A few years ago I discovered the Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo. One of my favourite Endo novels is called Silence. Recently Martin Scorsese adapted the novel into a movie of the same name. The story is set in 17th century Japan. Christianity had gained a minority following and, consequently, was soon seen as a threat. Because of this, Christians were persecuted and killed. The choice was given: renounce Christianity (apostatize) or die.
Silence is about the human struggle to remain faithful to a God that seems silent in the midst of suffering, a suffering that is happening precisely because of a decision to remain faithful to this silent God.
In the movie, Sebastiao Rodriques, a Portuguese Jesuit priest and missionary in Japan, struggles to make sense of what is happening to him and around him. His faith in an all-powerful God is shaken as this God does nothing to stop what is happening. The only ‘answer’ Rodriques gets is silence. What is the point of being faithful to this mute, powerless God? Surely to apostatize would be the better course?
The book and movie wrestle with the assumption that silence means an absence of the divine life. We can have an expectation of how God should act in a given situation, and this expectation can weigh heavily, especially in the midst of suffering. If our expectations of God are unmet, when all we get is silence dressed up as absence, faith can be lost. It can also turn dogmatic.
The challenge is to not turn from this silence, no matter how we may be experiencing it. If we do turn away, we may discover in time that the turning away was all a part of a turning back to what silence actually is.
When I closed my eyes it was twilight. Around the shed, the birds had been back in the trees announcing the end of day. But now as my eyes opened it was dark. All was still. All. Inside and outside. The mantra had settled the mind and darkness had settled the birds. Silence. And in the silence there was a presence. More than that: the silence itself seemed to be a presence, an always present presence; a presence not of my making. I sat, not wanting to break the stillness with movement. In silence, in presence, in stillness, I sat.
In the movie, Rodriques too begins to sense a divine presence in silence. He discovers a God in the silence who is suffering with all who suffer. God speaks as silent presence, and God is fully present all the time no matter what. In this presence God loves. Love is this presence. In the reality of human suffering, Divine Love suffers with us and makes of suffering a way into the depth and meaning of life. Suffering is not taken away – it can become gift.
Sometimes the events of life can shake us from our expectations of God and our ideas of silence. It’s as if what is happening is breaking down what we have held dear, what has up to that point provided meaning. It can all be taken from us, leaving us lost and bereft. Suffering can wrench us free from ideas of life and divinity formerly held close. If our humanity is to deepen, if we are to discover more a God in communion with us through everyone and everything, then ideas of life and divinity must change. Only later do we look back and see that we are somehow freer, less fearful, more humble and simple than we were before.
As this happens the way we live with silence changes. We grow into silence. Silence becomes the way we can be with the God who is transfiguring our humanity for communion with Love.
The invitation then is for us to be present ourselves to this divine presence in us. As this happens, as we give regular attention to it, our deep union with the divine life is realised consciously – we become more and more aware of it. A communion of Spirit and spirit (already given) in time becomes a communion of divinity with the whole of our humanity. Our psyche becomes an inner landscape so transfigured by silence that the divine presence becomes uniquely conscious in us.
Meditation is simply a way to give regular attention to this divine presence in us. It is the putting aside of all ideas about life and God – even the ideas that suffering may have helped us come to. Ideas about union are not union. We become silent so that we may be simply conscious-in-communion with divinity rather than self-conscious with ideas, thoughts, and imaginings.
Perhaps all this may seem like a folly or a panacea, an escape from actually doing anything at all. However, what happens as we attend to this silent presence of Love in us is that we are drawn into a particular kind of action: loving action. In whatever circumstance we find ourselves in Divine Love is always inviting us into loving, kind action here and now. As we meditate we come to know, in our own experience, what this love is – the flavour of it. The invitation to loving action then becomes harder to resist and we end up expressing the love we are becoming.