Reflecting on Silence

There are long stretches in Martin Scorsese’s new film Silence that are so, well, silent, I couldn’t help but notice a faint, persistent clacking noise coming from behind the theater wall next to me, to my endless irritation. I’m not sure what the sound was, maybe the movie next door, or perhaps the HVAC unit or something. There is a similar maddening sound that emanates from the walls of my house in the early morning when I get up for a few minutes of prayer, trying to find some holy peace and quiet to no avail.

What drives me craziest about trivial noises and distractions in moments like this is that God does not seem to want to comply in producing the divine, reverent atmosphere I think he should, given the spiritual significance of what is taking place. It is akin to that feeling you get when you attend a funeral and realize everything outside keeps tumbling along and buzzing as if nothing’s happened.

Throughout much of Silence, Father Rodriguez seems to share a similar indignation, granted on a more intense and dramatic scale. In the movie, and the book especially, he finds it hard to come to terms with the sheer indifference of the world in the face of spiritually significant events, especially suffering. Christians are crucified in the sea, and the waves just rumble along unassumingly. A peasant is beheaded in the stale afternoon heat without so much as a flicker of shade or gust of wind. There is no rending of the heavens which Rodriguez has imagined would accompany the death of a martyr. Only blithe ordinariness, the absence of the divine, the worst kind of silence.

(spoiler alert)

The epiphany I experienced the end of the book/movie—which is tough to put into words because it is the culmination of the story (at least for me)—is that there is no divine absence where there is compassionate human presence. Perhaps we flatter ourselves when we assume that the voice calling out in our head for justice is our own; perhaps that it is the voice of God, the shattering of the silence. To paraphrase Rodriguez, even when God seems silent our lives may speak of him. Indeed, our lives—our actions, our thoughts—bear witness.

I often turn to nature in times of spiritual searching, or even just spiritual wandering. I see divine significance in the grandeur of things like waves and clouds and stars. I’ve also felt incredibly lonely sometimes gazing at these things, at how far away God seems from this beautiful wreck of a creation he left behind (if the stars are millions of light years away, how much further their creator?). And yet, sometimes maybe looking and listening for God somewhere out there is looking and listening in the wrong direction.

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