How is it possible for the ocean to be silent? Can the sea lose its voice? On the face of it this seems impossible. The waves come rolling in with rhythmic constancy – breaking and pounding against the shoreline. Even on those days when the wind is perfectly still the water slaps gently against the rocks and our ears will pick up the sound of the water’s gurgle and swirl. So how can the sea lose its voice, be silent?
Of course, the ocean cannot finally be silent. Yet it is the nature of human language, of our attempt to understand and communicate ourselves, that we often hold seemingly disparate realities together in speech or written word. To stay with the idea of silence, we sometimes describe it as palpable or heavy, as if we can feel its pressure against our bodies, as if silence were subject to gravity, as we are. But in the strictest sense, silence is simply the absence of soundwaves striking our ears – silence is absence, rather than presence. It is not some thing, but the absence of something.
The capacity of human language to hold contradictory realities together, however, is a kind of gift, since it enables us to reflect more deeply on the meaning of life. Shusaku Endo deploys such a lexical disjunction in his novel Silence when he describes the ocean precisely as silent. The central character of the novel is a 17th century Portuguese, Jesuit missionary named Sebastien Rodrigues who wrestles with the desperate poverty and violent persecution of Japanese Christians, many of whom are tortured and killed in the sea itself. In the face of their suffering and persecution, Rodrigues encounters what he refers to as the depressing silence of the sea. When he prayed for his sisters and brothers, “the sea remained cold, and the darkness maintained its stubborn silence.”
Silence on the big screen
In his film adaptation of Endo’s novel, Martin Scorsese has created a soundtrack that is spare – almost puritan in its simplicity. Yet one of the commonly heard sounds is the ocean in its various registers. So while it is possible to read Endo’s novel in silence, it is not possible to view Scorsese’s screen version in silence. Waves pour over volcanic formations; oars push through calm seas; a priest splashes through the surf. The ocean is everywhere in your ears.
It turns out that, in Endo’s Silence, the silence of the ocean stands in for the silence of God. In one of Rodrigues’ letters, he writes: “I cannot bear the monotonous sound of the dark sea gnawing at the shore. Behind the depressing silence of this sea, the silence of God . . . the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.” God, here, is like the ocean, or the ocean like God. Vast, cold, powerful, eternal and awesome. This God is silent.
In the face of Rodrigues’ desperate pleas for help or at least explanation, God is silent. But perhaps it is just as well that this God is silent, for what would a God who is eternal and vast and powerful and cold say to us? Would such a God be able to offer words to meet the questioning pain of those who pray? Could such a God offer words that would satisfy our demands for justice or relief or explanation?
Perhaps the gift of Endo’s Silence, and of Scorsese’s honest wrestling with the novel in cinematic form, is the reminder that as much as we have been taught, or are inclined, to reach out to that powerful and vast and awesome God, God can only ever be silent in reply. More importantly, that God is not the God who accompanies us.
The God who accompanies us is himself silent before human pain and suffering, whether his own or that of his sisters and brothers. The incarnate God is not silent in the sense that he acquiesces to the injustices of our world, but in the sense that he refuses to explain suffering (away). Instead of offering facile words that can only dissatisfy us, he makes his silence ours, and ours his. And our deepest moments of faith, often our darkest moments also, are those when his silence with us becomes palpable, subject to gravity.