Re-reading Silence Part 5: Rodrigues’ False God

Re-reading Silence Part 5: Rodrigues’ False God

Part five of my never-ending series about Shusaku Endo’s novel, Silence. I’ve probably got at least two more posts in me, if I don’t just get bored and walk away. Actually, I really want to write them, so hopefully that won’t happen. I don’t know exactly why I feel so passionately about this book. Mainly, I think I want to write on it because it seems so woefully misunderstood. I’ve not really seen a review or critical essay that did it justice at all at all. But also because I myself have been mystified by this difficult novel. The first time I read it I was overwhelmed. I knew there was a lot to say, but I didn’t even know where to begin. But when the film came out and I started to read reviews of the movie and of the book too, I wanted to argue with the critics. I did start arguing with them. But my memory of the book was too hazy to do it justice, so I finally sat down to re-read it. And I read with a pencil in hand, making notes on almost every page. Probably in part because I was reading against the critics, I had a focus and a passion.

Above all I went in wanting to show that the novel offers no evidence for the claims that Endo is a bad Catholic and that the novel is an apologia for apostasy. As I’ve read and written I’ve come to understand the novel much, much more. I can’t wait to get to writing about the ending.

The Strong and the Weak

At the end of Chapter Four, just before he is captured, Rodrigues muses:

Men are born in two categories: the strong and the weak, the saints and the commonplace, the heroes and those who respect them. In times 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. As for you (I now spoke to myself) which category do you belong to? Were it not for the consciousness of your priesthood and your pride, perhaps you like Kichijiro would trample on the fumie.

These categories of Rodrigues’ are not Christian categories. They sound more like Neitzsche than like anything within Christian tradition. In Saint Paul’s letter to the Corinthians you find exactly the opposite, Paul who is suffering says that power is made perfect in weakness:

Therefore, to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me, but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me. Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong. — 2 Corinthians 12: 7-10

The saint is not one who is strong in himself, but one who allows Christ’s grace to become his strength. Rodrigues tries to deny his own weakness, refuses to ask for strength from God, closes himself off to grace, and thus runs away from hardships and persecutions. Even when he is captured, he still relies not on Christ but on himself, on his priesthood and on his pride. Where St Paul is content to be humiliated for the sake of Christ, Rodrigues cannot bear the thought of being weak like Kichijiro. And so in his contempt he creates two false categories.

Christ as Tragic Hero?

In the next chapter he continues to think along similar lines:

Yet somehow or other he also felt an inexpressible dissatisfaction– a kind of disillusion that he was not privileged to be a tragic hero like so many martyrs and like Christ himself.

Christ is not a tragic hero. A tragic hero is a literary character who is destined for a fall, who is virtuous but not perfect for a flaw in his character leads him to make a judgment error that inevitably leads to his own destruction. Christ, on the other hand, is the all-good, all-powerful-all-knowing, perfect God who is Love, Creator of Heaven and Earth. He is not flawed. Nor are his passion and crucifixion the result of a tragic flaw or an error in judgement. Rather they are part of a plan, part of a story that begins in Genesis and ends in Revelation. He is the hero of a story that is not a tragedy, but a comedy, a romance in which God is the Lover tirelessly seeking his Beloved, a romance that ends with a great marriage feast, like all good romances. 

Christ lay aside his power, he became weak by choice, “he took on the form of a slave.” He made this choice so that he can become sin and save us from our sins. Christ became sin but he never committed a single sin. How could God choose to turn from himself? It is impossible. Since sin is a turning away from God, Christ cannot sin, he cannot turn away from his very self. His passion and death are no fall at all but the greatest victory ever celebrated. He destroys sin by his death. He dies to save us and restore us to his friendship. So that even when we are weak, he is strong. 

But Rodrigues, conversely, is a tragic hero. By and large he is a moral and virtuous man, but he is profoundly wrong in his understanding of who Christ is. Ironically, it is his conception of Christ as a tragic hero that makes Rodrigues himself into a tragic figure, doomed to fall. And yet, because Christianity it ultimately a romance and not a tragedy, Endo lets us hope that Rodrigues’ story does not end with his fall, that there are mercy and redemption for him. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’re not to the ending yet.

Ecce Homo

In my first blog post I looked closely at a scene in which Rodrigues remembers contemplating the face of Christ in a painting at his seminary and how his meditation on the face of Christ is essentially an aesthetic and not a spiritual meditation. Here is another scene in which Rodrigues shies away from the image of Christ crucified to focus on a beautiful Christ.

