When Silence Would Have Been Better

Jesuit theologian William Johnston did a fine job of translating Japanese novelist Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece “Silence” into English. The book is now set to become a movie, directed by Martin Scorsese. I am sure sales will soar.

Johnston died five years ago. I met him several decades earlier, in 1982. Here is an anecdote from our meeting.

SilenceBorn in Belfast, in Northern Ireland, Johnston later traveled to Japan as a Catholic missionary. It was there that he became enamored with Buddhism, particularly Zen, to the extent that he wrote a book titled “Christian Zen.” He also became a teacher at Tokyo’s Sophia University, a very fine Catholic institution.

I had arrived in Tokyo in 1976, and was also attracted to Zen Buddhism. As a journalist, I began writing about it, and with Buddhist scholar John Stevens I co-authored a book, “Zen Guide.”

Doing research for this book, I several times attended Zen meditation sessions at Sophia University that were run by Johnston and other Catholic priests there. (I should mention that my co-author John Stevens was pretty scornful of attempts to fuse Zen and Christianity, so none of this made it into “Zen Guide.”)

Here is how I described it in another book of mine, “Journey Out Of Nothing:”

I attended one of the services, and was underwhelmed. A dozen-or-so participants sat on tatami mats in a small room, spent a short time in meditation, and then a priest recited a short liturgy, said a prayer and gave a brief homily. I could not see the point of it all.

After the service a group of several young Spanish and Latin American priests prepared a delicious meal – including squid cooked in its own ink, which I was able to taste for the first time – and we ate together, and drank Spanish red wine.

The handsome young Latin priests were a lively bunch, noisy and cheeky (a Catholic friend later told me that most of them ended up marrying Japanese girls). And I should confess that we were all drinking a lot of that excellent Spanish wine.

This was in 1982, and the Falklands War between Britain and Argentina was then raging. At one point in the evening a Spanish priest turned to a young Argentinian priest and in a loud voice pointed at me and shouted repeatedly (in English): “He’s British. He’s British. Don’t you want to fight him?” It was meant as a humorous attempt to rile his colleague, but it came across as something of an aggressive taunt. (I was not British. I’m now a naturalized Australian. Back then I was a New Zealander.)

The young Argentinian was clearly embarrassed, as the Spanish priest wouldn’t stop. He kept shouting, “He’s British,” and pointing at me. I too became embarrassed. I was sitting right by William Johnston, so to try to defuse the situation I turned to him and said the first words that came to me: “I suppose as an Irishman you support Argentina in the Falklands.” It was meant as a light-hearted quip.

His immediate response: “As a human being I support Argentina.”

To which I replied: “Oh, as a human being I support the British.” As I said, we had all been drinking a lot of red wine.

Johnston looked at me for a moment with what seemed to be stunned silence, and then he launched into one of the most aggressive tirades of abuse against the British that I have ever heard. I forget the details, but I know it encompassed his upbringing in Belfast and the discrimination he encountered there, followed by his later years as an Irishman in Liverpool. I recall that at one point he was even fuming about British actions in the 16th century during the Spanish Armada.

Now it was I who was stunned into silence. I was not a Christian and had in fact been raised in an anti-Christian household. Yet, somehow, I still had something of an old-fashioned image of men of the cloth – possibly from hardly ever having met any – that they were quiet, humble, hard-working, peaceful and eternally gracious. I was quite shocked by this torrent of abuse.

I was a spiritual seeker back then, but fortunately I was still deeply into the Zen phase of my journey towards Jesus. I suspect that, had I been investigating Christianity, then that tirade from Johnston, the former missionary, would have lost me. It was only some years later, in 1993 that I found Jesus (or should I say that He found me?) here in Australia.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>