Cecilia Bryan is a recent (2012) graduate of IHM School, which is run by the Slaves of the Immaculate Heart of Mary at Saint Benedict Center in New Hampshire. Her graduation speech from the commencement exercises earlier this month, was, in the opinion of its auditors, very moving. Because of the quality of the speech, and because the subject, Dr. Takashi Nagai, is of general Catholic interest, we asked her permission to publish it on this site. She graciously consented, and we present it here, completely unedited.
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Before I start, I would like to extend my gratitude and deep thanks to all the Brothers and Sisters for what they’ve invested in me, today and over the school years; to you, the kind audience who is patiently preparing to be bored to tears, to my classmates from IHM, to all the girls I’ve spent time with, those who could come, and those who couldn’t, to my siblings who’ve put a lot of time into me, dish-washing training etc., to Professor for helping me discover that you can survive school, while have fun doing it, and for being there for the process. Most of all, thank you to my parents.
Today I am going to speak about a Japanese doctor. He was a convert and a scientist who survived the atomic bomb. My speech is a discussion of the message of this man to his struggling country. I read this story a few years ago and the impact it had on me, led me to share it with you today. Although this doctor converted to Catholicism 11 years before the A-bomb’s decimation of Japan, I believe his real conversion came after the bombing. It was a new beginning.
My graduation today is an ending and a new beginning. Part of being able to make a new beginning is learning to be at peace with the past, the present, and the future. Otherwise the chance for a new beginning will be wasted. Everyone has sufferings in their life, and everybody can make a new beginning. I am personally interested in career options that help others find peace in their suffering and pain. One of the things I discovered while in high school is that there is a healing way to suffer. I think this man’s story holds an important key to the freedom that comes with finding God in our struggles. And I wanted you all to hear of the peace and beauty and gratitude this convert found for himself, and for others.
Concerned Catholic Americans are talking about the decline of our country, the increasing disappearance of religious freedom, the corruption of the young, the destruction of the feminine. I wish to suggest that society in general, as well as the individual, could learn not just one lesson, but a change of heart and spirit, from this doctor’s message. I hope to give that opportunity for change to you. The opportunity for peace and gratitude and appreciation of beauty.
I am going to tell the story of the conversion of Takashi Nagai’s life and his message of peace, for the person and society, leaving most of the particular application to the listener.
Takashi Nagai was born in 1908 into a Japan holding its own as a growing world power. His father, Dr. Noboru Nagai, worked with his wife to bring Western medicine to the peasants. The strength and poise of Takashi’s Shinto parents formed him, unknowingly training him for the strength and grace of a Japanese Catholic.
Nagai’s parents sent him at age twelve to live with relatives in a city, to give him a chance to widen his opportunities. In high school Nagai was exposed to and highly influenced by the Western thinking and science of the Enlightenment. He had the grades necessary to attend any imperial university, and he chose to go to Nagasaki, where he entered in April of 1928.
At the same time an intense patriotism was beginning to bloom in his heart.
His classes in science and Western medicine reinforced the growing atheistic, anti-spiritual, and purely rational, scientific ideas in his mind. He was also gaining a reputation for enjoying the pleasures of college life. At the beginning of his third year in college, he received an unexpected summons from home.
His mother died minutes after he arrived, as though waiting to say goodbye to him was the only thing that had been keeping her. This is what he wrote later about the experience: “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.’ I who was so sure that there was no such thing as a spirit was now 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.”
Blaise Pascal’s Book, Pensées, accompanied him in his luggage to go see his mother and it joined him on his sorrowful boat-ride back to Nagasaki. “Faith is a gift of God. . . . You must pray for it.”
This marked, in my opinion, the real beginning of his conversion. He began to honestly question himself about God and the purpose of existence. Especially in the beginning, it was helpful for him to observe beauty, which a 17th century Japanese poet said you don’t have to travel to see—it’s all around you.
The next 5 years brought enormously puzzling questions to his mind, and he later wrote: “Our lives are like lace, appearing unbelievably complicated and mixed up to others. It is essential to remember that your life has to make meaning only to you. . . .” And as Nagai began to explore more deeply his thoughts which flowed continuously like a stream of bubbles in a glass of champagne, he decided to test Pascal’s Christian beliefs like a scientific experiment, by becoming a boarder of a Catholic family–late in the year of 1931.
