Upon arriving in Lourdes on pilgrimage on a cold, rainy winter day, I was feeling very much the pilgrim. I was cold, tired, and wet. The long trip had been exhausting and the walk in the drizzling rain from the train station to the hotel had drained me of energy.
As I headed to the grotto of Our Lady, I was hoping to find consolation and comfort. However, the place that had been such a source of blessings before, now felt dreary and uninviting. Walking back to the hotel, there was an eerie silence around the sanctuary that left me perplexed. Nothing seemed to be going as planned.
The next morning after a good night’s rest, I returned to discover what others had told me was really true. During the winter, this extremely popular Marian shrine visited by millions is largely empty. There are no rosary processions or other activities. I had come prepared for “empty” but not for “desolate.”
A Desolate Picture
However, that is what I found. During the winter, and especially this very cold winter, Lourdes is absolutely desolate. There is no other word to describe it. All the hotels, restaurants, and shops are shuttered in the general sanctuary area. My own hotel had just two occupants. Almost no one was in the streets. Even the omnipresent souvenir shops were limited to five or six that stayed open for limited hours.
There were times—during the day as well as night—when absolutely no one was in the large basilica plaza that normally holds thousands. At the grotto itself, usually only a few knelt before Our Lady.
And it was freezing. The cold that comes off the river near the Grotto could chill you to the bone. At night, walking the five blocks back to the hotel in the empty streets, I would pray that I would not be attacked in my vulnerability. I later came to the conclusion that not even the thieves thought it worth their while to stalk these cold deserted streets.
Thus, my one-week pilgrimage of desolation began. My last trip had been at the height of the summer when one sees Lourdes in all its glory, full of people, magnificent processions and graces. Now, it felt as if I had walked out of a color picture into a black-and-white print. I would have to endure a pilgrimage quite different from the merely “empty” one that I had planned.
Pilgrimage Inside the Silence
Indeed, it took a little while to get used to the desolation, silence, and cold. As I made my way to the Grotto several times a day, I came to realize there was something very calming and alluring about the shrine without all the “noise” of the crowds. It increasingly drew me there.
When the noise stops, it is easier to notice things. The sanctuary bells seemed to be crisper and more beautiful. Sights like the lighted medieval castle that at night appeared to float on the hill near the sanctuary seemed more fairytale-like. The candles seem to burn with greater intensity. Although it is probably theologically incorrect, it seemed the prayers at the sanctuary were more unobstructed. You had the sense that your prayers were going straight to Our Lady at the Grotto. There was especially noticeable at night amid the cold when the rest of the world disappeared and only the heavens above could be seen. One night, snow started to fall that only added to this overall impression of calm isolation. You felt that you could stay for hours, but there was always a point when the maternal solicitude of Our Lady intervened and you sensed it was time to leave the cold and return to the warm hotel.
A Tremendous Unburdening
Of course, some things at the sanctuary were still open despite everything. These included the baths. The baths are enclosed shallow stone pools with water from the miraculous spring at the Grotto. Pilgrims are invited to immerse themselves in the pools for healing of mind and body. Usually the baths are full of lines of pilgrims divided by men and women waiting their turn. However, this time I was the only one there.
The baths are a great wonder of Lourdes. The volunteers who help you are extremely respectful and charitable. Everything is done modestly and without any embarrassment. The aproned helpers hold a towel in front of you as you prepare for the bath and then wrap it around you. They lead you to the pool and then ask you to pray with them. You are then told to sit in the pool and the water comes up to your neck.
Wasting Lourdes Water
Thankfully the water was cold but not the icy cold that I expected. The helpers then offered me water from a pitcher to wash my face and drink. I did not receive any special cure after the baths, but I can say I sensed a tremendous unburdening of useless cares that stayed with me throughout the pilgrimage.
I was disappointed by the new arrangements for getting Lourdes water. I had been used to the faucets right near the Grotto from which the water, like graces, flowed exuberantly and abundantly. This is no longer possible since the faucets have been removed and replaced with low volume faucets that will not allow a person to easily fill containers.
According to a brochure, the new faucets allow one to make a symbolic gesture of “washing” and “drinking.” To fill containers one must go to another place some seventy paces away near the river. There was also a sign at both locations warning that water is a precious resource and should not be wasted. Given Our Lady’s spring has delivered millions of gallons of water to the faithful over the decades, it is hard not to see a disturbing ecological overtone to the new instructions…
The Wonders of Lourdes
There are many other wonders at Lourdes. I was, for example, struck at how the favors of Our Lady are literally written in stone. The inside walls of the Basilica, crypt and Rosary Chapel are all sheathed in marble stones engraved with thousands of messages of thanksgiving for graces given and cures received.
