Wednesday, 18 January 2017

'Why are you still silent?' : A Study of the Silence of God

By Isaac Withers

Over Christmas I really wanted to read, 'Silence' by Shusaku Endo. As you probably know by now, Martin Scorsese has followed up on 'The Wolf of Wall Street', with an adaptation of Endo's book about Jesuit missionary priests in Japan. Originally, I just wanted to contribute another blog to the conversation of this movie, so I picked up my Mum's copy of the book in our house, and within five days, I had finished it.

I need to make a point of how amazing that is.

I do English Literature as a degree, so suffice to say, I don't read for fun much any more. I probably hadn't finished a novel in... over a year before 'Silence', and I didn't really expect to be enthralled by it. But I was. 

The plot is basically: two priests (played in the movie by former Spiderman, Andrew Garfeild and current  Kylo Ren, Adam Driver) go to find the priest that mentored them (Liam Neeson). The rumour is that their mentor has been broken by the intense persecution that the Japanese government is imposing on Christians, and has given up his faith. He has also, been... uh, taken.


That's the starting point of the story, and the main question: why has this missionary priest given up on the faith? What tipped him over the edge? But for me, as I kept reading, the draw changed, and moved to the younger priest looking for him. His character, a well formed young priest, who knows all the theology in the world, is being shown intense religious persecution, people being killed in front of him for the Christian faith. And as you read his prayer life, it suddenly becomes very simple. A new question arises, that became what pulled me through the story. The priest continued to ask:

'Why are you still silent?'

This becomes his prayer, and it hit me hard. As my faith has matured, I've been angry at God, I've been confused by him, I've had times of serious doubt, but using the word silent to describe God was completely new to me. And it scared me, mainly because it felt very accurate to what I was living. An on-off prayer life, that felt like a one-sided conversation.

This appeared on my Facebook feed around all this... Credit to Catholic Memes.

So the book started a massive process in me, it was no longer 'hmm, I think this one will make a good blog', it genuinely threw me. And it threw me, because as the main character speaks, the question after, 'why are you still being silent?' is 'are you even there?'

Even scarier. It's the big question, and it can floor even a character of strength like this priest, it is the inevitable question that the silence of God takes you to.

So I don't really want to talk about the movie, I want to talk about that silence, why God would choose that, how we respond to that, and I don't expect to answer it myself. So I'm looking to those that went before.

Mother Teresa : A saint of darkness

As all this was flying around my head, the things I had heard about St. Mother Teresa of Calcutta's struggle with spiritual darkness came to me, and a few days later, a Bishop Robert Baron video about it appeared on my Facebook newsfeed. As always, it's insightful.

After her death, Mother Teresa's diaries were read and it was discovered that she had lived fifty years of spiritual darkness, at one point she even wrote down, 'is there a God?' This doesn't mean that she never experienced the presence of God, in her youth she had vivid experiences of him even hearing the voice of Jesus asking her to be a missionary to the poor. But then absolute spiritual drought. And yet it didn't stop any of her work, or her drive to serve. How? Bishop Robert Baron has a theory. 

'To be a saint
to put it in a quick little phrase, 
is to allow Jesus to live his life in you
So Paul says, ‘it’s no longer I who live, it is Christ who lives in me...' 
Did mother Teresa allow Jesus to live in her? Yeah, everyone saw that pretty dramatically. Well part of that is the crucified Jesus, living his life. 
The Jesus who said, 
'God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ 
To let him live his life. 
That’s what she had, the experience, all these years of abjection.'

The Song of Songs

Rocked as I was by all of this over Christmas, at the new year retreat I had a really long chat with a few good friends about it, and one recommended I check out the Song of Songs. If you're not familiar with it, it's a long romantic poem attributed to King Solomon. It's kind of known for being very open about the goings on of a bride and her beloved who are very much in love and... yeah all of that good stuff. But Rabbis in the late A.D.s started to read it as the relationship between the worshiper and God. 

At one point, the bride's beloved has left her, and she goes out in search of him. 'I sought him but I did not find him, I called to him but he did not answer me' (Song 5:6). And then, she falls upon some guards who beat her up and steal from her. Then they taunt her saying, 'What makes your Beloved better than other lovers?' (Song 5:9) But her response is something else.

She goes off on a long answer, listing all the things that she loves about the guy who has abandoned her. It's like twenty-five lines long, she means it. And it ends on a verse I love.

'His conversation is sweetness itself,
he is altogether lovable.
Such is my beloved
such is my friend.

(Song 5:16)

I love that. My beloved, my friend. So simple. In that place of darkness, she does the impossible. She chooses to praise in that place of absence, partly by remembering his presence.

I believe in the Sun

One final thought on all this. There's a pretty powerful poem about the silence of God, and it was uncovered in one of the darkest places. 

In a cellar in Cologne, Germany, where thousands of Jews once hid from the Nazis, an inscription was discovered after the end of World War II. Scrawled across a stone wall by an anonymous author, the words serve as a prayer against the evil of the Holocaust.

'I believe in the sun 
even when it's not shining. 
I believe in love 
even when not feeling it. 
I believe in God 
even when He is silent.'


The first friend I unloaded all this onto, looked back at me with a broad grin. He said something like, 'I'm sorry, I know it sucks for you right now, but I'm really excited for you. This is a deepening of faith.' And from here, I can see what they mean. I can see how it has given me a more authentic prayer, a simpler faith, a truer sense of where I am. The season of silence is not pleasant or fun, but like all other times, there's not much choice but to abide in it and discern what on earth is going on.

It's been such a comfort, to know that so many have gone before me into this particular struggle. And I'm not done reading up on this either, I feel I'm just skimming the surface when it comes to those who lived silence and wrote it down.

It's pretty incredible what reading a book can do for you.

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