(continued from Part 1)
Critics regard the other novel set in this historical period, "Silence," as Endo's masterpiece. Its prose is spare and clean, the plot marches inexorably toward a tragic conclusion, the characterizations achieve a depth rare in Endo's fiction, and these qualities all work together to create an atmosphere suffused with the power of myth.
"Silence" follows a Portuguese priest, Rodrigues, on a dangerous mission to Japan. Word has filtered back to Jesuit headquarters that the most famous missionary in Japan, Father Ferreira, has apostatized. Rodrigues, who studied under Father Ferreira in seminary, cannot believe it possible that the great man would have renounced the faith after 20 years of courageous service. He sets sail to find Ferreira, knowing that he will likely not return alive.
Rodrigues survives extreme hardship to reach Japan, and upon arrival he hears the confessions of secret Christians (members of the fledgling Kakure church) who have not seen a priest in years. One of these Christians, Kichijiro, a despicable, cunning fisherman, turns in Rodrigues to the shogun for a reward.
Rodrigues holds fast to his faith under personal torture. He even refuses to recant when faced with an unbearable moral situation. Groups of Christians are led to him. If he steps on the fumie, he is told, they will be set free. He refuses, and they are taken away and killed before his eyes. "He had come to this country to lay down his life for other men, but instead of that the Japanese were laying down their lives one by one for him." Still, no matter what barbarous methods of torture the shoguns use, Rodrigues will not renounce his faith.
As the title intimates, the theme of silence pervades the novel. Over 100 times Rodrigues sees the haunting face of Jesus, a face he loves and serves; but the face never speaks. It remains silent when the priest is chained to a tree to watch the Christians die, silent when he asks for guidance on whether to commit the fumie to set them free, and silent when he prays in his cell at night.
One night Rodrigues hears a sound like snoring. The sound, actually moans, comes from Christians hanging upside down over pits, their ears slit so that blood will drip and they will die a slow, agonizing death. These, too, can be set free, if Rodrigues will only recant. Rodrigues has been warned about this torture by Ferreira, who visited him in his cell. To his horror, he learned from that visit that the great missionary Ferreira had indeed recanted, after just five hours of hanging in the pit. Ferreira urged Rodrigues, too, to step on the fumie. It is just a symbol, an external act. He need not really mean it. It will save so many lives...
Endo later complained that Silence was misinterpreted because of its title. "People assume that God was silent," he said, when in fact God does speak in the novel. Here is the decisive scene when silence is broken, at the very moment when Rodrigues is contemplating the fumie:
"It is only a formality. What do formalities matter?" The interpreter urges him on excitedly. "Only go through with the exterior form of trampling."
The priest raises his foot. In it he feels a dull, heavy pain. This is no mere formality. He will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life, on what he has believed most pure, on what is filled with the ideals and the dreams of man. How his foot aches! And then the Christ in bronze speaks to the priest: "Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men's pain that I carried my cross."
The priest placed his foot on the fumie. Dawn broke. And far in the distance the cock crew.
When "Silence" first appeared, in 1966, many Japanese Catholics responded with outrage. Protective of their martyred forebears, they objected to the "romanticization" of apostates like Ferreira and Rodrigues. More sympathetic critics, however, pointed out that the novel ends ambiguously. Quite possibly Rodrigues has recanted only formally, for the sake of the suffering Japanese Christians, while in fact retaining a secret faith. Indeed, even after his betrayal, the apostate priest hears Kichijiro's confession and grants him absolution.
In his own defense, Endo locates the theme of the novel in the transformation of the face of Jesus, not the transformation of the characters. "To me the most meaningful thing in the novel is the change in the hero's image of Christ," he says. Formerly, Rodrigues had believed in a Jesus of majesty and power. The image of Jesus that had appeared to him more than 100 times was pure, serene, heavenly. Gradually, though, as Rodrigues's mission fails--and indeed, causes the death of many Japanese--the face of Jesus begins to change into one marked by human suffering. Weary, hunted, near despair, Rodrigues catches a glimpse of his own reflection in a pool of rainwater, a glimpse that becomes an epiphany:
There reflected in the water was a tired, hollow face. I don't know why, but at that moment I thought of the face of another man ...the face of a crucified man ...heavy with mud and with stubble; it was thin and dirty; it was the face of a haunted man, filled with uneasiness and exhaustion.
From that point on, the novel uses words like suffering, emaciated, worn down, and ugly to describe the face of Jesus. And when the silence finally breaks, just as Rodrigues is about to step on the fumie, this face speaks:
It was not a Christ whose face was filled with majesty and glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by endurance of pain; nor was it a face filled with the strength of a will that has repelled temptation. The face of the man who then lay at his feet was sunken and utterly exhausted.
The true scheme behind Endo's transformed image of Jesus comes to light in his nonfiction work, "A Life of Jesus." The book sold 300,000 copies and for many Japanese remains their primary introduction to the Christian faith. Shusaku Endo believes that Christianity has failed to make much impact on Japan because the Japanese have heard only one side of the story. They have heard about the beauty and majesty: Japanese tourists visit Chartres and Westminster Abbey and bring home pictures of that glory, and Japanese choirs and orchestras perform the religious masterpieces of Handel and Bach. But somehow, the Japanese have missed another message: of a God who "made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant"; of a Son of God who wept, almost helplessly, as he approached Jerusalem.
