Two weeks ago, I attended a screening of Martin Scorsese’s latest film, Silence. Since then, I have compiled pages of notes and thoughts. So far, this very long, very all over the place post is what I have. I'm sure I will edit and pick at it for the coming days. Just yesterday, a friend reached out to me wanting to talk about his own experience with the film. The conversation illustrated to me that talking about Silence can, and will, bring about questions and ideas that continually delve deeper.
A majority of my life has been spent learning to be in relationship with silence; to cope through the quiet; to not be bogged down with the empty yet oppressing and even deafening nature that silence acquires. This isn't to say that all versions of silence are negative. There's the beautiful silence of a house during the first hours of the morning; the reality of being anonymous in a new city, a new home; a resting infant through the night; the weightlessness of being with a person and not feeling the need to fill the air with small talk.
In the right context--as with so many other things--silence can be good and well. However, the film didn't make me think of the tranquil version of silence. Instead, it made me think of its unapproachable side. The side of silence that never feels promising -- the side that comes into effect when Christ is concerned.
My initial notes about the film drew me back to my first year of college at a Quaker university. I explained my naiveté to Quakerism — more specifically, to the practice of meditation and quiet: something that a few of my professors encouraged students to engage in, whether in class or for take home assignments. Learning about Quakerism while at George Fox was fascinating and ultimately beneficial. However, during meditations and reflections I was usually the one with her eyes open while my peers allowed themselves to enter into peaceful quiet. I listened to my peers discuss their relationship with silence, which aided in deepening their relationship with God. Yet, I didn't understand the willingness to be vulnerable in silence -- not just the willingness of my peers, but the willingness of anyone, believer and nonbeliever alike.
It is safe to say that there are those who associate silence with peace. It is a fact to say that I associate silence with anxiety, struggle, and nothingness. A decade long battle against depression and anxiety will surely cause silence to be a thing that can rattle one to the core, and I am no exception.
That first year of college, I—without any means of explanation—truly felt God impress on my heart that I was about to face a mountain of silence. I’m not one to be open about what I feel God may or may not be saying to me (plenty of experience with self righteous people will do that), but I felt it so many years ago now. Enough time has passed that I have watched what was once impressed on my heart come to fruition in my life each year since. I know deep down that God was and is with me in the silence — though this knowledge never feels sufficient in my battle against the weight that is associated with it.
So, here I am. It’s been years since the season of silences began--that first bout of depression at twelve at the hands of cruel classmates, and again when loss occurred, and once more at seventeen when God pulled the rug out from under my feet--with each year bringing its own take on what quiet can look like. Every person has a battle to face in life, one that surpasses other battles — mine so happens to be the fear of silence and the fear of what I assume it says.
2017 is so new, therefore I am uncertain as to what silence will fully look like this year, if it ends up looking like anything at all. For the time being, however, silence looks like Martin Scorsese’s film. And, in that case, it looks quiet a bit like all of us.
Silence is nearly three hours, though the actual duration of time is not the factor that makes the experience feel long. What leads the story along slowly is the lack of music, the isolation and fear of the characters, the cloud of oppression cast by the nation’s law against Christianity, the reality of apostatizing, and the sweltering feeling of the desperate need to be heard — not only by man and most especially by God.
Two Jesuit priests—Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garupe (Adam Driver)—travel to Japan with the mission of locating Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who, reports claim, apostatized and has not been heard from since. The two men are warned that their journey could be fatal, and the reality of finding Ferreira alive is grim if not entirely absurd. The two make the journey anyway — with faith as the key source from which they draw their hope and confidence in God’s will. What ignites the moment they take on the mission is a story that unfolds beyond the screen and into the heart of any receptive audience member, no matter one’s belief system.
Prior to the screening, and based on the intensity of the trailer, I anticipated that the film's violence might be too graphic. And, while there are moments of brutality, the heaviest portion of the torture is internal -- the internal battle waging within the characters, and then unnerving notion the audience feels as a result. Their faith labors, and the audience labors with them, I labored with them. And before you assume that I'm being overly emotional about just a movie, hear me out. I love film, sometimes just for the sake of laughing at stupidity and nonsense. But, there are movies for the sake of entertainment, and then there are films meant for transforming, speaking, challenging, and moving.
