Saint Paul Miki
I’ve been telling a lot of stories about my father this week. Allow me just one more.
In 1947, as a 19-year-old Master Sergeant stationed in post-war Kyoto, Japan, he was invited to go on a 600 mile train trip with General Eisenhower. You see my dad was a cook in the army and the General and his retinue needed to eat. So my dad accompanied him on a special train trip to Nagasaki.
I remember the first time I saw the black and white pictures he took of the unbelievable devastation as far as the eye could see on either side of the train tracks at what used to be the center of one of the largest cities in Japan. No building, no people, just desolation and death. It touched him deeply. “I never saw anything like it,” he once reminisced, “it was like darkness on every side.”
Unbeknownst to that nineteen year old sargeant, three hundred and seventy years before him, Paul Miki and his twenty-five companions also made the trek from Kyoto to Nagasaki. But they had no train. They were on foot and were beaten and mutilated along the way. The Jesuit scholastic Miki and his companion were finally crucified in Nagasaki.
Death by martyrdom on a cross, death by atomic bomb, or death by pyloric cancer. Every death is devastating, fearful and impossible to explain.
Unless you believe. Miki and his companions, much to the consternation of their tormentors, thanked them for choosing crucifixion as the method of execution, for it meant they had been counted worthy to suffer in the model of their Lord and Savior. And the young Jesuit scholastic, we are told, preached his first and last sermon from the wood of the cross, forgiving his tormentors and asking God to bless the land of the rising sun.
When the Bomb was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945, ground zero was Saint Mary’s Cathedral, the largest Catholic Church in Asia, and the only things found in the ashes of the 2000-seat Cathedral were the charred metal buttons from the cassocks of the Japanese priests who has been hearing confessions at the moment of detonation.
A story is told by one of the few surviving doctors that day, Dr. Takenaka, who was seeking to minister to some of the hundreds of thousands wounded by the nuclear blast. He was working near the rubble which had been the Cathedral “As I made my way slowly through piles of human bodies,” he later wrote, “I heard what I thought was the sound of singing. I couldn’t believe my ears.”
“Suddenly, I saw them, twenty or thirty people, some critically burned, sitting in a kind of circle singing and apparently praying. They had beads in their hands and they seemed like a tiny island of composure and serenity in what I would forever remember as a nightmarish sea of horror, destruction and panic.”
'Who are you?', I asked, still not sure that I wasn’t going out of my mind.
The reply came back, 'We are Christians, and we are praying to our God.'
As the doctor took out his medical bag to help them, he was stunned to hear them say, one after another, “Thank you, doctor, but God is with us and will take care of us. Please go and help those who need you more. We’ll be all right.”
He knew that most of them would die. They knew it too. But like Paul Miki, they had nothing to fear, for the fear of death held no sway over the sons and daughters the one whose sacrifice is more powerful than plutonium, or crosses, or even cancer.
Thank you for your prayers for my father and for my family. And thank you for your patience with me over these past several months as I have struggled to be your father and accompany my father on his last journey to the Lord.
I’m not sure how those who, in the words of Saint Paul, “mourn like those who have no hope” are able to go on. But you and I, like Paul Miki and the Christians of Nagasaki, remember that the shadow of death is nothing more than the shadow of the cross, which is our joy and our hope forever. Amen.