Over the next few weeks and months, we will be hearing much about Shusaku Endo’s great novel Silence, and, of course, of Martin Scorsese’s film adaptation, which was screened this week in Rome.
This is a novel that is very easy to misunderstand, and I am very interested to see what Scorsese does with it. By saying “easy to misunderstand,” I am not suggesting that there is only one way to “understand” or interpret the novel, though. Not at all. I do think that there are unquestionable misinterpretations, however, and most of them come out of a lack of awareness of the Japanese, particular Catholic, as well as personal context out of which Endo was writing.
In other words, you can’t fruitfully read Silence if your only frame of reference are 2016 culture wars and ecclesiastical and theological divisions. Silence is not about that. So forget it.
So yes, I’ll be writing more about it in the coming weeks – this very short piece I wrote years ago for Ligouri still stands up. As I say in the beginning, it was so short because that was the mandate from the magazine – write 540 words….oy.
Anyway, what I am working on is a study guide for the novel. I am doing this just for myself and anyone else who is interested, and I’ll make it available as soon as I finish it – hopefully next week. It will be amended once I see the film, but I did want to put something out there sooner than that. I’m sure that many parishes and other groups will be using Silence as a group study focus over the coming months, so I just wanted to join the fray and put what I hope will be a helpful resource out there. It will just be a free download – no signing up for mailing lists required!
Anyway, this is accidentally pertinent. In doing all that reading for women and the Reformation, I came across this really interesting article in a book on early modern women and religion.
“Women Apostles in Early Modern Japan, 1549-1650” by Columbia Theological Seminary historian Haruko Nawata Ward tells stories that we don’t usually hear, as our focus on Japan during this period is, naturally enough on martyrdom. You can probably access much of the article by searching Google Books – since you probably don’t want to pay $150 for a copy..
Anyway, Ward uses documents from missionaries to tell the stories:
Working in the difficult environment of Japan, and always understaffed, the missionaries relied heavily upon laity in the work of evangelization. They quickly recognized women’s contributions and the importance of collaborating with women in their shared apostolic mission. …
…The best known of these was Naito Julia, a former abbess of a Buddhist nunnery, who was inspired by Jesuit missionaries and established a society of Christian women catechists called the Miyaco no bicuni (Nuns of Miyako). Women catechists’ success in converting people is well documented by the Jesuits; however, because of their success the government banished the Miyaco no bicuni from Japan in 1614. The Jesuits continued to record the history of these women, who became contemplatives, during their exile in the Philippines until 1656. ….Women catechists of Julia’s society took the three vows of virginity, poverty and obedience under the supervision of two Jesuits. Following the Jesuit model, these women were active evangelists, preachers, teachers catechizers, baptizers, pastoral leaders, and religious debaters.
The details of the community’s life were recorded by Jesuit Juan de Salazar after the group had been exiled to the Philippines. He felt it was important to preserve their history.
Usually she taught non-Christians Christian doctrine, catechizing them so that they would be converted to our holy faith and be baptized, and at the same time, she attended to the teaching of Christians, instructing them so that they would be ready to confess and receive the holy sacrament. And she was so busy with these holy ministries that regardless of her deep desire to retreat so as to make the [spiritual] exercises of our father Saint Ignatius, she was seldom able to obtain them from the fathers of our Society because they were continuously sending her to evangelize in various kingdoms, cities and private houses where our own could not go.
Moreover, the Jesuits granted Julia full authority to baptize on their behalf. Salazar explains that Japanese noblewomen of the highest rank would not speak with men, not even Buddhist clergy. Julia opened the door for the conversion of these women: not only was she a noblewoman of royal blood which allowed her access to other noblewomen, but she was also gifted with intelligence, prudence, and versatile knowledge of Buddhist doctrine and was thus able to differentiate “false” Buddhist teachings from the “true” teachings of the Catholic faith. Julia was apparently very successful at this task: “Convinced by the reasoning of Lady Julia, many ladies of Japan with their daughters and families accepted our holy faith and received baptism by her hand because we [the Jesuits] were not able to administer it.
Incidentally, traditional barriers between the sexes throughout Asia were a major reason that Protestant denominations began sending women as missionaries to the continent during their great missionary century, the 19th.
This cultural reality also sheds light on the purpose of female “deacons” in the early Christian church. There is certainly ambiguity about this role as it was lived out in the Church, but what is consistent is that it was not at all the sacerdotal diaconate related to the presbyterate and episcopacy, and existed so that women could be ministered to in certain ways in a culture in which the taboos against male and female interaction outside the family were strong.
In 1613, Julia and her companions were arrested, publicly humiliated (stripped naked in public) and tortured. They would not renounce their faith, so the shogunate expelled them from Japan. They arrived in Manila in 1615, and lived there, in a different way of life: enclosed now, rather than active, but dedicated to prayerful support of the Jesuit missions.
The Society saw to it that the women received adequate donations to sustain themselves, noting that they ‘only cared about the greater glory of God and obtaining the greatest happy progress for the Province and our Society of Jesus, whom they, like a sweetest mother, keep i the most intimate part of their hearts.’
She tells the story of many more, some martyrs and some beatified and canonized. As I said, I read this article in an anthology, but Ward has a book on the subject Women Religious Leaders in Japan’s Christian Century, 1549-1650.
As I keep saying in my very boring way…if you want to stay sane in the Crazy Present Moment…read history. It helps. It really does.