Remember Death by Matthew McCullough, Free for CAPC Members
Matthew McCullough suggests that death awareness allows us to find joy in the problems of this world.
Note: This article contains potential spoilers for Final Fantasy X and Shusaku Endo’s Silence.
An emaciated priest in tattered clothes sits on the ground and watches as a group of Christians is led away in chains. He prays — “Do not increase their suffering. Already it is too heavy for them.” — but God says nothing. The priest, Rodrigues, is tormented by this silence, wondering how God can ignore his people’s cries. Rodrigues’ captors taunt him, asking “If it is true that God is really loving and merciful, how do you explain the fact that he gives so many trials and sufferings of all kinds to man on his way to Heaven?” Rodrigues repeatedly asks God for a sign that he’s there, that he sees what is happening. But all Rodrigues hears are the people’s groans.
This is the heart of Shusaku Endo’s masterpiece, Silence. Set during the brutal suppression of Christianity in 17th century Japan, the novel is a profound examination of suffering and the seeming absence of God. Rodrigues’ presence in Japan is illegal and he knows capture is inevitable. At first, he’s confident, believing that God will sustain him; he will not recant. But Rodrigues isn’t prepared for the pain awaiting him. In the face of such agony, his confidence turns to doubt and then despair, making Silence a beautiful yet tragic book.Violence, death, and loss are common themes in Final Fantasy games but none of them make suffering central in quite the same way as Final Fantasy X.
There’s another beautiful yet tragic work, loved by millions, that has a similarly profound, though very different view of suffering. I’m referring, of course, to Final Fantasy X. (Yes, that Final Fantasy X.)
Final Fantasy X has always been a polarizing game, one you either love or hate. For a long time, I was in the “hate” crowd. It was the only Final Fantasy game I ever gave up on, the only disappointing entry in a series I’ve loved for over 20 years. Throughout middle and high school, I devoured each Final Fantasy title, spending many more hours than my parents were aware of completing side quests, discovering secrets, and level-grinding until my parties became unstoppable. Then Final Fantasy X came out. I just didn’t get it. I thought it was strange, boring, restrictive, and exasperating, and so I quit.
However, I decided that last year’s release of the HD remaster was a good excuse to see if I’d been wrong before. As I played, I was struck by two things: first, Final Fantasy X is actually a great game and second, it’s a surprisingly heartbreaking game. I remembered the story but had forgotten (or never noticed) just how sad the world of Spira is. Violence, death, and loss are common themes in Final Fantasy games but none of them make suffering central in quite the same way as Final Fantasy X; it might be the closest the series comes to genuine tragedy.
Final Fantasy X tells the story of Tidus, a famous Blitzball player (please don’t make me explain Blitzball) with severe daddy issues. Ripped from his own reality, Tidus finds himself in the small island village of Besaid. At first, Besaid offers a delightful contrast to Tidus’ former big city, celebrity lifestyle. Everything moves slower in Besaid; as a result, Spira seems peaceful and idyllic. Tidus hears stories of an ancient evil called Sin but it’s hard to take them seriously in a place like Besaid. Eventually, Tidus joins the party of a Summoner named Yuna and accompanies her on her travels. Their first stop is another coastal town named Kilika.
I’ve always loved how Final Fantasy games present their worlds to the player. Fighting your way through Narshe in Magitek armor or navigating Midgar’s slums aren’t just iconic moments: they tell you much about the games’ larger worlds. But Final Fantasy X tricks you. As you run around the peaceful Besaid, Sin’s danger seems remote, something that happens to other people.
Then, in a moment, Sin obliterates Kilika while Tidus watches helplessly from his ship. Walking through the wreckage, it becomes clear that Kilika is Spira’s true face. Death is ever-present; the people live in dread. Even the Calm (a period of peace between Sin’s death and rebirth) is nothing more than a temporary respite. Sin always returns and leaves suffering and death in its wake.
As Tidus wanders through Kilika’s remains, he sees Yuna perform the Sending, a Spiran funeral rite that gives rest to the dead. The Sending at Kilika is probably Final Fantasy X’s most well-known cinematic and for good reason. A Summoner amidst dozens of coffins, giving comfort to the people — it’s a genuinely beautiful moment that captures the game’s heart.
Tidus is appalled by the suffering brought by Sin — “I wished there would never be a next time. No more people being killed by Sin. No more Sendings for Yuna.” — but Spira’s primary religion, the Church of Yevon, claims it’s necessary. Only by suffering can the people atone for their past wrongs. One day, Yevon teaches, there will be no more need for Sin’s punishment. Until then, the cycle continues, with Summoners playing a vital role: only they can defeat Sin and bring the Calm.
For all his dedication to Yuna, Tidus spends most of the game confused as to how, exactly, Summoners defeat Sin. All he knows is that people grow very quiet and uncomfortable whenever he mentions the end of Yuna’s pilgrimage. Finally, he learns the terrible truth: Summoners defeat Sin at the cost of their lives. Yuna will die.