Squatting down I stirred the water to dampen my neck, now bathed in sweat. The clouds disappeared from the water and instead there appeared the face of a man— yes, 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 yet another man. This was the face of a crucified man, a face which for so many centuries had given inspiration to artists. This man none of these artists had seen with his own eyes, yet they had portrayed his face— the most pure, the most beautiful that has claimed the prayers of man and has corresponded with his highest aspirations. No doubt his real face was more beautiful than anything they have envisaged. Yet the face reflected in this pool of rainwater was heavy with mud and with stubble; it was thin and dirty; it was the face of a haunted man filled with uneasiness and exhaustion. Do you realize that in such circumstances a man may suddenly be seized with a fit of laughing? I thrust my face down to the water, twisted my lips like a madman, rolled my eyes and kept grimacing and making ludicrous faces in the water.

Why did I do such a crazy thing? Why? Why?

Rodrigues sees his own face as a dirty, haunted, tired man, a crucified man. And that clashes with his idealized idea of what Christ ought to be. In his imagination Christ must be the most beautiful, the most pure. Rodrigues cannot bear to contemplate the Crucified Christ and so when the thought of his identification with Christ crucified presents itself to Rodrigues’ imagination, Rodrigues rejects the identification. He rejects the implication that he is called to suffer and die and be crucified.

Rodrigues knows of the crucified Christ, certainly, yet over and over again his words and actions suggest that he worships a false Christ, a beautiful, tragic Christ. Not the man of suffering of Isaiah, but something more like a Greek god or a Japanese samurai warrior, strong not weak, proud not humble, rich not poor, healthy not sick. Rodrigues wants to conform himself not to Christ crucified but to Christ glorified. Yet Christ himself tells us, over and over, that the only way to resurrection and glory is by way of the cross.

Why does Rodrigues go so crazy? Why does he act like a madman, grimacing at himself? Is it because he fears Christ, fears suffering, fears humiliation? Is it because he almost sees the true Christ or because he almost sees his true self?

The Image of Martyrdom

Then, consider the scene after the martyrdom of the one-eyed man where Rodrigues meditates on the passion except what he’s actually meditating on is the high priest in the temple and the ripping of the veil, not the actual crucifixion:

‘It was almost noon. Until the third hour darkness covered the whole earth.’ When that man had died on the cross, from within the temple had issued three bugle calls, one long, one short, and then one long again. Preparations for the ceremony of the Pasch had begun. In blue, flowing robes the high priest had ascended the stairway of the temple and, standing before the altar on which lay the sacrificial victim, had blown the trumpet. At that time the sky had darkened and behind the clouds the sun had faded. ‘Darkness fell. The veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top even to the bottom.’ This was the image of martyrdom he had long entertained; but the martyrdom of these peasants, enacted before his very eyes– how wretched it was, miserable like the huts they lived in, like the rags in which they were clothed.

This is so very strange as to be arresting. Rodrigues’ image of martyrdom is not Christ on the cross. It is the high priest in flowing robes blowing a trumpet while standing before the sacrificial victim. There is no Christ in his meditation. He moves as quickly as possible from “that man” to the imagery of the temple.

Also, it seems to me that this habit he has of referring to Christ not by name or title but as “that man” is telling. It seems like an evasion. Perhaps it’s indicative of a refusal to really think about Jesus as a real person? At any rate, it seems like an indicator of something being off in Rodrigues’ understanding of Christ.

Additionally, I have noted that Rodrigues also refers to Ferreira as “that man” at one point and I think there is some hero worship of Ferreira. Does he equate Ferreira and Christ? Or does Ferreira become a sort of false Christ? I think Rodrigues’ need to find out why Ferreira failed is rooted in his need for him to be the infallible hero. If Rodrigues’ faith is rooted not in Christ but in Ferreira and then Ferreira fails then maybe God isn’t real? So when he tramples on the fumie is Rodrigues rejecting not Christ, really, but the false Christ that he has constructed? Perhaps in that sense trampling on the fumie might be considered in the light of a felix culpa, a moment in which his faith in the false Christ is shattered to clear room for him to begin to discern the true face of the Crucified one?

Part 1: Re-reading Shusaku Endo’s Silence

Part 2: Apostasy and Despair

Part 3: On Mercy

Part 4: Concerning Shepherds

Part 6: A Tale of Two Jesuits

Join the discussion

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.