This family could trace its conversion to St. Francis Xavier. They were one of the leaders of the persecuted Japanese Catholics through the centuries, and could boast of many martyrs and much holiness. Nagai’s stay with them was measured by the Angelus bells of the Urakami Cathedral, and the family’s recitation of the Rosary. Nagai, in growing in appreciation for the beauty of his country and culture, “thought the Japanese owed their strong feeling for beauty to their mothers.” His regard for mothers and the role they played in society and his culture helped him later to build a relationship with Our Lady.
Several days before his graduation as a doctor, he was diagnosed with meningitis. After his recovery, he was offered a position in the radiology department, since he was now deaf in his right ear and unable to do stethoscope work. During this time the side effects of radiology were still very hard to control. This lead to the death of or serious injury to the pioneers of this new science. Very soon, Nagai became increasingly absorbed in the study of atoms and radiation, specializing in the theories of atomic structure and nuclear fission.
He joined the family he was boarding with for a Christmas Eve meal and Midnight Mass, at their invitation. In Dr. Nagai’s first book he talks about this Mass he attended, and his intuition “that there was a living Someone present in the Urakami Cathedral.” The priest’s sermon on the wonderful humility of God made him feel with shame the selfishness and materialism inside himself. “Here is the humility that our minds know is the truth to make us free. Here is the salvation for which our hearts yearn. How can we complain about hardships when the Holy Family accepted the darkness and pain of this night because it was the Father’s loving plan?”
It was also on Christmas vacation that he met Midori, their only child, who was home for the winter holidays. He helped save her life by performing an appendectomy, and it was in this first time of caring for her that he was attracted to her and her purity and gentleness, he who in spite of recognizing the beauty of motherhood, spent time at the brothels. She was his first attraction, and later she became his life.
In January of 1933, Nagai received a summons for military duty in the war with China. Nagai feared that, in this inconclusive time in his life, death would come. He arrived in Hiroshima for training, dreading the war.
On his first leave of absence, he and some friends decided to go drink and eat, eventually ending up at the brothels. Nagai changed his mind and left. Receiving a letter from Midori some days later, he discovered she had been praying for him in the Cathedral before a statue of Our Lady, at that very time. This conquering of passion was another great step in his conversion. Reading a simple catechism made him feel that his whole life-style was wrong, that he’d been spending his time doing things he wasn’t supposed to. When he arrived in China, he worked as a doctor. He experienced great despair and a feeling that the world was nothing but an overwhelming void in which bodies killed other bodies.
Pascal once again led him a step further: you could discover God “only if you went down on your knees.” He wanted to believe that there was something more, some meaning to all this death. On his return to Nagasaki, he went to the Cathedral and talked to the priest about his doubts and fears, receiving in return a story about a Japanese martyr. And a further encouragement to pray in order to know God. Nagai received instruction in the faith. He was baptized in June of 1934, after a period of darkness in which he struggled with the realization that conversion would mean separation from his Shinto father. And before the year was up, he was married to Midori.
He continued his work and studies in radiology, and strengthened himself through his relationship with his wife. She reminded him of bamboo, bending gracefully no matter which way the wind blew. And his work for others expanded as well. He went out of his way to help those unable travel to the hospital or to pay for treatment.
Nagai’s son, Makoto, was born in 1935, and his daughter Ikuko was born in 1937. Soon afterwards Nagai was again summoned to fight in China. In his comrades he saw many examples of the love that Our Lord taught, the love that gains entrance into heaven. He personally received many medals for bravery. War was no longer a cause for despair, but a time to pray within the peace and freedom of his own heart—and he used it well. Besides the rosary, he loved to take a short phrase from the Psalms or the New Testament and repeat it over and over, to regain his peace in the midst of the fighting or the waiting or the doctoring. These are two of the quotes. “The Lord graciously restores the dead to life.” “For your sake we are massacred daily and reckoned as sheep for the slaughter.”
But the dark night of the soul came when he received a letter from his wife saying their daughter, Ikuko, and his father, Noboru, had both died.