Endo explains that his point of contact with Japanese unbelievers centers on failure and shame, because in his culture these leave the most lasting impact on a person's life. Japanese people can only comprehend such theological notions as love, grace, trust, and truth in the experience of their opposites.
People raised in a Buddhist culture, Endo feels, can best identify with one who "suffers with us" and "allows for our weakness." For Endo himself, the most poignant legacy of Jesus was his unquenchable love, even for--especially for--people who betrayed him. One by one, Jesus' disciples deserted him; still he loved them. His nation had him executed; while stretched out naked in the posture of ultimate disgrace, Jesus roused himself for the cry, "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." This is the Jesus who speaks from the fumie, whose love extends to apostasy and beyond.
To those scandalized by the apparent apostasy of Ferreira and Rodrigues, Endo points to the two great founders of the Christian church: Peter denied Christ three times; Paul led the first persecution of Christians. If grace had not extended to those two, the New Testament church might never have gotten off the ground.
Why is Christianity virtually the only Western practice that has failed to take root in Japan? Endo traces its failure to misunderstandings, especially regarding the Western concept of the Fatherhood of God. Therapist Erich Fromm says that a child from a balanced family receives two kinds of love. Mother love tends to be unconditional, accepting the child no matter what, regardless of behavior. Father love tends to be more provisional, bestowing approval as the child meets certain standards of behavior. Ideally, says Fromm, a child should receive and internalize both kinds of love.
According to Endo, Japan, a nation of authoritarian fathers, has understood the father love of God but not the mother love. An old Japanese saying lists the four most awful things on earth as "fires, earthquakes, thunderbolts, and fathers." For Christianity to have any appeal to the Japanese, Endo concludes, it must stress instead the mother love of God, the love that forgives wrongs and binds wounds and draws, rather than forces, others to itself. ("O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!")
"In 'maternal religion' Christ comes to prostitutes, worthless people, misshapen people and forgives them," says Endo. "God is not a punishing God, but a God who asks that children be forgiven." As he sees it, Jesus brought the message of mother love to balance the father love of the Old Testament. A mother's love will not desert even those who commit crimes; it forgives any weakness, even apostasy.
"A Life of Jesus" fills in the portrait of the mother love of Jesus:
He was thin; he wasn't much. One thing about him, however--he was never known to desert other people if they had trouble. When women were in tears, he stayed by their side. When old folks were lonely, he sat with them quietly. It was nothing miraculous, but the sunken eyes overflowed with love more profound than a miracle. And regarding those who deserted him, those who betrayed him, not a word of resentment came to his lips. No matter what happened, he was the man of sorrows, and he prayed for nothing but their salvation.
That's the whole life of Jesus. It stands out clean and simple, like a single Chinese ideograph brushed on a blank sheet of paper.
Traditional Christians will find Endo's portrayal of Jesus woefully incomplete. He says nothing of Jesus' miracles, and, frankly, they seem almost irrelevant to his aims. He leaves out scenes that show Jesus' authority and power. Similarly, Endo gives a limp rendering of the Resurrection as a dawning awareness within the disciples of Jesus' true nature. Again, one senses that Endo himself has little personal interest in the Resurrection and sees it as a barrier to Japanese belief.
To critics who judge Endo's theology harshly, he replies, "My way of depicting Jesus is rooted in my being a Japanese novelist. I wrote this book for the benefit of Japanese readers who have no Christian tradition of their own and who know almost nothing about Jesus. What is more, I was determined to highlight the particular aspect of love in his personality precisely in order to make Jesus understandable in terms of the religious psychology of my non-Christian countrymen and thus to demonstrate that Jesus is not alien to their religious sensibilities."
Endo has surmounted many of the barriers facing Christian novelists by leading his audience to expect a success but giving them a failure--and then portraying that failure as the greatest success. "A novelist cannot write about what is holy," Endo says. "He cannot depict the holy Christ, but he can write about Jesus through the eyes of the sort of people who stepped on the fumie, or the eyes of his disciples and others who betrayed the Christ." He might have added that the novelist can only write about Jesus through the eyes of the novelist himself, for in the end, Endo has not strayed far from his own autobiography. Inside the elderly, esteemed man of letters there is still a little boy struggling to make his foreign suit of clothes fit a Japanese body.
One of Endo's short stories, "Mothers," tells of a man who visits a group of Kakure Christians on a remote island in search of some truth about himself. These crypto-Christians, devoted to Mary, with an acute sense of historical failure, appeal to the visitor. He senses in them something of the longing he felt as a child, unable to communicate well with his own mother. "Sometimes I catch a glimpse of myself in these kakure, people who have had to lead lives of duplicity, lying to the world and never revealing their true feelings to anyone."
In a recurring dream, the narrator lies in a hospital, heavily drugged. As he fades in and out of consciousness he sees that beside him, patient, doggedly loving, sits his mother--no one else, just his mother. In lucid moments, he ponders her intense faith and his own waywardness. "The more she compelled me to share her faith, the more
I fought her oppressive power, the way a drowning child struggles against the pressure of the water." As the narrator thinks these thoughts, listening to the hum of life-support machines, shifting mistily between the present and the past, preparing for a future he cannot imagine, his mother sits beside him, silent, waiting.
Used by permission of Phillip Yancey