Re-reading Silence, Part 6: A Tale of Two Jesuits

At the time I began my re-read of Silence, a novel about a Jesuit missionary to Japan, I was also re-reading a memoir by another Jesuit missionary to the east. He Leadeth Me by Father Walter Ciszek, SJ, tells the spiritual side to the story of Father Ciszek’s imprisonment in Russia at the end of the second World War which he first recounted in With God in Russia. As I bounced back and forth between the two books, novel and memoir, I realized that there are some striking parallels between the fictional story of Father Rodrigues and Father Ciszek’s true story and comparing the two narratives might prove fruitful and help me to dig deeper into some areas of the novel that are proving to be rather sticky.

Like Rodrigues, Ciszek is a Jesuit missionary priest, sent into country that is actively hostile to Christianity and which has a history of persecution and killing priests. Like Rodrigues, he is captured, imprisoned by authorities, interrogated repeatedly, and, also like Rodrigues, he breaks under torture. Also like Rodrigues, after breaking he continues to live in the country and is forced against his will to actively work for the government which would crush him and the Catholic Church. Like Rodrigues, his activity is much curtailed and he lives under the watchful eye of an oppressive and hostile authority. But unlike Rodrigues, Ciszek does not despair after breaking under torture. Unlike Rodrigues, he never apostatizes, never renounces his faith or his loyalty to the Church. Unlike Rodrigues, Ciszek continues in active ministry as a priest. Unlike Rodrigues, he is eventually repatriated. Unlike Rodrigues, he dies in good grace with the Church.

But what is even more striking than the comparison of the details of their lives and the arc of their stories, is the comparison of their spiritual struggles and their response to the humiliation of torture. I think perhaps readers do not know what to make of Father Rodrigues and his experience because they have no true model for another way. Father Ciszek is a model for a man who breaks under torture and yet finds a way to come closer to Christ in his humiliation, to allow Christ to use his very brokenness to become his path to closer union with God. In this post I will mainly look at He Leadth Me. Then in the next I will return my focus to Silence and seeing how Ciszek’s ordeals in prison shed light upon Rodrigues’ ordeals.

I really want to excerpt the whole chapter about Ciszek’s interrogation. But I will content myself with a handful of key passages, albeit some fairly lengthy ones.

Failure, Guilt, and Shame

Back in my cell, I stood shaken and defeated. At first, I could not even grasp the dimensions of what had happened to me in the interrogator’s office and why. I was tormented by feelings of defeat, failure, and guilt. Yet above all, I was burning with shame. Physically, I shook with spasms of nervous tension and release. When at last I began to regain some control of my nerves, my thoughts and my emotions, I turned at once to prayer as best I could.

My prayer at first, though, was a matter of reproaches. I reproached myself for failing to stand up against the interrogator and speak out, for failing to refuse to sign the dossier. I reproached myself for caving in out of fear, for giving way to panic, and for acting sheerly out of some defense mechanism. And I did not spare God from these reproaches. Why had he failed me at the critical juncture? Why had he not sustained my strength and my nerve? Why had he not inspired me to speak out boldly? Why had he not shielded me by his grace from the fear of death? And why had he not, as a last resort, seen to it that I suffered a heart attack from all this tension, or a stroke, so that I would not have been able to sign the papers? I had trusted in him and his Spirit to give me a voice and wisdom against all adversaries. I had confounded no one, but I had myself been totally broken and confounded. And if I was not worth his intervention personally, how he could have allowed me to sign things that reflected so badly upon the Church? Were not his honor and his glory and the future of his kingdom upon earth at stake in all of this?

Little by little, surely under his inspiration and grace, I began to wonder about myself and my prayer. Why did I feel this way? The sense of defeat and failure was easy enough to explain after than episode in the interrogator’s office, but why so strong a sense of guilt and shame? I had acted in panic. I had yielded under threat of death. Why should I hold myself so fully responsible, why feel so guilty, for actions taken without full deliberation or full consent of the will? I had not been fully responsible at that moment; I had been nearly out of my mind. The act of signing had been prompted by an almost animal-like urge for survival. It had hardly ben conscious and surely not deliberate enough to deserve the name human. I had failed, true, but how much guilt had there been, and why should I feel so ashamed?

Slowly, reluctantly, under the gentle proddings of grace, I faced the truth that was at the root of my problem and my shame. The answer was a single word: I. 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. I had spent much time in prayer over the years, I had come to appreciate and thank God for his providence and care of me and all men, but I had never really abandoned myself to it. In a way, I had been thanking God all the while that I was not like the rest of men, that he had given me a good physique, steady nerves, and a strong will, and that with these physical graces given by God, I would 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 crucial test— and I had failed.

What I find most interesting here is Ciszek’s moving past guilt and shame to acceptance and humility. And that it is the proddings of grace that allows him to see and acknowledge the truth about himself and his actions. Shame and guilt arise because he is seeing his actions from the perspective of self-reliance. Humility and acceptance take their place when he begins to see them instead from God’s perspective.

God meets us in our brokenness and humiliation. He works in and through our brokenness and weakness so that our failures are themselves the locus of encounter and the means by which God invites us to deepen our relationship with him.

In Silence the moment of profound humiliation is the moment of trampling. It is a moment that Rodrigues and those Japanese Christians who are not called to martyrdom have in common. It is the moment where the weak fail and give in, where the spirit breaks, where human strength is insufficient. But perhaps by that very calculus it also becomes an opportunity, a moment for weakness to be acknowledged and for grace to enter in. It is the paradox of the cross that humiliation and suffering are the moment when God’s grace flowers into the fullness of encounter. And I think it is this mystery of humiliation that the novel leads us to contemplate.