Distraught, Tidus demands to know why this was kept from him. It’s a horrifying realization, not just that Yuna is going to her death, but that her friends are helping her. This is why Spirans love Summoners so much: they share the people’s suffering in a unique way. To see a Summoner on pilgrimage is to see someone journeying to their death. In a world of suffering, the heroes are those who suffer most.
For Tidus, the price is too high. It cannot be the case that suffering’s only remedy is more pain. Tidus urges Yuna to abandon her journey. She smiles but refuses: “I can’t. I just can’t! I’ll continue. I must. If I give up now, I could do anything I wanted to, and yet… even if I was with you, I could never forget.” Yuna accepts her suffering while Tidus resolves to uncover the truth about Sin and Spira. Eventually, to the party’s horror, they learn that for 1,000 years the Church has been perpetuating a lie: The people can never atone, their suffering will never end. Sin is eternal and the Summoners’ sacrifice is utterly meaningless. Devastated and enraged, Tidus and Yuna fight to change their fate.
This discovery is precisely what we fear in our own broken world. We wonder why God seems so indifferent. We ask, with the Psalmist, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away?” (Psalm 10:1, ESV) In our most honest moments, we’re afraid that he doesn’t care or worse, that he doesn’t exist. The possibility that our pain may be meaningless is a terrifying one, but it floats just beneath the surface. And if there’s no meaning, the urge to rebel becomes irresistible. Tidus and Yuna’s rebellion becomes our own as we rage against the indifferent heavens.
Like Yuna, Rodrigues initially resolves to suffer. He meditates on Christ’s face and considers it beautiful to suffer on his account. Yet it’s not his suffering that torments him. The Japanese officials torture Christians in front of Rodrigues, promising to release them if he apostatizes. Just days before, he had told his fellow prisoners that “I do not believe that God has given us this trial to no purpose. I know that the day will come when we will clearly understand why this persecution with all its sufferings has been bestowed upon us.” But now, their groans of pain tear at Rodrigues. It seems to him that “while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”
Adding to his misery, Rodrigues’ captors point out that his coming to Japan has done nothing but add to the people’s sufferings. At least Yuna has the comfort of knowing that her death will bring some peace; Rodrigues hasn’t even that consolation. As a final blow, Rodrigues encounters his former mentor Ferreira, now an apostate who urges Rodrigues to recant: “I was put in here and heard the voices of those people for whom God did nothing. God did not do a single thing. I prayed with all my strength; but God did nothing.”
Despairing, Rodrigues is given a fumie (a likeness of Christ) by the officials. Holding it in his hands, Rodrigues gazes at the image: “He would like to press to his own face that face trampled on by so many feet. With saddened glance he stares intently at the man in the center of the fumie, worn down and hollow with the constant trampling.” Raising his foot, Rodrigues feels an unbearable pain, knowing that “he will now trample on what he has considered the most beautiful thing in his life.” In his agony, he finally hears the voice of Christ: “Trample! Trample! I more than anyone know of the pain in your foot. Trample! It was to be trampled on by men that I was born into this world. It was to share men’s pain that I carried my cross.”
The revelation in Final Fantasy X is that suffering seems meaningless because it is meaningless. The heavens are silent because they are empty, the Church of Yevon is merely the custodian of a millennium-old conspiracy. The choice to rebel is obvious. The answer to Spira’s suffering is to end it.
An end to suffering was the answer Rodrigues sought as well.
Throughout Silence, Rodrigues speaks of his love for Christ’s face, how he often thinks on it “like a man fascinated by the face of his beloved.” But now it’s “the face of the man upon whom he had trampled.” When Rodrigues sees Christ, it is no longer the idealized, beatific image. But it is only now that Rodrigues sees Christ clearly. He had been waiting on God to speak the words that would help him understand, to make some sense of the senseless.
“Lord,” he prays, “I resented your silence.”
“I was not silent,” answers Christ. “I suffered beside you.”
Final Fantasy X and Silence each offer revelations about suffering but they stand in powerful contrast to one another. I saved the world of Spira by rejecting suffering; Christ saved ours by embracing it. Of course, most days I prefer Final Fantasy X’s revelation. It’s satisfying to end suffering by simply fighting a battle. Yes, everything gets tied up a bit too neatly, but at least the game offers answers, which are exactly what we think we want from God.
For he often still feels distant. What is he waiting for? When will we understand? Like Rodrigues, I believe that one day we will understand everything we’ve endured. But for now, God gives us what we need, though it is rarely what we want. In the midst of our suffering, it is enough to realize that God is not silent. We want explanations, but he responds with groans — because he suffers with us in this broken world. We look for him to appear, but he is there, on the cross, crying to Heaven on our behalf, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
For as low as $5/month, you’ll get access to free offerings from creators and authors we love, exclusive access to our member’s only forum, and exclusive content and podcasts — and you’ll help ensure that CAPC keeps getting better and better.