I was going to write about the new Martin Scorsese movie this week, ‘Silence.” But I haven’t had a chance to see it yet. It concerns the issue of Catholic missionaries trying to convert the Japanese in the 16th century, and deals with thorny issues of faith and apostasy. It’s based on a novel by the Japanese writer Shusaku Endo, written in 1966. So I will see it eventually, or read the book, but right now I’m intrigued by not only media response to it—some critics praising it extravagantly, but others seem to be ignoring it completely, displaying the usual mainstream media’s distaste for anything remotely religious–but also the reactions of some Catholic groups. Some are applauding it, the opening of that dialogue, but conservative groups see it as a kind of heresy. But it raises all kinds of issues, and hope I’m not introducing any spoilers here: Would you die for your beliefs, even if it meant the death or torture of others? In choosing to be steadfast, do you then become the murderer of others? Is choosing death a kind of suicide, which of course is deeply frowned upon by the Church. In all these discussions, it seems we’re all presuming to know what God wants us to do. And how can we possibly? It’s here where my Merton study comes in handy, since he would advise continuing thought, meditation and honest dialogue–discussion, argument, maybe heated but purely verbal, no violence–and the continual hope of somehow ferreting out the real truth of it all.
It all reminds me of those long-ago religion class discussions involving childbirth, which scared the heck out of me as a fourth-grader—that in a life-or-death situation in which only the mother or the baby could survive, a Catholic woman was expected to put herself in peril to let her child live. Thank God modern advances in medical technology have made that an exceedingly rare dilemma these days, but I admit the possibility did flit through my mind when I was in the throes of labor, which, like being tortured, is probably the worst time to mull over that kind of moral decision. You aren’t thinking about your child, or another life, you just want it all to be over. And you think you might do anything to make it be over. We could continue this train of thought into the euthanasia debate and choosing a peaceful death over protracted pain, but I think I’ll end it here. This is simply why I think films like this are important, even if they seem pretentious and grandiose extensions of a director’s ego. It’s the thought that counts.
What has been interesting is discussing this new movie with some of my Japanese students, some of whom have brought up the subject. They look a bit fearful and concerned as I describe the plot, but they also seem curious about it, too. I think they’re afraid it will be too much from the “Western” point of view, and I worry about that too, although I usually point out that the author of the novel it was taken from is Japanese, though a Christian. Does that make him ‘Westernized,’ too? My students are surprisingly eager to discuss the role of religious faith, or lack of it, in modern Japan. Don’t worry, no proselytizing from this questioning, cynical Catholic. I just listen…and correct their grammar.
Oddly enough, amid all this talk about a movie called “Silence,” I’m taking up an endeavor that is the opposite of it. I’m starting lessons in the Japanese language. It’s a work thing, mostly, since most of my students are from Japan, and it will help me identify a lot of the problems they have with English. Also, I was very curious to study a non-Indo-European language, though I am not looking forward to trying to learn the alphabet characters. My teacher is very kindly starting me out with conversational Japanese, and suggests I can try the writing and reading when I’m “ready.” It should be interesting to see how much of it I can retain at this age, since some days I can’t even remember what I had for breakfast. But I’m game, and don’t really see a downside to it. It might help me hold onto the remaining brain cells I do have.