‘This is a spiritual & cultural artefact’ – was how a producer at the BBC described Scorsese’s recent adaptation of the Shusako Endo novel ‘Silence‘. A work of historical fiction, i.e based on real characters, about the Jesuits in Japan. Having seen the film about a month ago, I tend to agree, although the cinema was fairly empty and I notice there is no ‘awards buzz’ about it – I think it will grow in stature and popularity. I hope it will slowly acquire cult status, it doesn’t have the feel-good, crowd pleasing appeal that LaLa Land has ( and surely people need that in our fragmented times) …. but it has a depth and leaves a ‘haunting’ imprint that will mature over time. Like an artefact it will stand the test of time.
If you think about explicitly Christian films that have gone mainstream, all have differing levels of depth. Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, in its own way a masterpiece – has the force of a sledgehammer and I would place it in the Key Stage 3 RE category. Roland Joffe’s The Mission, slightly more complex interweaving of theology / politics/ ecclesiology maybe would be GCSE, (Key Stage 4) Level. But Scorsese’s Silence – is certainly A Level (KS5) material – with all its glorious and infuriating ambiguities. Leaving scope for discussion and meditation.
Here in Manchester – many of the students are divided by it, and fascinating discussions ensue. Some get hung up on the priests apostasy and a sense of betrayal from that, without taking into fact the incredible commitment and self-offering that have got the missionaries their in the first place. In a similar way many of the reviews are polarised. The more secularised, the less they ‘get it’ – including one absurd review accusing it of ‘torture porn’ (I actually thought the film wasn’t as harrowing as I was expecting). It is as though the sheer fact that you can believe in something enough that you are prepared to die for it. is inconceivable to the more superficial reviews. Many people (even the usually prescient Robert Barron) seem to fixated on the ‘apostasy’ element. Which I think misses the point of the film (and the novel). For me Kichijiro is the main character in the film – and it is God’s Mercy for him , through sacramental confession, this is the most powerful aspect for me.
A former student sent me a wonderful email which expresses it like this, “I found myself really focusing on more in the film was the mercy of God, which I think is and should be the big focus within the film and book. The question: How much should I forgive my brother? Seventy seven. Is something I often thought about when watching this film especially when witnessing Kichijiro continuously plead for confession. For me Fr. Rodriguez and Fr Ferreira are insignificant as for me really the true Christian is perfectly embodied in Kichijiro. As he is what a christian really is: a sinful and weak creature totally dependent on God’s mercy. Interestingly Kichijiro does not really seem to care about human respect or his reputation as seen by his continuous grovelling and humiliating display of weakness before the priest. To me I think the book and film do a great job in showing this about Kichijiro and the mercy of God; but seem to overlook it and get a bit too obsessed with somehow trying to justify someone’s apostasy. The real question I think is how much are we willing to accept our weakness and plead for forgiveness.
Maybe this is echoing Scorsese own life – as revealed in this fascinating interview with the America Jesuit James Martin, his sense of rejection at a crucial age when he wanted to be a Maryknoll Missionary. He was asked to leave the seminary, and ‘crushed’ in his own words, and then his ‘pilgrimage’ slowly and painfully from the outside and back to God (?) . Jim has also written a very good reflective piece on common questions people struggle with after Silence. So is Silence really about about the Silence of God or the Deafness of Man? .
Fr Pedro Arrupe
I have been enjoying a few days in Valladolid with a group of Jesuit theologians who are preparing for ordination. They are taking part in what is called the ‘Arrupe Month’. Fr Pedro Arrupe, then the general of the Jesuits, noticed that in the 1970’s there was a curious phenomenon of men who left the order (and often the priesthood) soon after they had been ordained. It was almost as though even after the long period of formation they were expecting something magic to happen – and had a rather superficial expectation of what the ‘ontological change’ that the sacrament of ordination conferred, really meant. So Fr Arrupe’s letter issued on December 27, 1979 addressed this – and now there is a period set aside for a deepening of self-knowledge and Jesuit identity to help prepare the Jesuit Scholastic for ordination to the priesthood. I have joined them for a couple of days to give some input on thriving in (not just surviving) the first years of priesthood.
We are staying at a fascinating and beautiful College – the Royal English College ‘St Albans’ in Vallodalid. It was founded by the English Jesuit Robert Persons in 1589, during the English Reformation, as a seminary to train Catholic Priest for the English and Welsh Mission, at a time when it was illegal to do so in the UK. It has an impressive legacy of alumni who are saints – many Jesuits, although not all – who would eventually be executed on their return to Britain. Their portraits line the corridors. In today’s climate of Islamic violence we have to be careful about the narrative of martyrdom – although it is worth noting that none of the Catholic men and women executed were perpetrators of Violence. Although it fair to say that Fr Persons was agitating the Spanish King to invade so that England could return to becoming a Catholic country. This resulted firstly in the famous failure of the Armada. A second attempt was foiled in Cadiz by Walter Raleigh …. but we will come to that in a minute. The College, well endowed, and beautifully kept, still has the patronage of the Spanish Royal Family. When you enter the college you are greeted with a picture of the King & Queen of Spain with an affectionate and personal message to the College. This Royal patronage is important when you think of how the Jesuits where expelled from Europe, from different countries on numerous occasions, so you can see how it is good to know you have powerful allies …. things can change however.