He returned safely to Nagasaki a month or two later, and there received peace. “The Son of God has graciously brought me back safely to Nagasaki so that I can work for the Father’s glory.”
Then came World War II, and he feared for his country. Another daughter was born in the midst of all this and was named Kayano. The war didn’t halt his generous giving of himself for the patients. He also became involved in politics and community work.
In 1945, he was diagnosed with incurable leukemia, from his exposure to radiation.
August 6, they heard about a bomb that decimated Hiroshima. They sent their children to go live with their grandmother in the country.
August 9, one of the many air raid alarms was sounded, but the ok was given at 10 am. Midori chose not to join a group of women who were going to the country for an outing that day.
Just at 11 am, the second atomic bomb destined for Japan was released on Nagasaki, a city of approximately 200,000 souls, more than 70,000 of whom would die immediately. The bomb stripped the ground of everything, trees, grass, houses. Dr. Nagai was in the most protected part of the hospital, the radiology department, when the bomb went off. After many of the doctors and nurses were released from the debris that had buried many of them, they cleared the now burning hospital of its patients. Dr. Nagai organized the students and nurses into a sort of mobile medical unit over the next few days. They made a Japanese flag around which the victims could gather, using the blood of their own wounds to make the circle of red on a field of white. This group found a spring of water, built shelters, and ministered to as many as they could, while trying to keep down the panic that came from the fear of an American invasion.
It wasn’t until two days after the bomb that Dr. Nagai was free to go looking for Midori. He found her charred bones and in her hand was the remains of a rosary.
Amidst his tears he prayed: “Dearest God, thank you for allowing her to die praying. Mother of Sorrows, thank you for being with faithful Midori at the hour of her death. . . . Ah, gracious Jesus our Saviour, you once sweat blood and bore the heavy Cross to your crucifixion. And now you have shed peaceful light on the mystery of suffering and death, on Midori’s and my own.” He then took a bucket containing the bones of his wife to their plot in the city’s cemetery to bury them.
“Midori, those secret pilgrimages you used to make early in the morning to Hongochi Monastery, praying for me, they are over now. Thank you for that and for your countless acts of kindness. Forgive me! Forgive me for taking you for granted. You remained at home while I selfishly pursued my studies and got promoted. Forgive me for not going straight to you when you were dying. Please forgive me.”
He tripped and as he did so he heard the bones rattling in the bucket, getting the unforgettable impression that the sound formed these words: “No, forgive me. It is I who should ask for forgiveness.” Even in death his wife was selfless.
The next day he went to get his children from the safe haven of their grandmother’s house, repeating this to himself:“The heavens and the earth will pass way, but my words will never pass away.” And, as one of his biographers put it: “An extraordinary sense of gratitude possessed him.”
Soon, even the members of his medical unit began to notice that they too were showing signs of radiation sickness. On September 8, Dr. Nagai showed severe signs, and was thought to be dying. He made a general confession, received Holy Communion, and peacefully awaited death. In his coma he heard someone telling him to pray to Fr. Maximilian Kolbe, and it wasn’t anyone who was physically present. He miraculously recovered by October 5.
He immediately started analyzing the effects of radiation sickness and trying to help the other A-bomb victims. At this time the bishop of Nagasaki announced plans for an open-air Mass, and asked Dr. Nagai to speak.
Dr. Nagai was sitting in the remains of the cathedral thinking about his talk when a realization hit him as he looked at the altar. Nagai had heard stories of 27 nuns who had died, singing. And a story about a school of girls run by sisters. The survivors had grouped in a field, and although in a terrible agony, assisted other victims, singing the verses of a hymn, “Mother Mary, I offer myself to you.”
The Lamb of God was slain, and the Lamb was followed by white-robed virgins singing. Calvary’s holocaust and Nagasaki’s holocaust.
On November 23, he gave his talk. I have kept the majority of it here, feeling that, as it is the essence of the discoveries he made in his conversion, it is an important part of this speech. His talk, if nothing else is remembered, is what I would like you to walk away with. This is his speech:
“On the morning of August 9 the world stood at a crossroads. A decision had to be made . . . peace or further cruel bloodshed and carnage. And just then, at 11:02 am, an atom bomb exploded over our suburb. In an instant 8,000 Christians were called to God, and in a few hours flames turned to ash this venerable Far Eastern holy place.
