Silence, Then and Now

“A wind there was, rude and boisterous, that shook the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind, an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire, the whisper of a gentle breeze.” ∼ 1 Kings 19:11-12

A year ago, just in time for Christmas, Martin Scorsese released his movie Silence, which enjoyed much acclaim from film critics and much debate in Catholic media. The movie, about seventeenth-century Jesuit missionaries to Japan, hewed closely to its source material, a popular 1966 Japanese novel by Shusaku Endo.

Scorsese spent years on this personal labor of love, and the movie cost nearly $50 million to make. It was celebrated by the American Film Institute as one of the year’s ten best films and captured an Oscar nomination for cinematography. Public reception was not so warm. Worldwide box-office take for the movie was less than half the production cost, and Silence has been available for home viewing since mid-March, via streaming and DVD.

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The debate over the movie and the original novel lasted about as long, centered on an apparent act of apostasy committed by the main character, a Jesuit priest who trampled on a sacred image to spare Catholic peasants from further torture.

Silence itself is a mood infusing the story. There’s a passage in the book where Endo writes about the many sufferings of Japanese Catholics and God’s apparent absence. Someone asks the protagonist priest, the Jesuit Sebastian Rodrigues, where God is in all the suffering.

“Already twenty years have passed since the persecution broke out,” the priest considers to himself. “The black soil of Japan has been filled with the lament of so many Christians; the red blood of priests has flowed profusely; the walls of the churches have fallen down; and in the fact of this terrible and merciless sacrifice offered up to him, God has remained silent.”

Toward the end of Endo’s book, the silence briefly breaks. His Jesuit remembers his particular act of apparent rejection and the odd sort of peace he felt. “Lord, I resented your silence,” he prayed. The response comes back: “I was not silent. I suffered beside you.”

In the novel, the last act of the Jesuit of Silence is him carrying out a priestly function, hearing the confession of the poor, desperate peasant who alternately brought help and danger to him, who led him to help the Christian villagers and finally turned him in to the authorities.

I reread the book a year ago and have not yet seen the movie, but all this came rushing back to mind as I found myself reading Robert Cardinal Sarah’s book The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, released last year by Ignatius Press. The book is written as a series of thoughts or meditations from the African cardinal in response to leading questions from the French journalist Nicolas Diat, and made perfect preparatory reading for the Christmas season.

Cardinal Sarah’s book ruminates on several topics—the need for personal silence, the silence of God, silence and evil. Perhaps the best way to consider it is in juxtaposition to its antithesis, the “dictatorship of noise.” How can noise be dictatorial? How can silence be freeing?

To be sure, noise is an assaulting problem in today’s society—not just the noise of the cities, of radios and televisions, but even the written noise of social media that turns people against each other. As much as noise can take control of our senses it can control our moods and our thoughts.

Easy examples of noise as a controlling factor are simple melodies people refer as “earworms” because we can’t get them out of our mind. As a child visiting Disneyland, I learned this quickly, as the cloying theme song for It’s a Small World stayed in my head until I got to Pirates of the Caribbean and replaced it with a tune more suitable for an adolescent boy.

Cardinal Sarah’s reflection on silence centers at times on the silence of Our Lord, and the story of his Passion provides the best example. Silent before his accusers, silent before the noisy crowd, silent even beforehand, when proceeding on the back of a donkey into Jerusalem before the shallow praises of the populace. On the cross, it was the eloquence of his silent suffering that spoke the loudest, punctuated by his seven brief last words. This modus operandi reflected his entire life, as Our Lord was born in the silence of a stable at Bethlehem, fasted in the silence of the desert and often prayed, alone, in silence, before he died in the silence of the hilltop of Gethsemane, reminding one of the apocryphal saying often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.”

Two observations come to mind considering the novel and the newer book: Endo and Sarah do not represent European and American Catholicism; one is from Asia and the other from Africa. These works highlight the universality of the Christian experience and Catholic spirituality, and go further. They demonstrate that faith and wisdom is not a matter of geography, and that as much as “The West” eases away from its Christian heritage, Christendom can be reborn elsewhere. In Endo’s Japan, the Catholic faith survived in relative silence in private homes during centuries of persecution. In Cardinal Sarah’s Africa, renewed persecution feeds the faith of so many; his predecessor as Bishop of Conakry, Guinea, spent nine years in prison, forbidden to speak.

“In this silence, so terrible in appearance, like an icy and black insult, he had to turn to God in order to survive,” Cardinal Sarah writes. “The silence imposed by his jailers became his sole expression of love, his only offering to God, his only ladder to rise to heaven and converse with God, face to face, as a man speaks with his friend.”

Perhaps more important, the books are centered on two different religious traditions at the same time. A Jesuit mindset infuses Endo’s Silence. The self-argumentation on the part of Rodrigues as he tries to consider the right thing to do is stereotypically Jesuit, for good or for ill. The Society of Jesus was created for missionary work, including teaching, and these are hardly efforts meant for silence. At the same time, Carthusian spirituality informs The Power of Silence. This is not surprising when one considers that silence itself permeates the lives of Carthusians. Paradoxically like so much in Catholicism, these traditions are complementary, not contradictory.

So often in our lives, we sense God as silent and beg for him to speak to us in ways we can easily understand. Shusaku Endo and Cardinal Sarah each probe the same question in their own ways: Is there really silence from God, or must we be more silent ourselves, so that, like Elijah, we can really hear God, who often speaks not in wind and earthquake and fire, but in a low, gentle whisper? As we renew our faith this Christmas, we are urged to open our hearts; we are urged to step toward the holy silence of the infant Jesus.


  • K. E. Colombini

    K. E. Colombini is a former journalist who served as a political speechwriter before a career in corporate communications. A Thomas Aquinas College alumnus, he also studied English literature at Sonoma State University in Northern California. In addition to Crisis, Colombini has been published in First Things, Inside the Vatican, The American Conservative and the Homiletic and Pastoral Review. He and his wife live in suburban St. Louis, and have five children and ten grandchildren.

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