For me the jewel in the crown in Valladolid is ‘La Vulnerata’ or the Wounded One – a disfigured statue of Mary in the chapel. After Sir Walter Raleigh defeated the Spanish Fleet in Cadiz and took control of the city in 1596, some of the English troops started a riot (like the football ‘fans’ in Marseille). The soldiers dragged the statue to the market square where they desecrated it. The priests and seminarians of the English College in Valladolid brought it to Valladolid and installed with great solemnity in the College Chapel in 1600. They wished to make reparation for the desecration of their fellow country men. Every year during Holy Week the statue is processed along the street, where it is met by a huge paso or float, which has a large depiction of the Crucified Christ resting on top of it. The two images meet, and dance to each other for a brief period—then the Vulnerata comes back to the College
A little like the famous Image of the Icon of the Black Madonna of Czetochowa which was similarly damaged by Hussite raiders in 1430… and has now become the most visited shrine in Poland, and revered by Catholics and Orthodox alike. The potential power of our vulnerabilty is a spiritual paradox. Christ glorious risen body still carried his wounds as St Thomas can testify. The popular devotion to these disfigured images of Our Lady are striking – they seem to unlock a mysterious power in peoples hearts. Many people point to John Paul II visits to Czetochowa as the start of the fall of communism, how this icon of the suffering Poland and the first Polish Pope drew millions together in defiance of the authorities. Pope Francis will be visiting next week during the world Youth Day celebrations, I hope the Queen of Poland draws the 2 million young people expected to attend, to her heart.
Salvador Dali believed that Christ of St John of the Cross was his religious masterpiece. It is influenced by a sketch found in the spiritual diaries of the Spanish Mystic and Carmelite, Juan de Yepes y Álvarez who became known as John of the Cross. A sketch in his spiritual diaries of a vision he had received, made a great impression on Dali – he described the image as being ‘like a Crucifix presented to the lips of a dying man’ . When Dali came to paint the image he used a Hollywood Stuntman, Russel Saunders as the model for Christ – and actually strapped his body to a gantry to help Dali envisage the pull of gravity on the Human Body.
In 1948 Dali had returned to Spain after the war, he had rediscovered his Catholic Faith and visited Pope Pius XII in Rome where he sought and was given approval for his new religious themes. He had studied Nuclear Physics and felt that the discovery of the atomic nature of the universe was proof of the existence of God. This mix of science and religion would lead to a new Nuclear Mysticism according to Dali and in 1951 he published his Mystical Manifesto stating his ambition to paint a new type of Crucifixion. Paintings of the crucified Christ had focused on the pain and humiliation of the Crucifixion- however Dali said in his manifesto ‘ I want my next Christ to be the painting containing the most beauty and joy, more than anything that will have been painted up to the present.’ It is worth noting that unusually for paintings of Christ on the Cross – it is devoid of pain, blood and the crown of thorns. Dali associated the nucleus of the atom with Christ and was influenced by the ideas of the mathematician Luca Pacioli – paying attention to the triangle formed by Christs arms and the cross.
The background to the Painting is Port Lligat – the area of the Catalonian coast were Dali lived for most of the latter part of his life. This is a reference to the universal relevance the Crucifixion, its historical significance and supra-historical effects. When we celebrate the mass we believe that we cut through time and space as we are united with the one eternal sacrifice of Christ on Golgotha, we are not just remembering or ‘re-enacting’ his last supper. So by placing Christ against the background of his home, Dali is performing what would be called in Jesuit spirituality a Composition of Place. The crucifixion of Christ is as relevant here and now, in 1950’s Spain or in 21st Century Manchester as it was 2 millenia ago in Palestine.
It is also worth reflecting on the beauty of the male image. In Dali’s own words – The metaphysical Beauty of the Christ-God and make his Christ ‘as beautiful as the God that he is’. Christian Theology has often been interested in the tension between the ‘Theology of the Cross’ and the ‘Theology of Glory’ . Christ on the Cross is one of the most powerful images in human culture, but for Christians it represents the wisdom of God and the self-abandoning love of Christ. Seen through the eyes of faith the cross presents unique insight into who God is and how he chooses to save. Seen through the eyes of the world the cross is a brutal, humiliating public form of torture or capital punishment. Because of this St Paul talks of ‘the scandal of the cross’ – a stumbling block to the wise. Usually Christian iconography – especially in Spain – focuses on Christs suffering in order to elicit feelings of devotion in the believer. A danger of an exaggerated Theology of the Cross is to see creation as irrevocably fallen, The Theology of Glory on the other hand would see creation as essentially good and have an eschatological focus on the resurrection and ultimate victory of good. Perhaps Dalis – new type of Crucifixion is an attempt to marry the two.
Paintings Reception & Impact
When a Scottish Art Historian, Dr Honeyman, acquired the painting for the Glasgow Art Gallery – students at the Glasgow School of Art and members of the Church of Scotland vehemently protested its purchase. For some it was a waste of money and should have been spent on contemporary Scottish painters, for others it was blasphemous and encouraged idol worship. The public however flocked to it and it was observed how men would instinctively take their hats of viewing it and boisterous school groups fall silent in its presence. It has recently been voted Scotland’s favourite painting and is now by far the most valuable painting in the collection – a wise investment!
There is a fascinating 28min documentary about in on the Radio 4 Website