“At midnight that night, our cathedral suddenly burst into flames and was consumed. At exactly the same time in the Imperial Palace, His Majesty the Emperor made known the decision to end the war. On August 15, the Imperial Rescript, which put an end to the fighting, was formally promulgated, and the whole world saw the light of peace. August 15 is also the great feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is significant, I believe, that the Urakami Cathedral was dedicated to her. We must ask: Was this convergence of events, the end of the war and the celebration of her feast day, merely coincidental, or was it the mysterious Providence of God?
` “I have heard that the atom bomb . . . was destined for another city. Heavy clouds rendered that target impossible, and the American crew headed for the secondary target, Nagasaki. Then a mechanical problem arose, and the bomb was dropped further north than planned and burst right above the cathedral. . . . it was not the American crew, I believe, who chose our suburb. God’s Providence chose Urakami and carried the bomb right above our homes. Is there not a profound relationship between the annihilation of Nagasaki and the end of the war? Was not Nagasaki the chosen victim, the lamb without blemish, slain as a whole burnt offering on an altar of sacrifice, atoning for the sins of all the nations during World War II?
“We are inheritors of Adam’s sin . . . of Cain’s sin. He killed his brother. Yes, we have forgotten we are God’s children. We have turned to idols and forgotten love. Hating one another, killing one another, joyfully killing one another! At last the evil and horrific conflict came to an end, but mere repentance was not enough for peace. . . . We had to offer a stupendous sacrifice. . . . Cities had been leveled, but even that was not enough. . . . Only this holocaust in Nagasaki sufficed, and at that moment God inspired the Emperor to issue the proclamation that ended the war. The Christian flock of
Nagasaki was true to the Faith through three centuries of persecution. During the recent war, it prayed ceaselessly for a lasting peace. Here was the one pure lamb that had to be sacrificed as holocaust on His altar . . . so that many millions of lives might be saved.
“How noble, how splendid, was that holocaust of midnight August 9, when flames soared from the cathedral, dispelling darkness and bringing the light of peace. In the very depths of our grief, we were able to gaze up to somethingbeautiful, pure and sublime!
“Happy are those who weep; they shall be comforted. We must walk the way of reparation . . . ridiculed, whipped, punished for our crimes, sweaty and bloody. But we can turn our minds’ eyes to Jesus carrying his Cross up the hill of Calvary. . . . The Lord has given; the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord. Let us be thankful that Nagasaki was chosen for the whole burnt sacrifice! Let us be thankful that through this sacrifice, peace was granted to the world and religious freedom to Japan.”
Dr. Nagai spent the last six years of his life on earth helping others to find peace and the beauty that is around each and every one of us—if we only have eyes to see. He lost himself in the sea of God’s love through an intense journey of pain and self-recognition. And then he could help those who were unable to be a holocaust of their own.
“Unless you have suffered and wept, you really don’t understand what compassion is, nor can you give comfort to someone who is suffering. If you haven’t cried, you can’t dry another’s eyes. Unless you’ve walked in darkness, you can’t help wanderers find the way. Unless you’ve looked into the eyes of menacing death and felt its hot breath, you can’t help another rise from the dead and taste anew the joy of being alive.”
He gave Nagasaki a gift: the gift of faith and hope and love. The gift of peace in a God that can be found in the beauty of His creation, in a God who can be found in one’s soul. Dr. Nagai wrote 20 books from 1945 until his death on May 1, 1951. He personally strengthened thousands, and his books and his story affected many, many more. He found beauty and gratitude in the horror of loss and war. He led others to find this; he used his journey to teach.
People note that in Nagasaki there is the quiet of peace and resignation, but in Hiroshima there is the tearing of deep-seated anger. You have heard his message, we’ve followed his journey. Do you want his gifts? You and I have a chance for a new beginning. Which city will we follow: the raised fist or the folded hands?
For myself, I hope to learn how to appreciate the beauty around me; to find gratitude for what I have been given; and to help myself and others to be at peace with the struggles we’ve left behind, and those that are ahead.
May God and His Mother of Sorrows guide Dr. Nagai’s spirit into our minds and hearts!