Silence goes beyond cinema and movie-going, and enters into the realm of stories that are meant to be experiences. I personally believe that all stories can be heard, good stories are easily listened to, and great stories are felt and experienced. I once had an English professor teach about the relationship between divinity and cinema — Silence is a thorough depiction of that relationship. I believe that the divine transcends cinema when a story has the power to portray more than just a moving picture, and to evoke more than just a momentary emotion.
The bones of Silence are made up of gorgeous imagery, a lengthy plot, raw character development, and well crafted production. Really, I was amazed at how intricate and beautiful the whole film feels.Yet, it is the heart of Silence that caused a restlessness in me during the screening and continued to haunt me days after. Its questions have stuck with me over the course of two weeks — questions that could only be asked through and because of the silence that ensued.
One question in particular regards the act of apostatizing. Without a single word, any character can save his or her self only through the simple act of stepping on an image of Christ. I was forced into asking myself how I might act with the threat of a violent death looming over my head — how might I allow silence to speak on my behalf?
Would I renounce my entire faith with the simple step of my foot and not a drop of a word from my tongue?
Or, would I stand in silence like a pillar? — my lack of action and words acting as screaming evidence of a faith refusing to be moved. In all honesty, I felt a heap of guilt when I found my answers — answers that I concluded two hours into the film, and in the days following.
Without giving a pivotal part of the film away, I will say that there is a moment toward the end where Christ speaks and makes his purpose known. I don’t feel like it’s too revealing to say that Christ’s purpose was and is to be stepped upon. Scorsese certainly didn't shy away from the idea. Before my words are misconstrued, I must disclose that I say this with the utmost respect. If Christ was not going to be stepped on by humanity time and time again there would be no need for a Crucifixion. The reality of the Crucifixion doesn't justify humanity's constant state of failure, but it does remind me of the open door established by sacrifice and grace through faith. I watched as fictional characters either refused to step on the image of Christ or apostatized to save their earthly life — both decisions made in heightened seconds of silence.
I thought of Christ's humanity, too. How could I not? I thought about what those moments of hanging on a cross must have sounded like. I imagine that the sounds were loud. The bang of a nail through flesh is loud; the cries of a mother, deafening; the sound of nature, filling; the final breaths of life, labored; the mock of sinners, obtrusive and vulgar; the cries of the Son of God himself, unbearable.
Yet, in spite of the swirl of sounds that filled the air on that day, I also imagine the moment as one defined by solemn silence. I am familiar with crying out to God and feeling as though I’m praying to silence. However, Christ knows full well the loneliness of praying to silence because he lived such a thing on the Cross. We do not know the actual experience of going unheard by God because Christ bore the experience in our place. So the ceiling isn't really there, yet we struggle on through the muck of a seemingly perpetual of silence.
Rodrigues and Garupe experience silence amidst extreme conditions. However, to feel unheard in any scenario warrants valid emotion. They cry out to God again and again, and I found my myself wanting to cry out on their behalf because, while my life is not threatened as a result of my faith, I know what it feels like to hurl my faith and prayers at the sky only to have them hit a ceiling and come flying back my way. So much tension amounts throughout the film that when innocent people die and when the missionaries begin to be stripped of everything I found myself wanting to speak on their behalf saying, just hear them already. Make the crying stop. Make the insanity stop. I knew that I was only watching a movie, but the desperation and tension was so high and so tangible that it was simple to slip into the world of the characters. It was easy to wonder where God had gone.
I don’t like silence because of my past experiences with it, and because of what it usually leads me to.
I also don't like silence because it has two sides at war: faith and doubt. And we cannot have one without the other.
I fear that silence means God isn’t there. Even after what I've concluded, the fear still persists. The doubt poses a question. In reality, silence means He just hasn’t answered yet, it isn't time to move; or, perhaps it is time to move, but not time to talk.
I still fear that the silence won’t stop; that God might never answer; that doubt might win the war over faith.
Lastly, I fear how doubt will then define my faith — how it will smolder the flame. How my questions might look like weakness in the eyes of other believers.
For a moment, comparing my own fear of silence and my own faith walk to that of missionaries and persecuted people felt selfish and ignorant. But no one can help what walk of life they are given. And, in regards to eternity, all of our lives are at stake. I believe that having empathy towards and awareness of others and their situations is a means of avoiding self-centeredness in the midst of a battle with silence. To know that my own silence is not the only one is to come to a place of relating to someone else's silence.
In a prison in a foreign place, or in the suburbs of a first world country, silence is silence and faith is faith — which is why I have allowed Scorsese’s characters to continue resonating with me.
