My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In 1928 young Takashi Nagai was a medical student at the top of his class. An atheist, he passionately believed that science held the key to the future of the human race. He loved his country and believed the “spirit of Japan” would improve his nation’s future.
Then came a telegram that sent him racing home to be with his mother as she died. And his world changed.
“I rushed to her bedside. She was still breathing. She looked fixedly at me, and that’s how the end came. My mother in that last penetrating gaze knocked down the ideological framework I had constructed. This woman who had brought me into the world and reared me, this woman who had never once let up in her love for me … in the very last moments of her life spoke clearly to me! Her eyes spoke to mine, and with finality, saying: ‘Your mother now takes leave in death, but her living spirit will be beside her little one, Takashi.’ I who was so sure that there was no such thing as a spirit was not told otherwise; and I could not but believe. My mother’s eyes told me that the human spirit lives on after death. All this was by way of an intuition, an intuition carrying conviction.”
In an unlikely turn of events, Nagai turned to Blaise Pascal’s Pensées in his grief and bewilderment, having been attracted to the Catholic poet-scientist in a high school literature class. This was the first step into a spiritual journey that ended in Nagai becoming known as the “saint of Urakami” after the atomic bomb hit Nagasaki.
Nagai’s biography is captivatingly told. Paul Glynn combines vivid descriptions, character insights, and just enough Japanese history so that we have context. As a result I wound up admiring the Japanese people even more than I did already. I never realized how many of the Japanese ideals combine with saintly living, especially as seen through Takashi Nagai’s eventful life.
At Mass on Sundays and feast days, the Nagais often heard Father Moriyama speak on the beauty of the simple family life at Nazareth. It showed, he said, the great worth of ordinary family life and the grace of God present in humdrum daily work. This reminded Nagai of his boyhood, when his mother taught him how to find the universe in a bowl of rice: “Look at the rice carefully, and discover behind it the countless generations of farmers who pioneered wild land and nurtured rice paddies through droughts and floods, poverty, war and pestilence. See generations of artisans too in the simple, practical beauty of the bowl and chopsticks and in all the merchants who handled Them. See your parents took, who worked hard to be able to buy and cook the rice.” Nagai’s mother would conclude her lesson by joining her hands and bowing in a gesture of profound gratitude, reciting a prayer that explained all this, and the universe as well: “Namu Amida Butsu. We depend on our utterly, Amida Buddha.”… [The Japanese character] Shigoto, “work,” is made of two ideographs meaning “something that is a service.” All are the beneficiaries of countless other “workers,” and we owe it to the community to do our own job well, not primarily for material recompense but out of gratitude. This was the boy’s introduction to Japan’s famous work ethic. Nagai the Christian recalled his mother’s gentle homespun spirituality with gratitude.
I am really struck by how many modern issues Nagai struggled with: belief in science as ultimate good, humanism, the atom bomb, cancer, and more. His faith gave him peace and the way he lived it in unimaginable circumstances gave that peace and faith to others. I also really admired his absolute dedication to truth, so much so that when he became curious about Christianity he decided to carry out a scientific experiment by boarding with a Japanese Catholic family.
This is much more than a simple biography, needless to say. Because we’re following Nagai’s spiritual journey, we are invited to look deeper within ourselves and journey also. This book is fascinating and inspirational.
How fitting that this is the first book I finished in 2014. Not only is it the Solemnity of Mary, which Nagai would have very much appreciated, but it is the beginning of a New Year where I am taking Takashi Nagai as my patron for the year. So … it seems meant to be on several levels.