The spiritual life has its ages as much as the rest of our lives do. I recall, and have written about in the past, what I think of as my “upper room” age. At that time, the heart ached with uncertainties pulling upon it and to go to Mass truly felt akin to the Apostles huddling in the upper room after the death of Christ.
I could not have spoken about my state, what I was doing or what I was failing to do. My whole devotion seemed like a mere trembling of the lips. But when I thought of the Apostles with the “doors being shut. . .for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19), I realized that my coming to Mass was as much a hiding away as it was an act of faith. It was a refuge as I waited to see if doubt and confusion would ever go away.
They did go away, or I think so. At another age, not so long after, I had come alive with the desire to take up the cross and follow Christ. I would pray, and pray again, that I may suffer for Christ. I sometimes used to think that those prayers went unanswered.
Only later did I realize they had been indeed – and that, in every memorable instance, when I could have suffered with Christ in some small or great way, I failed to do so. I said no. I denied him. It has been many years since I made such a prayer. Why speak such words when it can only reveal one’s own unworthiness?
The great sufferings of Paul, the deaths of the martyrs all, as the word entails, bear witness to the faith. Was failing, as I so often did, therefore, to lack faith? Was I in those moments, in other words, no more advanced on the way than I had been in those days in the “upper room,” where doubt lay upon my heart like a stone?
To repeat the question: if one fails in faithfulness to Christ, does that mean one doubts, that one does not believe? Or are there other kinds of infidelities besides creedal ones?
I was reminded of these questions recently, as I returned to one of the finest of twentieth-century novels, Shusaku Endo’s Silence. Endo tells the story of two Portuguese Jesuits, Francisco Garrpe and Sebastian Rodrigues, who go on a clandestine mission to Japan, during the great seventeenth-century persecutions. Their explicit aim is to find their lost mentor, Christóvão Ferreira, who is rumored to have apostatized and assimilated into Japanese society.
As they seek a guide to the strange country, they come upon a Japanese drunkard named Kichijiro. He seems “crafty” and “jittery,” and contemptible, and yet Rodrigues finds him sympathetic, or at least impossible to hate. As they travel with Kichijiro and then come into the company of Japanese Christians, who have long maintained their faith despite the threat of torture and death, the priests slowly discover that Kichijiro is himself a Christian.
When he and his family were threatened with death, if they refused to step upon an image of the face of Christ, Kichijiro’s family refused and were killed. He had pressed his foot upon the holy face – and lived.
Japanese officials begin to search the secretly Christian village and torment the villagers; Rodrigues is forced to hide himself in the wilderness, where he wanders for several days. He is alone, but senses another nearby. When he finds someone, it is, of course, Kichijiro. He seems the last faithful friend and may well be – until, that is, he sneaks off and betrays Rodrigues to the officials.
After his arrest, Rodrigues is several times paraded before the contemptuous, or apparently contemptuous, Japanese. In each instance, some version of the same unsettling incident occurs:
Looking down again to the shore [Rodrigues] caught sight of a man, a beggar he seemed, running wildly along. As he ran he was shouting something; then his feet would sink in the sand and he would fall down. Yes, it was the man who had betrayed him. Falling down and then getting up, then falling again, Kichijiro was shouting something in a loud voice.
Kichijiro has betrayed Rodrigues as Judas betrayed Christ, but rather than abandoning the priest, he pursues him. He had apostatized, but not out of disbelief, not out of doubt, but out of weakness.
On a further encounter, when he is able to approach the priest, Kichijiro cries out, regarding his stepping on the face of Christ, “Do you think I trampled on it willingly? My feet ached with the pain. God asks me to imitate the strong, even though he made me weak.”
He cries again, “Father, what can I do, a weak person like me?” before he turns to the guards and asks them to imprison him. They shoo him away.
Still later, Kichijiro makes a pathetic, not to say false, argument in his defense. If he had lived in normal times, in the age before the persecutions, he would have lived and died a good Christian. But, in times such as these? “I was born weak. One who is weak at heart cannot die a martyr.”
He begs the priest for absolution. He receives it. He will do so again and again. He is like a dog who disappears but never for long.
In our age, when the silence of God that gives Endo’s novel its title, is so often taken to be the silence of non-existence, the silence of nothingness, we presume as I once did that the opposite of faith is doubt. But sometimes it is mere weakness.
Christ warned those same disciples who later hid in the upper room, “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41).
Kichijiro’s faith is unwavering. He believes. His flesh simply fails to follow the spirit. Christ promises that spirit sufficient grace for every trial, but sometimes the flesh says no. And this, too, alas, is an age in the spiritual life.
*Image: Martyrdom of Nagasaki, 1622 by an unknown mid-17th – century artist [National Heritage Board, Singapore]
You may also enjoy:
Michael Pakaluk’s Witnesses to a Proper Fear
Brad Miner’s Christus Apostata: Scorsese’s “Silence”