There is the marvelous Way of the Cross of life-size cast iron statues that occupies a huge hill next to the sanctuary. Again there was no one around, and I did the way of the cross alone. From the height of the Calvary, I was surprised by a magnificent panorama of the snow-capped Pyrenees Mountains.
And there was the charm of the town itself, the people, and its markets. The town center is some distance from the sanctuary and did have some activity that allowed one to interact with the people. There were also the pilgrims, albeit few, who share in the wonders done there and with whom you can talk. They come from all over the world drawn by Our Lady’s special blessings.
The pilgrimage of desolation became one of consolation. In the desolate silence, you gradually acquired the habit of thinking, reflecting, and praying. What attracted me the most was the Grotto, which is the heart and soul of Lourdes. When you are almost alone with Our Lady, you experience a kind of sacral intimacy by which you feel you can ask her anything without inhibition. It was easy to spend time asking, asking, and asking yet again. There was time to pray for the crisis inside the Church, for America, and family and friends. And returning to the hotel, you thought of yet more things to ask.
And Our Lady responds by encouraging your petitions. Her statue at the Grotto is discrete, polite, and very French. She looks slightly upward as if to say “ask me anything because I know how to arrange everything with my Son.” And you are compelled to comply.
Desolation or Crowds?
As the weekend approached, however, the “crowds” started to arrive. Sometimes thirty or even fifty people would arrive at a time. After a week of desolation, these few pilgrims seemed like a multitude that broke the desolation. Of course, I would never begrudge these pilgrims their chance to come to the Blessed Mother. But it ironically served to highlight that the desolation I had originally feared was now immensely treasured.
As one who has experienced both the pilgrimage of what might be called triumph (with the crowds) and that of desolation, I asked myself which one was preferable.
I am inclined to say both have their role. There are times in the history of the Church, like our own, that are best expressed by the desolation. It is then when pilgrimages like these teach us to abstract from the noise of the world and be attentive to grace. In the midst of the desolation, we sense a greater need to go straight to Our Lady unobstructed, and this gives us courage.
However, there are other times when the pilgrimage of triumph helps us grow spiritually. We sense the universal mission of the Church that joyfully unites all peoples. We sense the enormous attraction of the Church even in our neo-pagan times. It is good that there be huge triumphant rosary processions to assure us and to create in us the certainty that the Church will prevail despite everything.
In the pilgrimage of our own lives, we all go through times of desolation and triumph. Each has its role, lessons, and special graces. Both are necessary and part of life. The important thing is the object our pilgrimage which is found in Our Lady who leads us to God and heaven. With this in mind, whichever pilgrimage you choose, you will never go away disappointed.
In the history of the Church, many martyrs died for the Faith. Starting with Saint Stephen the Protomartyr shortly after the Resurrection, they were the first to be remembered, venerated for their public witness and raised to the altars with the title of saint. There are also those who denied the Faith under pressure. They are forgotten and buried in the dark recesses of history.
The modern world has a problem with martyrs. People cannot understand the glory of their witness for Christ. Modern man would rather try to find some justification behind the anguished decision of those who deny the faith.
Such is the case of Martin Scorsese’s latest film “Silence.” It is a tale about this second category of non-martyrs—of whom Our Lord said: “But he that shall deny me before men, I will also deny him before my Father who is in heaven” (Matt: 10:33)
Curiously, early reviews of “Silence,” have been negative—even by liberal media hostile to the Church. The consensus is that Scorsese’s attempt to propose for general admiration one who outwardly denied the Faith has fallen flat.
Perhaps it is because human nature finds such denials distasteful. Even the director’s talents, Hollywood special effects and media publicity cannot overcome it. Scorsese’s tortuous attempt to justify his tormented protagonist proves tedious and unconvincing.
Hollywood’s Teaching Authority
“Silence” is based on a 1966 novel of the same name by the Japanese author Shusaku Endo. The plot revolves around the fictional character of a Portuguese Jesuit priest in seventeenth century Japan at the time of a violent anti-Catholic persecution. The film represents a “struggle of faith” in which the priest must choose between the lives of his flock and his Faith. In the face of his trials, he finds God is silent to his entreaties, hence the film’s title. Finally, Christ Himself supposedly breaks the silence by interiorly telling the priest that he might outwardly deny the Faith by trampling upon His image to save his flock.
Such a shallow story so contrary to all Church teaching would usually pose no threat to Catholics who are firm in their Faith. However, Hollywood has tragically assumed the role of a teaching authority to countless American Catholics. Thus, the principal lesson taught by the film—that outwardly denying the Faith can sometimes be justified and even desired by God—does pose a danger to the many uncatechized that might mistake Hollywood script for Scriptures. Any silence about “Silence” might be misconstrued as consent.