I think it’s also worth noting that Ciszek’s fault was not in neglecting his prayer life, not in failing to perform the spiritual exercises. He has spent much time in prayer. He had spent much time contemplating God’s providence. And yet he still trusted more in his own strength than in God’s. I think this is Rodrigues’ error as well. He despises Kichijiro’s weakness and Ferreira’s weakness and is satisfied in his own strength: “And so, comparing his own loneliness and sadness with that of Ferreira, he felt for the first time some self-respect and satisfaction— and he was able quietly to laugh.” This self-respect seems more rooted in contempt for Ferreira than in an acceptance of his own weakness. Rodrigues still trusts in his own ability to avoid the evil of apostasy and can not admit that his own strength might be insufficient.

Failure as Lesson and Grace

Father Ciszek continues to delineate the lessons he learned after his failure to withstand torture.



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, the truth that encompasses our relations to God the Creator and through him to the world he has created and to our fellow men. And what we call humiliations are the trials by which our more complete grasp of this truth is tested. It is self that is humiliated; there would be no “humiliation” if we had learned to put self in its place, to see ourselves in proper perspective before God and other men. And the stronger the ingredient of self develops in our lives, the more severe must our humiliations be in order to purify us. That was the terrible insight that dawned upon me in the cell at Lubianka as I prayed, shaken and dejected, after my experience with the interrogator.

The Spirit had not abandoned me, for the whole experience had been his work. The sense of guilt and shame I felt was rooted in my failure to put grace ahead of nature, my failure to trust primarily in God rather than my own powers. I had failed and I was shaken to the roots, but it was a salutary shaking. . . . In that moment I had not seen death as God sees it or as I professed to believe it. Just as I had always seen the sessions with the interrogator from beginning to end, sometimes consciously, often subconsciously, as a contest between his will and my own, so in this moment of total crisis I had seen death almost solely in terms of self and not as the moment of my return to God, as it truly is. I has reason, therefore, to feel shame and guilt. It had been a moment of utter failure on my part to abandon myself to God’s will in total Christian commitment; I had failed miserably to be what I professed to be, or to act according to the principles I professed to believe. And yet that moment of failure was in itself a great grace, for it taught me a great lesson. Severe as the test had been, God had sustained me and was now instructing me by the light of his grace.

Rodrigues, too, sees both death and suffering almost solely in terms of self and not from the perspective of union with God. Above all he lacks humility, he fails to see the truth of himself, he fails to see the face of Christ in those who are weak.

But does Rodrigues learn a lesson at the moment of his failure? Is the trampling on the fumie also a great grace for him as Ciszek’s moment of failure is for him? Is there grace present even in the moment of his fall? I will look more at the final section of the novel in my next blog post to attempt to tease out textual evidence for an answer to those questions.

Primacy of Self and Purgation

In that one year of interrogations, these last terrible few hours, the primacy of self that had manifested itself and been reinforcing itself even in my methods of prayer and spiritual exercises underwent a purging, through purgatory, that left me cleansed to the bone. . . . and I had learned to the depths of my shaken soul, how totally I depended on him for everything, even in my survival and how foolish had been my reliance on self.

This passage prompted me again to think about Rodrigues and the extent to which “primacy of self” applies to the prayers and spiritual exercises we glimpse throughout the novel. There is something unsettling and unsatisfying about Rodrigues’ prayers. They feel incomplete, self centered. Often, he begins in prayer and ends in thinking of himself, not God.

Total Surrender and Conversion

To me the most striking moment in Ciszek’s book is the moment of his conversion experience. This moment of unity with Christ in his agony, the moment of total self surrender, does not free him from prison. He is still very much alone and suffering from torture and solitary confinement. No, the freedom he gains is internal, the freedom to accept God’s will for him in the moment. His radical self-abandonment to God changes nothing about his external state and everything about how he perceives his circumstances during more than a decade more of imprisonment in Russia.

Suddenly I was consoled by thoughts of our Lord and his agony in the garden. ‘Father,’ he had said, ‘if it be possible, let this chalice pass from me.’ In the Garden of Olives, he, too, knew the feeling of fear and weakness in his human nature as he faced suffering and death. Not once but three times did he ask to have his ordeal removed or somehow modified. Yet each time he concluded with an act of total abandonment and submission to the Father’s will. ‘Not as I will, but as thou wilt.’ It was not just conformity to the will of God, it was total self-surrender, a stripping away of al human fears, of all doubts about his own abilities to withstand the passion, of every last shred of self including self-doubt.

What a wonderful treasure and source of strength and consolation our Lord’s agony in the garden became for me from that moment on. I saw clearly exactly what I must do. I can only call it a conversion experience, and I can only tell you frankly that my life was changed from that moment on. If my moment of despair had been a moment of total blackness, then this was an experience of blinding light. I knew immediately what I must do, what I would do, and somehow I knew that I could do it. 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. And I did it.

The novel does not show Rodrigues having anything like this kind of clarity, but as the final section is given to us outside of Rodrigues’ head, it also allows for the possibility that something like it *could* have happened. And in my next blog post I will look more closely at the ending, especially focusing on the final scene with Kichijiro, to see what evidence Endo does give us about Rodrigues’ state of mind not only during that final encounter but during all the rest of his life in Japan.

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Previous posts in the series:

Part 1: Re-reading Shusaku Endo’s Silence

Part 2: Apostasy and Despair

Part 3: On Mercy

Part 4: Concerning Shepherds

Part 5: Rodrigues’ False God.

Next:

Part 7: With Faith in his Heart?

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