In my first pastorate I happened across a book about the Franciscan experience that attempted to Christianize Japan. This fictionalized history is written from the perspective of a Japanese Catholic. The book, titled Silence, is by Shusaku Endo.
In the book an idealistic priest sets off to Japan to find his mentor, who is supposed to have abandoned his faith under persecution. (The part about a Franciscan priest abandoning his faith is historically correct.) The Christian community has been forced underground in the 1600s, and, as the story unfolds, this idealistic priest is ultimately himself tortured. He plans to die a martyr’s death, but his persecutors try a different approach to break him. Instead of torturing him physically, they have him watch and listen as they torture his Japanese Christian friends. This is not the kind of martyr’s life/death he had envisioned. In great internal conflict, he recants (by trampling on the image of Christ). It is then that he hears (finally) the voice of Christ breaking the silence that has fallen over the faith community’s terrible persecution: “Yet the face was different from that on which the priest had gazed so often in Portugal, in Rome, in Goa and in Macau. It was not Christ whose face was filled with majesty and glory; neither was it a face made beautiful by endurance to pain; nor was it a face with strength of a will that has repelled temptation. The face of the man who then lay at his feet was sunken and utterly exhausted…. The sorrow it had gazed up at him [Rodrigues] as the eyes spoke appealingly: ‘Trample! Trample! It is to be trampled on by you that I am here.’”
In the mystery that is often God’s providential presence, there may not be success, there may not be an understandable result, or as in the case for Mother Teresa of Calcutta (as we read in her journal), there is often not even a response, but only silence that presents itself to us. Even 2000 years after the crucifixion, we still find it hard to believe that what Paul writes in Philippians 2 is really the example Jesus gave us: “…though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.” Yet the foundational message in Endo’s book (and I sense for Mother Teresa as well) is that even the silence cannot negate the presence of God with us in whatever circumstance we face in life. Emmanuel, “God with us,” is not just the good news of Christmas time. It is the perpetual and eternal good news for all time.
I believe it was God’s providential care that led me to read Endo’s Silence in my first pastorate. As with all of life, that pastorate was a wonderful experience for me, but it contained some overwhelmingly sad and difficult moments that were beyond understanding. There were circumstances that defied explanation. Yet equally clear to me was the presence of God through it all. That Presence is what carried me through. That Presence has been unshakeable for me. There have been many more disappointments and losses in life and ministry along with many successes and joys. And always, whether those moments made sense or not, God’s presence has enabled me to continue.
Whether it is the tiresome inability of our political parties to find any common ground for compromise and meaningful collaboration to solve our country’s problems, the drought that continues to plague our agricultural landscape and affect our food supply, or the inability to avoid calamity and personal physical violence even in a movie theater, this summer’s progression of events offers challenges that seem to defy understanding or easy solutions. Jesus’ self-sacrificial example, his giving of himself completely without retaliation or judgment upon his persecutors indicates a patient, persistent belief in God’s presence and power, both in his life and in the world that is coming to be redeemed. Perhaps for us this is especially a time to recognize the Presence of One who never leaves, no matter what the condition. May that Presence be with you in the days ahead.