“But did he hear their screams?”
My wife Meg is named after two martyrs who lost their lives during the horrible “killing times” of Scotland in the 17th-century. Two Margarets, one an older woman and the other a girl, were staked in the bay as the tide came in, condemned to death for their refusal to forsake their faith. The older Margaret was placed further out with the perverse hope that her death would persuade the younger Margaret to give in. Neither did, and almost 300 years later Meg was named Margaret in honor of these courageous women, hearing the stories of their lives and deaths as she grew up into the world, her parents hoping that she would be formed by the courage of their convictions.
But as brave as they were, they must have cried out. Torture is torture, horror is horror in every time and place, and human beings cry out, everyone everywhere cries out. Did God hear their screams?
In its own unique way the question of suffering runs its way through my life. As a young man I began thinking about brokenness, about the reality of a broken world, realizing that there were harder questions written into the development of an honest faith than I had realized growing up on a nice street in a nice town— because, as “nice” as it was, it was a time and place where childhood friends lost their parents and siblings in tearful, tragic accidents, and neighborhood buddies died too soon, too terribly soon. Looking back, it is not that I have suffered most, as in many wonderful ways my life has been graced, but in the years of my life I have been hurt, wounded in body and soul, and I know disappointment, grief and heartache. We all do, in our own unique ways.
Simply said, the God of “everybody’s fine” is not one that I have any interest in. Health and wealth gospels of every age are anathema, because they aren’t true. For me, growing up— further up and further in as pilgrimage always is —came in taking the sorrows of my youth to heart, seeing that what I had known was the common experience of everyone everywhere. From hitch-hiking around some of the world, seeing and hearing things I had never imagined, to reading Albert Camus’ novel “The Plague,” the ante was raised on everything I believed about life, everything I believed about the world.
All this came to mind with artful power as I watched “Silence,” the new film of Martin Scorsese from the novel by Shusaku Endo. Having watched the film be born-in-hope several years ago, I have been more interested than most, perhaps, wondering what Scorcese would do with the story. Would he tell it in a way that kept faith with Endo? One of our most gifted cinematic storytellers, he would bring something into being that, simply by his name, would be watched by millions. But would it be worth our time, worthy of our hearts?
The story is about Portuguese missionaries who go to Japan, discovering that an oppressive political regime threatens all Christians with a severe suffering, or to a horrific death. Almost a year-and-a-half ago I wrote a short reflection on the novel, confessing that it was the most difficult book I have ever read. My friend Mako Fujimura, whose book “Silence and Beauty” is a must read for anyone who is drawn into knowing more about Endo and his work, calls his reading of “Silence,” “an excruciating experience,” and describes Endo has “a novelist of pain.” Yes, deeply so. The book is hard to read because it is a hard story— not that the ideas are too complex, or the narrative is difficult to follow, but that the story is very weighty, requiring the reader to reflect on suffering to the nth degree. If you have interest, there is more here.
“But did he hear their screams?” asks Father Rodrigues, as he watched good and godly people die. Is God there, and does he care? The question of theodicy is threaded through the film from beginning to end. One of the most perennial of all questions, it is so because we have so many good reasons to ask, year after year, generation after generation, “Where are you?” Is heaven silent? On many days in many lives, it seems that way. Where is God, in the face of sorrow and suffering? That was Camus’ question, it has been the question of my life, one that I have wrestled with for the years of my life— and it was Endo’s question too.
He set his story in 17th-century Japan, the very same century known on the other side of the world as “the killing times.” In the heartache of history, it was true in both places, murderous century that it was— and truth be told, it was true of many people in many places in the same century, as it is tragically true of every century. The same evil hearts that imagined tortuous deaths for the two Margarets imagined the very same deaths for Japanese Christians who were staked into the sea, holding onto their faith as they drowned. We are perennial people, for curse and for blessing, in our cruelty and our kindness.
The best stories always tell the truth of the human condition, the truth about who we are, so the heart of a good story is that we can see ourselves, both the glory and the ruin of the human heart. And that is the main reason “Silence” is a story for all of us, if we have ears to hear. There is malice of the worst sort, unimaginable evil imagined and accomplished, with perverse pleasure— “suffering to the nth degree,” horribly, awfully so. But there is also truth and honor, courage and grace, forgiveness and mercy, creatively and intentionally woven into the story. We are both, always we are both.
When the credits roll, the heavens don’t open and the birds don’t sing; a story like that wouldn’t be worthy of anyone’s heart because it isn’t true to who we are and the world in which we live. The stories that we allow to have shaping power for us must be true, stretched taut as we are between what once was, what now is, and what someday will be. What we are surprisingly graced with is “a hint of hope”— the allusive image of the novelist Walker Percy who was honored by the literary critics for his unusual willingness to honestly look into the heartache of life, without flinching; they even called him “the American Camus.” But he shook his head, responding that his novels would always have “a hint of hope.”
His hope wasn’t cheap, ever, given his own autobiographical sorrows, but rather one that gives us the grist to keep on keeping on with hard-won faith— a calling in some times and some places for martyrs, but more often the vocation for all of us, sons of Adam and daughters of Eve that we are, living ordinary lives in ordinary places, seeing and hearing the wounds of the world, hoping that God is there, and that he is not silent.