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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Saving Souls in Silence

My meditations on Soul Building are not complete without one on saving souls. And what I have to say on that subject is said so much better in Martin Scorsese’s film, Silence. Therefore, all I will do here is point to that film and suggest that you experience it. I do not intend to review the film for its cinematic artistry (which I found lush and compelling) but rather for its message.

The film is a rendition of Shusaku Endo's novel regarding two Jesuit priests, including the main character Rodriguez, one hundred years after their founding by Ignatius Loyola, going to Japan to administer to the Christians in hiding and discover what happened to Father Ferreira, their former teacher, who is rumored to have apostatized and became a Buddhist. Which, we find out, he has--as will Rodriguez.

The Jesuits considered themselves companions of Jesus. They start their religious life in a thirty-day retreat in which they walk with the master as they imagine his life. They are trying to take on his character, his attitude, his way of acting in the world, his very consciousness, his soul up to and including his death and resurrection. They especially try to take on his mission to the poor, the "little ones," the neglected and despised, the nobodies of the world because it is out of nothing that creation comes.

This makes them "missionaries" in native and foreign lands among all peoples of the world. In service, in teaching, in pastoral care, in building communities, and in establishing institutions, institutions of learning and social justice, they try to teach and exemplify the way of Jesus. And build a society of Jesus. They began to establish missions in all the territories being discovered.

Silence recalls the attempt of Jesuits, in the century of European discovery, before the peak of the Enlightenment, to establish missions in Japan which were at first welcomed and then suppressed sometimes ruthlessly. Christianity in this century was caught up in the religion of sacrifice, including martyrdom. It believed in the essence of God and man as spiritual entities, separate or separable from matter. It held to the literal inerrancy of the Bible that was word for word inspired by God. It believed that persons were born in sin that had to be removed by baptism into the Church or their souls would be condemned to eternal punishment.

The theory of mission, missiology, has changed radically since that time culminating in the decree of mission in the Second Vatican Council. And so has the notion of religion. What I experience in Scorsese’s film is what they and we had to learn about Christianity and saving the souls of ourselves and others. For me the film itself was a religious experience of growing the soul. As Pope Francis who discussed the film with Scorsese at its Vatican showing wished it would be.

Here we learn with Rodriguez the common value base of all religious traditions that lead us to transcend ourselves and our products. We learn the importance of listening, of entering the language and culture of other persons, especially of different communities and nations, before we assert ourselves. We also learn how religion in culture is what holds civilizations together and that a foreign religion is often used as a means of dominating others economically and politically.

Early Christianity was not centered around the crucifixion of Jesus. It departed from the sacrificial nature of the Greek, Roman, and Jewish cultures. Only after the Fathers of the Church, the Roman persecution, and then the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Dark Ages, suffering became an ideal. Jesus became the sacrificial lamb and the meal of Christian fellowship became the Sacrifice of the Mass. His death was interpreted as a sacrifice to appease a wrathful Father Creator by His Son, the Christ, whose divine status made it possible to atone the sin of Adam carried by all humanity.

Rodriguez learned from Ferreira and his own imagination of Jesus that people matter more than ideology. He was prepared to suffer to death, but not to sanction the needless suffering of the people whom he imagined Jesus if he were living in his world as a man would never countenance. He could step on the Christian images that he was asked to trample realizing that to make an image a matter of belief and a source of violence is idolatry.

To make a dogma or system of beliefs an absolute good or evil is also idolatry. Yes, to save my own soul, I must act to save the souls of others. But the soul is not a finished or separate entity. It is the human person—a body with consciousness which is transcending itself in union with others. Violence, whether rationalized or sanctified or merely condoned is the route to losing soul. Nullus salus, extra ecclesiam is sometimes translated as “you cannot be saved unless you belong to my church”; rather it needs to be translated as “you cannot be saved alone, but only with others, as we act together to be better persons for a better world.” That is, to grow our souls.

Fidei defensor, promotor fidei, propaganum fidei are terms the Roman Catholic Church used often, usually defined as defender, promoter, propagator of the faith. But remove the article. We must defend and promote faith in ourselves and others by transcending all the faiths or belief systems that divide us and hold us back from repairing the world and encouraging a transcending consciousness or growing soul in all of us.

Some Christian commentators have criticized Scorsese for his moral ambiguity, for putting faith and love at odds; and they see his acceptance of apostasy as unbiblical. I agree that his message contradicts some of the teachings of the Bible. But of course, that is just the point. It is less a moral ambiguity he is dealing with, but an ambiguity of faith. Faith as consciousness that is transcending the products of humanity including words, doctrines, and beliefs. And faith as belief—a belief that may be useful for a time and place, but can only be faith insofar as it encounters others and transcends the obstacles of our own making. Including our words, scriptures, rituals, and institutions.

Faith is the theme of Silence. Silence is the essence of faith. In the silence, out of which come words, images, institutions, the artifacts of our behavior, transcending consciousness or, if you want, God, exists. Rodriguez had railed against the silence of God as he watched the hidden Christians suffer needlessly in torture. But it was by retreating into the silence of his imagination where he heard Jesus, the man, the spiritual master, the transcending one who is always there with and beyond many names. Yes, including Buddha, and all growing souls.

The most poignant scene for me in the film is when Kichijiro, the Judas figure, who has continually apostatized, comes once more to Rodriguez the apostate to request forgiveness for his weakness. Rodriguez puts his hand on Kichijiro and embraces him; and instead of reciting the magic words of absolution, he thanks him. Why do you thank me? Kichijiro asks. Because you came to see and be with me, Rodriguez replies.

At this moment, I see Rodriguez most like Jesus, the Jesus of the good Samaritan, the Jesus of the woman in adultery, of the man born blind, of the hated tax man, of the little ones, and, yes, the Jesus of Judas. Here Rodriguez is a Jesuit—a man walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

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