Listening for the Silence of God

If you’ve lived in Alaska awhile, you may remember when the German film “Into Great Silence” came to Anchorage and was shown at the Bear Tooth Theatre Pub.

The film was shot at the head monastery of the reclusive Carthusian Order in France, and was a portrayal of the monks’ lives amid their home’s beautiful natural setting. The monks live in almost complete silence, the better to be open to the voice of God, and so the viewer watched a 169-minute film with almost no dialogue.

The theater was packed with local Catholics. Made in 2005, the film was screened before smart phones had become ubiquitous. So, we all sat in the darkness — and yes, silence — without the interruption of glowing phone screens, lost in our own thoughts or prayers.

This spring, during Lent, I viewed Martin Scorsese’s film “Silence,” and it was more than just that word in the title that led me to remember those monks. “Silence” also carries a profoundly religious theme. And it’s also long, something about which critics and friends have complained but which I did not find troubling.

The theme of silence differs in the two films. The monks’ silence was something which the contemplatives used to shut out all noise blocking them from God. In “Silence,” two Jesuits travel to 17th century Japan to find an older Jesuit (Liam Neeson) whom they suspect has become an apostate by renouncing his faith. In the film, the main character, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield), encounters the silence of God — the lonely, terrifying time when God seems absent. Think perhaps of the “dark night of the soul,” or of Saint Teresa of Kolkata, who spent years in a spiritual desert.

Then think of that happening in a time of extreme duress and physical challenge.

The two Jesuits encounter horrible persecution of Christians under the Tokugawa Shogunate of 17th century Japan. The film reveals all conceivable kinds of torture. But before I condemned the Japanese for this excess, I remembered Europe’s Inquisition, and the way Catholics and Protestants in Europe killed each other. Barbarism in the name of religion apparently transcends nationality.

“Silence” had a limited showing where I live. It didn’t garner Academy Award attention, perhaps because of its faith focus and the startling and profound questions it asks about faith. If you missed it in theaters, try to see it. I would also suggest, after you’ve seen it, reading Jesuit Father James Martin’s January comments about the film online at America magazine.

The movie makes you think about early missionary work and the meaning of “conversion,” especially cross-culturally. It has powerful scenes of Ignatian prayer, and a character named Kichijiro who repeatedly renounces his Christianity and then repeatedly wants to confess his cowardice. Father Martin said some critics saw him as comedy relief; I saw my own frailty in his behavior, and also an echo of Saint Peter’s renunciation of Christ. If you listened carefully, you heard a rooster crow.

But a major theme of the movie is the discernment that Rodrigues goes through in making an excruciating and controversial “Sophie’s Choice” type of decision.

Father Martin was a consultant to this film, and led the star, Garfield, through the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius during filming. In an interview in America, (January 17, 2017) Garfield talks about “how easy it was to fall in love with Jesus” in the exercises, how the film became secondary to the exercises themselves.

For a film star, that’s a fairly profound revelation, enough to make me want to see “Silence.”

The writer is formerly from Anchorage. She now lives in Omaha, Neb.

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