News reached the Church in Rome. Christovao Ferreira, sent to Japan by the Society of Jesus in Portugal, after undergoing the torture of 'the pit' at Nagasaki had apostatized. An experienced missionary held in the highest respect, he had spent thirty-three years in Japan, had occupied the high position of provincial and had been a source of inspiration to priests and faithful alike.
Summary: There is a danger in reading stories involving martyrs that comes from the tendency of readers to put ourselves in a false position, as if we, were we in the same position, would hold out to the end. This is already not to understand what we are reading. There is a story about St. Felicity, who while pregnant was arrested for being Christian. She was kept in prison until the baby was born; and the next day would be sent to the arena. It was a hard labor, and she screamed during it. The guard sarcastically remarked that if she couldn't handle that, how would she handle the lions tomorrow? To which she replied that today she was relying on her own strength; tomorrow she would be relying on someone else's. Human goodness is frail. It does not matter how good you are, how strong you are, how forceful your will. There is some pressure, applied long enough, or in just the right point, where you can at some point shatter. There is some point beyond which you can guarantee nothing. You might last. But call it luck or grace, your doing so would be utterly out of your hands.
Silence is about the tsurushi torture. The victim is hung upside down, in a pit. It is very hot and very humid, and you just hang. Usually they cut a little slit behind the ear to drip blood. Doing so increases the length of time you are conscious and alive. Because you are hanging upside down, it never closes, it just drips from the pressure; and the blood is not being pumped back up your body fast enough. At some point you start bleeding out your nose, out your mouth. The pain is extraordinary. And it never stops, because gravity never stops. Slowly, surely, you die. It takes a few days. St. Magdalene of Nagasaki hung in the pit for thirteen before she died. That's what grace looks like, dying in agony for thirteen days while never wavering. It's something human beings cannot guarantee on their own strength. Most people would break after a few hours, and do anything, anything whatsoever, to get out of that pit.
When Fr. Sebastian Rodrigues, S.J., goes to Japan, he knows very well that he may be killed for it. He does it for two reasons: first, that the Catholics of Japan need priests, and second, that he wants to know what happened to Cristovao Ferreira, leader of the Jesuit mission in Japan, who according to rumors has apostatized, given up the faith. If the latter is true, it is shocking; no one expected it. If he did not apostatize, what has happened to him? And if he did, how did that happen? He and his fellow priest, Fr. Francis Garrpe, arrive in Japan with the help of a shifty but somewhat mysterious fellow named Kichijiro. He claims not to be a Christian but once in Japan, finds the Christians in hiding fairly easily. They spend most of their time on the run, being hidden by Catholic peasants in the Nagasaki area. They are eventually separated. And Fr. Rodrigues is eventually betrayed by Kichijiro, who was indeed a Japanese Catholic, but who had apostatized when captured, and whose weakness has not ended.
Fr. Rodrigues does learn what happened to Fr. Ferreira. He hung in the pit until he broke, until it seemed clear that everything the Jesuits were doing in Japan was worthless, because the Japanese might say the same Latin words as European Catholics, but they did not actually believe in the same God. He tries to convince Fr. Rodrigues of this, having been brought in by the magistrate Inoue as part of the attempt to get Fr. Rodrigues to apostatize. In the abstract the arguments are specious, of course; they are nothing that could not have been argued of the first Gentile believers, or the Ostrogoths, or the first Scandinavians, or the indios of the Americas. But context is part of how we assess arguments, and an argument that seems one way as you and I sit at a computer may look somewhat different to someone dying a slow and agonizing death in the pit.
The pit is not, however, Fr. Rodrigues's fate. The magistrate has something different in store for him. Other people are going to hang in the pit. They've already apostatized; more than once, in fact. But they are not in the pit in order that they might apostatize. All Fr. Rodrigues has to do in order to save them from the torture and certain death is to step on an image of Christ, to put out his foot and trample the face of Christ.
Kichijiro, of course, plays the role of Judas. He failed. But we often forget that all twelve disciples failed. Judas betrayed. Most fled. Peter followed along behind -- and apostatized. Human goodness is very fragile.
But it would be an error to leave it at that. A historical novel has history itself for a context, and history makes the matter more ambiguous. The magistrate Inoue argues that Christianity is too foreign to take root in Japan; that its roots rot and change in the mud swamps of Japan; that all they have to do is get the priests and the rest will wither away. But we who read know that it is a more complex matter. The Kirishitan continued to carry on, hidden, until again it could sprout to life. Two centuries, under terrible conditions. It did not die, any more than it died when its founder was nailed to cross and his most trusted followers failed him. Whether the faith was distorted in the culture of Japan was never the primary issue; that was not the test. Whether men and women, subject to terrible tortures, could hold the faith was never the primary issue; it was not the test, either. The point was never to show that the faith was easy for anyone, nor to show that one could endure by sheer strength of will.
There's an interesting phrase used by Fr. Rodrigues at one point. He often thinks about the face of Christ, and once he speaks of it as the face he "longs to love". I think this suggests the heart of the book. The point was never about endurance or strength, failure or weakness. It was about love, which is not something easily had, since mostly we don't love but simply long to love. But love is the point. And no one genuinely loves unless they love even if they break.
They were martyred. But what a martyrdom! I had long read about martyrdom in the lives of the saints--how the souls of the martyrs had gone home to Heaven, how they had been filled with glory in Paradise, how the angels had blown trumpets. This was the splendid martyrdom I had often seen in my dreams. But the martyrdom of the Japanese Christians I now describe to you was no such glorious thing. What a miserable and painful business it was! The rain falls unceasingly on the sea. And the sea which killed them surges on uncannily--in silence.
Recommendation: Highly recommended. This is a good book on practically every count.
Quotations from Shusaku Endo, Silence, William Johnston, tr. Taplinger (New York: 1980).