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The Song of the Saints
On faith and Silence
Before I get into today’s post, a note of thanks to my readers for the warm response to my last week’s “coming out” Stack, which garnered an order of magnitude more views than usual here in my small corner of things. So far, I haven’t had cause to regret my choice and find in fact that it has been quite freeing. I had a moment yesterday where a friend thanked me for something by my real name on Twitter, and for a second I felt the old jolt of “Oh no, he forgot, I have to DM…” only to remember those days are behind me now. The genie is out and will not be contained. So I hope for the best, trusting I will be no less of a gadfly now than before. To quote another friend, quoting Janis Joplin, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”
With that, I have some thoughts for All Saints’ Day, prompted by my recent first viewing of Martin Scorsese’s Silence. I had read the novel and subsequently avoided the film, though there were select scenes I was able to stand in isolation. But my mind went back to it after recording a podcast over the weekend with Jay Shapiro (you can listen here—my first “out” podcast!) Our main topic was supposed to be abortion, but Jay wanted to range over a variety of things, including the question of whether there can ever be such a thing as a true moral dilemma. For those who know something about Silence, the entire premise hinges on the most agonizing of all dilemmas for a devout Christian: the choice between publicly denying one’s faith or allowing vulnerable loved ones to be tortured or killed. (Readers who don’t know the story and don’t want to be spoiled, here’s your spoiler warning.)
Shusaku Endo presents the dilemma faced by his Portuguese Jesuit protagonists and their persecuted Japanese flock as a true one. He never trivializes the act of trampling the fumie, the sacred image of Christ, which the Buddhist Inquisitor and his minions use to divide the faithful from the apostates. Their prepared script that it’s “just a formality” rings sinister and hollow, as I think Endo means it to. But by the end, it is clear that he does not regard the act as intrinsically wrong. To the contrary, he declares that Christ himself could bless it for the higher cause of neighbor love—where love, as Daniel McInerny rightly notes in his review, is here perniciously set at odds with faith. Further, the main young priest’s final choice to trample is framed as a kind of pride-purging act, a necessary humbling for a character who had fancied himself a noble white Christ figure.
The key agent in this (for Endo) necessarily terrible act is the apostate priest Ferreira, the beloved old mentor who had spread the faith throughout Japan, then disappeared, thus luring his young protégés to their fate in search of him. When he is finally revealed, he is cold, bitter, in his way more ruthless than the diabolical Inquisitor himself. Japan is a soil in which nothing can grow, he insists. But, just to be sure, he has come prepared to salt it. He explains to young Rodrigues how he realized that “God,” to the peasants, is a distortion of the sun, lost in translation, the cosmic semantic joke upon which he had believed he was building a Church. These wretched folk are not dying for God, he insists. “They’re dying for you.”
Yet, despite his deep flaws, Endo’s gift is such that he allows his characters to act freely, to make their choices, and even, perhaps intentionally, perhaps not, to strike a blow at his own thesis. Scorsese, sensing the tension, subtly teases it out even a bit further in the adaptation. In one scene, several villagers have agreed to volunteer themselves as the Inquisitor’s hostages to protect the priests while they hide. One man, in an agony of fear, asks what they should do if the awful choice is put to them: to recant, or to refuse, endangering the whole village. His voice is shaky and tearful: “What should we do?” In the film, the second young priest, Fr. Garupe, answers tenderly but firmly that they must “pray for courage.” As played by Adam Driver, Garupe is a strong presence, tall and gaunt, full of melancholy resolve. In an upsurge of sympathy, Rodrigues contradicts him, bursting out, “Trample! Trample! It’s alright to trample.” In the book, Garupe has no dialogue in this scene, simply shooting Rodrigues a reproachful look. In the film, he answers sharply: “What are you saying? You can’t!” Then, turning back to the poor peasant with a gentler tone, “Mokichi, you can’t.”
