"Silence" and Spiritual Discernment



I saw Scorsese's Silence over the weekend, and -- like many -- came away feeling fairly confused. I didn't really get what the point of the movie was, whether it had a message or what exactly it took itself to be commenting on, and -- strangely -- I couldn't decide if I even liked it. There were so many things not to like about it (it's running time, the brutal violence around every corner, the underwhelming performance by Andrew Garfield), but somehow those things seemed inessential to the question of whether or not it had succeeded. Which is odd. Usually, those things are the only thing I think matters about a film. Did this film, as a film, live up to its cinematic potential? With Silence, that didn't seem to be the most pressing question.

I'm not going to summarize the film here -- there are plenty of excellent summaries in the various reviews that you could easily google. Indeed, I'm just going to reflect on a single moment -- a pivotal moment in the film -- so what follows assumes familiarity with the story, and will include a "spoiler" (sort of...I'm not sure that this film is capable of being "spoiled," which is a credit to it as a film). 

Here's the moment. 

Fr. Rodriguez (played by Garfield)  is brought before five torture victims, Japanese Christians, and told -- for the millionth time -- to symbolically stop on an depiction of Christ. If he does so, he's told, the victims will be released from their torture. He's also encouraged to do so by the ex-priest Fr. Ferreira, who repeats many of the same lines Rodriguez has been told throughout his captivity (i.e. That these people are suffering for him, that he has the power to relieve that suffering, that his stepping on Christ is purely symbolic, etc).

And then he does it. 

He looks at the image of Christ, and hears -- internally -- Christ's voice, telling him much the same thing. To paraphrase, Christ says: This isn't about you. It's about me. God didn't send you into the world to be a blameless sacrifice, he sent me to do that. You can go ahead and step on me. I can handle it. 

This moment, for obvious reasons, has attracted the lion's share of critical attention (at least for those who are interested in deciding questions relating to the spiritual and moral value of the film -- whether it encourages or excuses apostasy, whether it is an embrace of a sort of postmodern anti-faith or hagiography of the Japanese martyrs). And it's critical to put it in context.

Rodriguez is a Jesuit. The primary spiritual practice of the Jesuits, invented by Ignatius himself, is the "Spiritual Exercises" or the "Discernment of Spirits," a practice wherein you introspect your affective states in order to see what the source is for some particular "spiritual movement." In prayer, I'm left elated after saying the rosary, but I feel empty and hallow later -- perhaps a sign that repetitive prayer is having more of a psychological effect than a spirtual one. When faced with the burden of caring for the poor, I'm repulsed at first, but later find a deep sense of peace and gratitude, a sign that my impulse to continue doing so is from God, and that I should heed it.

Obviously the practice is much more complicated than this, but you get the point. When faced with an important decision, introspect and evaluate one's options against the background of one's spiritual life, consolations an desolations, etc. 

With this context, I think we can avoid the dichotomy that so many commentators on the film seem stuck with. Was that the voice of Christ? Or was it a temptation that Rodriguez gave in to? Is Scorsese claiming that apostasy admirable? Or are we supposed to think Rodriguez is despicable for giving up the faith after having so long maintained it? 

Here's a third way (and the reading I endorse): Rodriguez is a deeply flawed individual, as are we all. His particular flaws, though, are mostly the characteristic flaws of his profession: a clericalistically tinged pride, the belief that he should be the one to die for his faith, that the peasants he encounters should apostize to save their lives (notably, something for which he seems to think they would be blameless, or, at the very least, quickly absolved), but that he -- an altus Christus -- must take it upon himself to die for the sake of those in his spiritual care. 

In short: Rodriguez goes through most of the film with the mistaken perception that he must act not merely Christlike -- but as Christ himself would act. He seems to get confused at times, not realizing the danger in the tension between imitating Christ and seeing his actions as Christ's. His deepest flaw, on this reading, is his habitual failure to realize that it's not all about him. That it's always been all about Christ. The relationships of the peasants to Christ is one he is there to aid, not mediate. He is not there to save the people of Japan, he's there so that Christ can work through him.

So then the voice. 

Is it Christ's?  

Naw. Or, at least, it's not that simple. 

On my reading, it's Rodriguez's recognition that he shouldn't let his false conceptualization (of himself as Christ) be the reason for his failure to do what he takes to be right (regardless of whether or not it is the right thing to do, objectively speaking). It's a moment of weakness in which he's more of a true Christian (like Kijichiro)  than he has been throughout the entirety of the film.


One of the things I love most about this movie is that it's full of Christian exemplars who are presented without the distortion of hagiography. And this seems apt. If saints and martyrs are meant to view something particular (and particularly laudable) about Christian life, they ought to be presented in all their particularity. I spent so much of my life reading about the lives of saints who were more like absolute ideals, that to see so much love for Christ and his Church depicted in a world resembling our own is deeply refreshing.