It is not the case to review the film or explore its convoluted plot and subplots. Such films are nothing new; they are simply means to reinforce certain false premises that undermine the Faith. It is far better to address the false premises themselves and, especially as it applies to modernity’s woeful misunderstanding of martyrdom.
Martyrdom Is Defeat
The first false premise is the modern assumption that life is the supreme value. This is a terrible premise since if there are no values worthy dying for then there is no real reason worth living for. In a materialistic world that adores life and its enjoyment, martyrdom represents failure. Those who renounce the Faith and martyrdom are winners. Those who don’t are losers.
The message of fictional accounts like “Silence,” is that life is to be worshipped to such extent that even God must be made complicit in inspiring the apostasy that saves the lives of the faithful. However, such accounts are indeed fiction; they ignore the historical reality of what happened.
The Historical Record
The historic record of the Japanese martyrs is one of the most glorious in Church history. It is a burning rebuke of modernity’s idolization of life. Tens of thousands suffered or died at the hands of cruel executioners. If tales are needed to inspire authors, let writers tell of the courage, heroism and constancy of these Japanese martyrs, young and old, male and female, religious and secular, who joyfully gave their lives for Christ and earned for themselves the crown of eternal glory. If villains need be found for their stories, let them find them in the cruel governors and judges who condemned the Christians to death.
In 1776, Saint Alphonsus de Ligouri wrote the book, Victories of the Martyrs, which has one large section that tells incredible stories of the Japanese martyrs. He speaks of a Japanese Christian named Ursula, for example, who upon seeing her husband and two young children martyred, cried out: “Be Thou praised, O My God! For having rendered me worthy to be present at this sacrifice, now grant me the grace to have a share in their crown!” She and her youngest daughter were then beheaded.
Indeed, any priest who would save the lives of his flock by renouncing his Faith would be reviled by the Japanese faithful for both his denial and depriving the flock of the crown of martyrdom.
If there is any silence in Scorcese’s “Silence,” it is that silence which ignores the dauntless courage and supernatural joy found in the Japanese martyrs and missionaries whose witness was so superior that their enemies were defeated by their arguments and resorted to killing them. Their martyrdom was their victory, not their defeat.
Acts Have No Meaning
A second premise is that outward acts have no meaning. Acts mean whatever the person determines them to be. Such a premise is typical of postmodern thought that would “deconstruct” acts from their natural meaning and context.
Thus, any benefit or inspiration can justify an act that signifies the denial of the Faith, since acts have no fixed meaning. Indeed, the theme of the film shrouds the outward denial with the good intentions of the protagonist’s concern for the safety of his flock.
Again, this shows a profound misunderstanding of the idea of martyrdom. The word martyr itself means witness—an external manifestation of Faith to others. The postmodern interpretation of the martyr’s dilemmas questions the notion that there can be witnesses that are so firmly convinced of the truths of the Catholic religion that they gladly suffer death rather than deny it. The “meta-narrative” of the great deeds of the martyrs is no longer valued. Even the idea of truth is relative. All must be reduced to the level of personal experience.
“There are also those who denied the Faith under pressure. They are forgotten and buried in the dark recesses of history.”
Again, such an interpretation runs contrary to the historical reality that was centered on the notion of objective truth. Those who persecute the Church hate this truth and the moral law taught by Christ and His Church. They especially hate the public witness given by Christians because this witness denounces them for their sins and wickedness. All they asked of their victims was an outward sign of denial. For this reason, persecutors often preferred to force Christians to deny the Faith than to take their lives.
Historically, that is why those who persecute the Church are always willing to offer honors, offices and benefits to those who renounce the faith. They will always give Christians an excuse to stop being witnesses. This includes those “good intentions” to diminish the sufferings of family, relatives and fellow Christians. However, this is only a pretext. Indeed, what they want to destroy is the witness that haunts them and calls them to virtue. They want renegade Christians to make their denial public to discourage the witness of others.
Thankfully, their efforts are often frustrated by the constancy of faithful Christians that moves others to conversion. They do not understand Tertullian’s encomium that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church,” (Apologeticus, Ch. 50).
The Godof SilenceThe final false premise comes from a naturalistic understanding of the world in which people do not grasp how God works in souls. The secular world assumes God’s natural position is one of silence. When secular writers are forced to imagine the action of God upon their characters, they portray it as a purely personal matter based on feelings and emotions inconsistent and outside the logic of divine law.
This is perhaps the greatest misunderstanding of the Faith. Modern authors create their own god of silence and believers outside of the life of grace.