I’ve found that Christians oftentimes have difficulty talking about silence for my same fear of what it says about their faith, and out of fear of how it might portray their perspective of God.
In my own experience—although I can’t claim to have the right answer—I am finding value in talking about and embracing the silence in my life. Only when I have had the courage to break the silence by naming it have I found that others share my feelings. We are all made to ask the bigger questions, and we are given the gift of free will, therefore we are all faced with the relationship of faith and doubt. The film was ultimately uncomfortable for me, not because of the images, but because I realized parts of my faith--parts that had remained silent until now--that aren't so selfless and faithful. In the days after, I found wrestling with guilt in regards to my doubt. I was completely shaken by the realizations the film brought to the surface -- that my short comings as a follower of Christ are more apparent than I had realized.
In my first class at George Fox, my professor said that in faith and in theology, there comes a time for the deconstruction of belief. He warned that stripping back one's own belief system is daunting and difficult because it is vulnerable position to be in. No one wants to feel that everything they've ever believed in can be jeopardized by a single question, and doubt is not the friendliest of ideas to befriend.
The silence the characters endure throughout their persecution requires faith to win out over doubt. It requires a deconstruction -- actually, for the characters, their faith is obliterated, not deconstructed. Fortunately, faith doesn’t have to indicate certainty, but it can suffice as being enough proof to conquer doubt.
I’m not writing this to encourage people to go out searching for silence (because if someone told me to do so I would shake my head and laugh — hence the eyes kept open during class meditations). Although, I do encourage people to go, with an open mind, watch Silence (preferably with someone else and with a full stomach because I mean it when I say that the film is quiet and I found myself having to step out of the theater just to quickly eat something so that my stomach would stop telling me I was hungry during all of the especially quiet parts of the movie).
Silence accurately depicts the depths of what silence in a faith walk looks and feels like, and I think that there is tremendous value for people to know that the silence in their life is not a definition of their faith or of their worth, and it is absolutely not an indication of God’s absence. It is impossible for us in this life to reach a distance where God becomes absent.
The film reminds me that I will continue to step on Christ, whether I want to or not. My imperfection steps for me again and again. Silence reminds me that everyone has a ceiling in their life — one that will seem to abruptly stop even the most unhindered of faiths and send it flying back at the person who holds it. It also reminds me that deconstruction of faith--even the obliteration of faith--is not a means to an end, but the beginning of a remodel.
For so long I allowed my battle with silence to be something I remained (ironically) silent about.
I believe it is important for people to know that in the deepest depths of silence, they are still heard. It is important for people to know that seasons of silence are what will make God’s voice even louder when the answer finally arrives.
I also believe that it is important for people to know that silence has many faces, though it ultimately looks a lot like faith and a lot like doubt. So much can be said on behalf of faith through an act of silence; and so much doubt can be nurtured as a result of assumptions derived from silence.
Lastly, there can and likely will be moments when silence is indeed an indication of failure. My favorite character in the film, Kichijiro, apostatizes multiple times. His battle is against doubt and fear of death. And I found him the most relatable.
He runs away, constantly. He shows up at all the wrong times. He's a liar, a traitor, and the epitome of imperfection. He repents and renounces in a vicious cycle, yet he continually comes back. He runs from God and is drawn back in. Fear and death crouch at his door and so he steps on Christ again and again, both literally and figuratively, yet he goes on forgiven -- filthy, yet forgiven.
I, too, step on Christ again and again when silence shows up at my door. I am uncomfortable and afraid, and the doubt is quick to kick in, so I lash out before embracing faith.
Once more, I'm not here to tell anyone to seek out uncomfortable and challenging silence. Though, I am proposing that the next time it shows up at the door of your life that you might try embracing it along with faith. Whether the silence shows up as a result of sin or as a means of being stretched by God, the season will not go wasted and the sooner you ride the rushing river of faith, the sooner you will arrive to calmer waters.
I am in a continual battle against what silence tries to say about me, and what I allow it to tell me. Maintaining the relational side of Christianity has been the most difficult decision of my life. It has also been the easiest. If silence, even when in relationship with Christ, is difficult, I cannot fathom the gravity of silence when apart from Christ.
I believe that Scorsese saw a need for addressing silence, especially in the realm of Christianity. Especially in the world of Hollywood. And I agree. People need to know that in their silence, they are heard. And that through the silence, God speaks loudest.