A good conversation can lead down fascinating paths. My favorite writer, who also happens to be my daughter Marissa, recently wrote The Rosary Can Change the World for the Every Sacred Sunday blog. While writing it, we talked about the relationship between St. Maximilian Kolbe and the rosary. We also discussed eight survivors of the atomic bomb in Nagasaki — Jesuit priests who lived eight blocks from the epicenter.
I knew St. Kolbe had built a monastery in Nagasaki that survived the blast, and I wanted to learn if this was the same building where these Jesuit priests were living. As a result, I found the moving story of Servant of God Takashi Nagai.
Takashi Nagai was a scientist who converted to Catholicism from atheism. He survived the bombing of Nagasaki, but he lost his radiology lab and years of research. His home was destroyed. Most difficult of all, he found the charred remains of his wife, with her rosary still in her hand.
Nagai spent his remaining years speaking and writing of peace. He saw God’s hand in the tragedy of Nagasaki and expressed gratitude. How does a person come to such great faith that he is grateful to God after such a great tragedy?
His conversion story is not uncommon. It is not one single incident that convinced this scientist and brought him to belief, but a culmination of incidents. God works through the events and the people in our lives.
Nagai was born to a Shintoist family and later became an atheist. He decided to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a doctor. He wrote this about his early years as a student:
Shortly after I entered the faculty of medicine, they had me dissect cadavers… The marvelous structure of the entire body, the detailed organization of its smallest parts, all this aroused my admiration. But what I was handling was nothing but mere matter to me. The soul? A fantasy invented by impostors to deceive simple people.
The death of his mother was the turning point where he began to think he might be wrong. She suffered a stroke while he was at school. He rushed home to be at her bedside. He later said about her death:
With this last penetrating look, my mother demolished the ideological framework that I had constructed. This woman who had brought me into the world and raised me, this woman who had never given herself a moment of rest out of her love for me, spoke to me very clearly in the last moments of her life. Her look told me that the human spirit continues to live after death. All this came as an intuition, an intuition that tasted of truth.
While this was not enough by itself to convince him, it left him open to learning more.
The next great influence on Nagai’s thinking was Blaise Pascal’s Pensees. He later wrote:
What must this Catholic faith be, if the scientist Pascal was able to accept it without contradicting his knowledge?
Nagai was still a student and needed a place to live. After reading Pascal’s work, he decided to find a Catholic family to take him in as a boarder. The Moriyama family accepted him. They prayed for his conversion, thinking God may have sent him for that specific purpose. On Christmas Eve, he agreed to attend Midnight Mass. Though he did not convert that night, the beauty of Mass moved him closer to the Catholic faith.
A short time later, Nagai ended up fighting in Manchuria as a member of the Japanese Army. Midori, the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Moriyama, sent him a package that included a catechism. Reading it helped him to reflect on his life and ponder making changes.
When he returned home from war, Nagai, like many soldiers, had to deal with the horrors he had witnessed. He found a priest to speak to about his concerns, which led him to study Scripture and liturgy.
With all of these events leading him to the Church, one fairly large obstacle remained. To become Catholic would mean to break with his Shintoist father. Struggling, Nagai went back to where he had started. He picked up Pascal’s Pensees again. This time one particular line stood out:
There is sufficient light for those who want to see, and sufficient darkness for those who don’t.
Nagai was baptized in June 1934.
There is so much more to Takashami’s life. He married Midori. He personally knew St. Maximillian Kolbe. He developed health problems and thought he heard a voice telling him to pray to St. Kolbe, though he had no idea St. Kolbe had died. He prayed to him and was healed.
His way with both spoken and written words inspired his people. He said this at a Requiem Mass at the Nagasaki Cathedral:
Is there not a deep connection between the annihilation of this Christian city and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the spotless lamb, the holocaust offered on the altar of sacrifice, immolated for the sins of all the nations during the Second World War? … Let us be grateful that Nagasaki was chosen for this holocaust! Let us be grateful, for through this sacrifice, peace has been given to the world, and religious freedom has been given to Japan.
His words made a difference to many. In his book, A Song for Nagasaki, Paul Glynn writes:
The difference between the two groups of people is still noticeable today at the annual A-bomb anniversaries in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. One of the regular participants in 1985 expressed the difference in this way: “Hiroshima is bitter, noisy, highly political, leftist and anti-American. Its symbol would be a fist clenched in anger. Nagasaki is sad, quiet, reflective, nonpolitical and prayerful. It does not blame the United States but rather laments the sinfulness of war, especially of nuclear war. Its symbol: hands joined in peace.
While trying to learn how to become more like this Servant of God, I looked closely at his conversion story to see what I could learn.
The death of his mother was a starting point. That tells me it is never too late to be God’s faithful servant.
Blaise Pascal had great influence on Nagai. In this case, it was both the written word and Pascal’s brilliance. This reminds me to “always be ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope” (1 Peter 3:15, NABRE.). It is important to be able to say something more than “Just have faith” to convince others of God’s truths. It is also a reminder that we can influence people we never met, even those who live after our lives on this earth have ended.
I highly suspect the prayers of the Moriyama family made a big difference in who Nagai became. This is certainly something we are all capable of doing.
The gift Midori gave of the Catechism reminds me to be thoughtful of what I give others. The priest who gave of his time to listen thoughtfully to Nagai when he was troubled is a reminder that being there for people is a way to share God’s love.
All of these factored into Nagai’s conversion. Yet many of us love God and desire to serve Him, yet we do not handle suffering well. What made Nagai different from people like me?
I will never know for certain, but I have a theory. This kind of faith and trust in God can only come, it seems to me, from a substantial relationship with Him. In Pensees, Blaise Pascal said that we encounter God through faith and prayer. He said that even when we are struggling with our faith, we should never neglect prayer and Mass. Nagai considered this a hypothesis worth testing. I believe the man he became is the result of his test.
It reminds me of a homily I recently heard. The priest spoke of suffering. He talked about people who decide they will no longer pray or attend Mass when they are hurting. He said it becomes our loss when we do that. God gives meaning to suffering. Faith helps us to not become bitter.
The story of Takashi Nagai shows a man who continued with prayer and Mass while trusting in God’s goodness. He passed this same gift to his people.
I do not know if I will ever be at the level of this Servant of God. However, I can learn from his story. I can be the person who prays for others, who has an answer for my beliefs, who listens to others. My witness could be one of the pieces that helps someone else love God, even after I leave this world. Maybe that is enough.
Servant of God Nagai Takashi, pray for us.