Lent, Prayer, & Silence: Loving the Ugly

Back in the Spring of 2008, I was enrolled in a graduate class at Baylor University taught by Greg Garrett (who wrote a guest post here at Texas Schmexas recently). I think the class was called something like “The Sacramental Imagination,” but I could be making that up. Regardless, we read some great texts (by Graham Greene, P. D. James, Ron Hansen, and others) and watched some great films (Martin Scorsese).

Coincidentally, we ended up reading Shusaku Endo’s novel Silence during Lent. Originally written in Japanese, Endo is a Japanese Catholic, and Silence is about a Portuguese priest, Sebastian Rodrigues, who sneaks into Japan during the 1600s when the country was closed to outsiders and particularly hostile to Christianity. It is a book of martyrdom and apostasy, poverty and tragedy, and it is a book asking big, tough questions from a silent God.

At the time, I was struck–overwhelmed, actually–at the Lenten implications for the novel. For some reason, Greg let me write a nontraditional seminar paper on Silence for the class, a Lenten “meditation” of sorts. I explored the scriptural Lectionary readings alongside the plot, walking through Holy Week as Sebastian journeyed through darkness and questioned God.

I’m rereading Silence this year, and I came across my paper accidentally when I plugged in an old USB drive. Additionally, this year, three years later, the Lectionary readings are repeating. In honor of that series of coincidences, and because I am in a different (okay, more radical) place than I was three years ago when I read the novel and wrote the paper, I’m sharing part of my introduction to that essay as a Sabbath meditation this week. I think it has some radical implications for our ideas of community, for one thing, so this is a good venue for it. (If you haven’t read the book, the following excerpt should still make sense, and I hope it makes you want to go pick up a copy at your local library or request it through interlibrary loan, as your library probably won’t have a copy).

The introduction to my essay was kind of free-flowing, almost embarrassingly so, actually, as I mused my way into the subject matter. But here’s an excerpt anyway, one that starts a few paragraphs in. Let me know what you think.

“… And then I think about Silence. Something translator William Johnston told Endo during an interview keeps coming to mind: “after I translated [Silence] I got a letter from a contemplative nun in the United States. She said that for her Silence was a novel about prayer. Prayer, she said, is a struggle with Christ.” I can’t help but wonder about these two things. Is Silence about prayer? Is prayer a struggle with Christ?

What would that mean for me, standing here, just having begun the Lenten season?

The novel’s repeated questioning of Christ’s ability to love even the ugly of this world—the downtrodden of whom the Gospels speak—necessarily calls us to question this self-righteous indignation we feel towards Sebastian. The priest knows, in theory, that Christ does love, indeed seeks out and then transforms, the ugly, but Sebastian toils over being confronted with his own calling to follow Christ’s path and do the same:

Could it be possible that Christ loved and searched after this dirtiest of men? […] Among the people who appeared in the pages of the Scripture, those whom Christ had searched after in love were the woman from Capernaum with the issue of blood, the woman taken in adultery whom men had wanted to stone—people with no attraction, no beauty. Anyone could be attracted by the beautiful and the charming. But could such attraction be called love? True love was to accept humanity when wasted like rags and tatters.  Theoretically the priest knew all of this; but still he could not forgive… (115-16)

How can Christ love the ugly? That is the wrong question. How can we love the ugly when every fiber of our being bristles against it? This question gets to the heart of sin, and Lent beckons us to answer it, to call a spade a spade, to see sin for what it is in the hidden recesses of our souls.”

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4 comments on “Lent, Prayer, & Silence: Loving the Ugly

  1. stephen says:

    How can we love the ugly when every fiber of our being bristles against it?

    Great question. For me the answer is rather simple, because Christ loves me. I am dirty and ugly. I may have my life together on the outside, but inside sin stains my life and it is only by God’s grace and love that I could be loved.

    Walking out this love to others on the other hand will be rather difficult.

  2. Tamara says:

    Thank you for sharing part of your paper with us. I read Silence last year with IAM’s Reader’s Guild. It moved me profoundly and yet I’d never considered it as “lenten reading” before. You are absolutely right — conflict, sin, death, weakness, sacrifice, turmoil, and need for mercy and grace. Thank you for the reminder.

  3. elizabeth says:

    Stephen,
    You’re right. That’s the only way we can “love the ugly,” by realizing our own ugliness. But I wonder, what does it take to not just love the ugly but transform it in such a way that we truly find it beautiful? That we really see the face of Christ in it? I don’t know how that all works, but that’s what I see when I read scripture, you know?

    Tamara,
    You’re welcome. I’m glad to hear from someone else who’s read the novel. It encourages me on the level of validation-means-I’m-not-crazy. Glad you stopped by!

    Elizabeth

  4. Greg Garrett says:

    Elizabeth–

    I remember your request three years back, and thought you would engage the text thoughtfully and with your usual style and grace. A joy to see parts of this resurface again. Thank you for sharing–

    Greg

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