Such a combination leads to absurd characterizations like that of “Silence.” Martyrdom cannot be based on emotion or feeling since it involves surrendering man’s greatest natural gift—life. This is something so difficult that it is beyond human strength to achieve. Martyrdom must entail grace, which enlightens the intellect and strengthens the will to allow Christians to do that which is beyond human nature. God’s grace would never allow a person to deny Christ before men.
Martyrdom—The Fruit of Grace
That is why Saint Alphonsus states that it is a matter of Faith that, “Martyrs are indebted for their crown to the power of the grace which they received from Jesus Christ; for he it is that gave them the strength to despise all the promises and all the threats of tyrants and to endure all the torments till they had made an entire sacrifice of their lives.”
Saint Augustine further states that the merits of the martyrs lie in being the effects of God’s grace and their cooperation with grace.
In other words, God cannot be silent in the face of martyrdom as Scorcese’s “Silence” film affirms. His justice will not allow a person to be tempted beyond the capacity to resist. He is intimately involved in those facing martyrdom. He gives them grace—a created participation in divine life itself. Facing martyrdom without grace is impossible. While God may allow for trials, He is never silent.
Catholics Cannot Remain Silent
And that is why faithful Catholics cannot remain silent in the face of Scorcese’s “Silence.” Scorcese’s film is a tragic denial of God’s grace in a world in dire need of it. In these days when Catholics are being martyred, Catholics need to know that God is never silent. They will never be put in a situation where God betrays Himself. He will always be there when needed.
The secular worldview is so narrow-minded and asphyxiating, but alas so prevalent. Today’s obsession with self permeates the culture to the exclusion of God. It is little wonder that so many would think there is “silence” on the other side of martyrdom. It is largely because they find emptiness in their own lives. They cannot imagine the action of God and His grace.
Amid the frenetic intemperance of the times, the agitated crowds ironically do not seek out God where He is always found—in the silence of their own souls.
New Year’s resolution time is here, and I am again tempted to be overly ambitious.
In moments of passion, I find myself wanting to make extreme changes to my habits that I know will not survive the first week of the New Year. Upon reflection, I have resolved to do something that is both possible and practical this year: Make my Sundays Internet-free.
I chose this resolution because, like most people, I am frustrated by how the Internet tends to waste countless hours of life. Whether it be emails, websites or social media, there is always the obsession to spend an extra nanosecond to deal with the latest notification that quickly stretches into an hour.
In response, my overambitious side tells me to break off my connections with the web. And yet I know that this is impossible because so much depends upon these connections both socially and professionally.
However, what I can do, and I suspect many others can also do, is curtail my exposure. Hence, my resolution to spend my Sundays Internet-free. I really do not need to be connected on Sunday. The world will survive quite well without me online. A mutual separation is quite in order. And so I propose to cut myself off completely. That means neither a peek at a screen, nor a jot or title of text. The break must be total.
For this resolution to be effective, I must outline the reasons why I am doing it. When the passion of my pledge passes, those reasons need to be handy to steady me in my resolve.
And so, the first reason to spend Sunday Internet-free is to because it is the Lord’s day. The day is not mine; it is His. It is only right that on this day dedicated to God we spend time thinking, praying, praising and giving glory to God. In the frenetic intemperance of our days, people do not stop to address God. They do not listen for God’s words. God does not text message. He is to be found in the silence of our hearts. An Internet-free Sunday is a good beginning to increase in the love of God. The second reason to spend Sunday Internet-free is because it is traditionally a day of rest. It is proper that we step outside the frantic rhythm of our daily rat race and take time to reflect, rest and regenerate ourselves for the week ahead. The body is not a machine that can be constantly in motion. It needs time to stop and disconnect. One excellent way to disconnect is to literally disconnect by observing an Internet-free Sunday.
Sunday should also be a time together with others. It is the perfect occasion for people to visit and converse. There is no substitute for such face-to-face contact. In our individualistic age, where everyone is tethered to their machines, it would do us all good to look up from our devices and get together with others to quell our insatiable thirst for community.
Finally, I believe that true culture can only come from those who engage in leisure and take the time to contemplate the meaning of life. The failure to seek or even desire a psychological repose leads to much anxiety and stress. Many have come to disregard tranquility, recollection, and true leisure in favor of the exhaustion of constant activity. An Internet-free Sunday can be a time for those proportional spiritual pleasures—joys like conversation, art, and silence—that are part of a culture and need to be developed.
One is forced to admit that an Internet-free Sunday is hardly something that will radically change the world, but it is a good beginning. It is something practical and doable. It will have a good effect upon me and those around me. Why not give it shot?
And if I fail? I can always push the reset button and try again.