In their exhausted weakness, Mokichi and the other hostages do trample. But when they are further asked to spit on a crucifix, all but one of them (the pathetic Judas figure, Kichijiro) refuse, sealing their deaths by slow crucifixion in the sea. Their martyrdom is a moment of surpassing, wrenching beauty, as the tide rises to submerge them, then falls back, rises and falls back, rises and falls back. Mokichi survives for four days, crying out in prayer, and most hauntingly, in song. In the book, his hymn is translated:
We’re on our way, we’re on our way
We’re on our way to the temple of Paradise,
To the temple of Paradise. …
To the great Temple. …
The scene is arguably even more powerful in the film than in the novel, since through the medium of cinema we are invited simply to behold the martyrdom. We thus become the witnesses, beholding and taking from the scene what we will, feeling as hopeful or as despairing as our deepest convictions tell us we should. But in the book, we see it as filtered through the eyes of Rodrigues, who already suffers from a creeping, gnawing doubt that Mokichi’s cries were heard, that his death was not for nothing.
After Garupe and Rodrigues agree to separate, Garupe’s thread is lost until the second hour, when Rodrigues is forced to witness his last trial from a distance. He is marched half-naked to the sea with peasants from another village. Something is whispered in Garupe's ear that Rodrigues can’t hear, but the tormentor who has brought Rodrigues to watch the show is happy to conjecture. Most likely, the man says cheerfully, Garupe has been told that if he does not apostatize, the people will die. They’ve trampled already, but this is immaterial. It is the priests the Inquisitor wants to break, so that the tree of faith may be forever cut off at the roots.
What follows is another flash of genius, another moment where Endo seems to voluntarily expose his own most vulnerable point. For it is this scene which seems to deal the death blow to the proposal that our protagonists are caught in a true dilemma. As Garupe stands silently watching, untouched, the peasants are wrapped tightly in straw mats and shoved onto a boat, to be tipped into the sea and sink helplessly. In a double tour de force of acting from Driver and Andrew Garfield, Garupe and Rodrigues react jointly to the horror, Rodrigues seeing all, Garupe seeing only the little flock in the boat. As half a dozen men hold him back, Rodrigues wants to scream out to Garupe to apostatize. But Garupe only wades out to watch, pleading to be taken in the villagers’ place. Next moment, he has flung himself into the water after them, reaching the boat just as the last young woman is pushed overboard. He tries to free her, but the boatmen immediately beat and shove both down with their lances. Thus, as soon as it began, it is finished.
In his final act, Garupe transcends the dilemma, cuts the Gordian knot with clean hands. Perhaps, once again, seeing impresses it even more vividly upon the mind than reading. Either way, once you see it, you can’t unsee it. But Endo writes it anyway, because he is a literary genius, and he understands that this is how Garupe must die. When it is over, the tormentor at Rodrigues’ side pronounces his epitaph: “At least Garupe was clean.”
But Rodrigues is given no such chance to embrace his own martyrdom, a chance he would have welcomed many times over as he is relentlessly worn down bit by bit, like the slow steady drip of Chinese water torture. In the end, he takes his place alongside Ferreira, broken, tamed, refusing to hear confessions, his life one long act of renunciation. Yet Endo insists it is only his peers he offends thereby, not the Christ who whispers reassurance to his heart that all is forgiven, that all is well.
This has rightly inspired fierce reactions from devout Catholic critics ever since. At the time the movie came out, I remember watching a vigorous discussion among some young YouTubers where one boy got especially heated. He had loved the first half where the priests first land and begin ministering to the people. These too are among the film’s most powerful moments, these whispered confessions and huddled masses, with close-ups of dirty hands clasped tight around precious tokens of faith. But as the film wore on, and the second half began to do its pernicious undercutting work, he became progressively angrier. He was so exercised in the group review that he was shouting “No!” to that, “No!” to all of that. If there was anyone in the film he could take as his example, it was the crucified ones in the surf. It was Garupe, swimming to his death like his life depended on it.
But it is on such youthful zeal that the voice of apostatized Ferreira works its slow poison. “I prayed too,” he tells Rodrigues bitterly. “It doesn’t help.” Pray for bread, and in return God will give you silence.
It must have felt so for many saints as they prayed for courage, as they strained their ears for an answer in the dungeons, in the gulags, in the torture pits. It must have felt so as some of them broke, trampled, recanted. It must have felt so as they came begging on their knees for forgiveness.
And still, faintly audible, rising like incense, echoing down the ages, the quavery voice of crucified Mokichi can be heard: “We’re on our way. We’re on our way…”
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.
We die with the dying:
See, they depart, and we go with them.
We are born with the dead:
See, they return, and bring us with them.