is lead us all the more to Christ our Divine Physician. For he himself said, “I have not come to call the righteous to repentance but sinners” (Luke 5:32), for “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do” (Matthew 9:12). After Peter denied our Lord three times, Jesus did not abandon him to wallow in the overwhelming reality of his sinfulness but sought him out and led him to repentance. The tax collector who, unlike the prideful Pharisee, cried out, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” was held up as a model for us since “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).
A 20th-century “real-life” Jesuit priest by the name of Fr. Walter Ciszek faced a similar revelation during his time in Soviet labor camps and prisons. He felt the Lord call him to leave the safety and familiarity of his parish in Poland and head to Soviet Russia to minister to the Catholics being placed in the labor camps. He recounted in his book He Leadeth Me one moment in this time that set the stage for a life-altering experience. After spending five torturous years in a Soviet prison camp, on a day in which he felt weak and, “prayed for the Spirit to move [him] and felt nothing, feeling abandoned by God,” he finally gave in to the interrogators’ commands and agreed to renounce his faith. He recalled, “I was despicable in my own eyes, no less than I must appear to others. My will had failed: I had proved to be nowhere near the man I thought I was.” (“I wonder if there is any difference between Kichijiro and myself.”)
He follows this up with a crucial observation:
“I was ashamed because I knew in my heart that I had tried to do too much on my own, and I had failed. I felt guilty because I realized, finally, that I had asked for God’s help but had really believed in my own ability to avoid evil and to meet every challenge. In a way, I had been thanking God all the while that I was not like the rest of humanity, that he had given me a good physique, steady nerves, and a strong will, and that with these physical graces given by God I could continue to do his will at all times and to the best of my ability. In short, I felt guilty and ashamed because in the last analysis I had relied almost completely on myself in this most critical test- and I had failed.”
It almost sounds like a page out of Fr. Rodrigues’ journal (and did you catch the tax collector reference?). However, how Fr. Ciszek continued from that point on set him apart from Fr. Rodrigues and helped him identify more with the tax collector. (As a reminder, the tax collector, mindful of his sinfulness, had cried out, “O God, be merciful to me, a sinner” and our Lord commented, “everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 18:13-14).)
As he continued reflecting on his great act of betrayal, Fr. Ciszek wrote:
“God must sometimes allow us to act on our own so we can learn humility, so we can learn the truth of our total dependence on him, so we can learn that all our actions are sustained by his grace and that without him we can do nothing. Learning the full truth of our dependence upon God and our relation to his will is what the virtue of humility is all about. For humility is truth, the full truth…And what we call humiliations are the trials by which our more complete grasp of this truth is tested.”
It was through that humiliation of betrayal that Fr. Ciszek was faced with the invitation that had been offered to the tax collector, Peter, Fr. Rodrigues, and Judas, yet was only taken up by Fr. Ciszek, the tax collector, and Peter: to resist the temptation to despair over his own sinfulness and instead turn to Divine Mercy once more. This act of repentance could only be possible through humility of heart.
After his act of betrayal, Fr. Ciszek “turned to prayer in fear and trembling. I pleaded my helplessness to face the future without him. I told him that my own abilities were now bankrupt and he was my only hope.” It was then that he was consoled by the thoughts of Jesus praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). Fr. Ciszek referred to this revelation in prayer as “a conversion experience, and I can only tell you frankly that my life was changed from that moment on. I knew that I must abandon myself entirely to the will of the Father and live from now on in this spirit of self-abandonment to God.” This kind of decision could only come, he admitted, “by the experience of a complete despair of my own powers and abilities that had preceded it.” From that moment on he knew “I could no longer trust myself, and it seemed only sensible then to trust totally in God.”
He took back his offer of betrayal to the Soviet guards and was sent to labor camps for fifteen years as a punishment. He endured those years with a newfound sense of God’s consoling presence that was only made possible through the painful humiliation of the weakness of his own will. After his release from the camps, he reflected once more, “No matter how badly the humble man fails, he will reckon his accounts with God and start over again, for his humility tells him of his total dependence on God.”
Here’s my point: Humility consists in seeing the truth of who we are and who God is. Through humiliations big and small, we can come to find that we are not as strong or holy as we thought we were. After we are humiliated we are left with two choices: forever wallow in an isolated, secretive despair at our sinfulness like Fr. Rodrigues and Judas chose, or humbly repent and seek God’s mercy once more like Peter, the tax collector, Kichijiro, and Fr. Ciszek. Seeking to grow in humility does not mean desiring to scrupulously condemn ourselves over every little flaw we find, but to rely on God’s presence and strength in a way that opens ourselves up to having our egos deflated. Silence shows how all of us, even the “strongest,” are capable of being brutally humiliated, but the Gospels and Fr. Ciszek’s story serve as a more inspiring model of the hope we can still have in God’s mercy on our pursuit towards sainthood and of the value of humiliation.
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