Lessons from a Japanese Nun
Toshinki Sasaki was a clerk working in the personnel department of Hiroshima’s East Asia Tin Works, 1600 yards from ground zero, the day the Enola Gay dropped the atom bomb. She lay pinned beneath a book case one leg twisted and broken. Neither her leg nor the rest of her would ever be the same.
She, like so many of the survivors, suffered in ways we, who have not experienced such things, can read about but only dimly understand. Influenced by the persistent interest of a kindly German priest, himself a fellow survivor and sufferer, she eventually converted to Roman Catholic Christianity.
After the bomb her fiancé rejected her, and she was alone, except for a younger brother and sister for whom she cared until she had to place them in a Catholic orphanage. Concerned for her the priest urged her with to marry or to enter convent. Convinced she would not find a man, she entered the convent and, after initiation, took her vows.
She became the director of a home for 70 old folks, many of whom had been miners. She had a remarkable ministry to people as they died. In the words of John Hershey, author of Hiroshima: “She has seen so much death in Hiroshima after the bombing, and had seen what strange things so many people did when cornered by death, that nothing now surprised or frightened her.”
Two stories from her service to the dying are deeply moving. Again in Hershey’s words: “The first time she stood watch by a dying inmate, she vividly remembered a night soon after the bombing when she had lain out in the open, uncared for, in dreadful pain, beside a young man who was dying. She had talked with him all night, and had become aware, above all, of his fearful loneliness. She watched him die in the morning. At deathbeds in the home, she was always mindful of this terrible solitude. She would speak little to the dying person but would hold a hand or touch an arm, as an assertion, simply that she was there.”
We find it awkward to be with those who are in trouble of many kinds and tend, usually unintentionally, to isolate them – but especially the sick and the dying. We pastors may be among more guilty than many. I can think of three reasons: (1) We have got more important things to do for the kingdom than sitting holding the hands of sufferers. (2) We may find that being in such situations stirs up our own questions, uncertainties, and fears in ways we’d rather not. (3) We find it unpleasant and uncomfortable which it surely is. So we avoid, and as a result, neglect.
All of us, people and pastors alike, need to remember how lonely suffering can be and how great the need for true company. We can’t take the role of the only Good Shepherd, but we can walk with them and hold their hands as far through the valley of the shadow as one human can go with another.
A second story also in Hershey’s words: “Another old man had, like many Kyushu miners, been a drunkard. He had had a sordid reputation; his family had abandoned him. In the home, he tried with pathetic eagerness to please everyone. He volunteered to carry coal from the storage bins, and he stoked the building’s boiler. He had cirrhosis of the liver, and had been warned not to accept the daily ration of five ounces of distilled spirits that the Garden of St. Joseph mercifully issued to the former miners. But he continued to drink it. Vomiting at the supper table one night, he ruptured a blood vessel. It took him three days to die. Sister Sasaki stayed beside him all that time, holding his hand, so that he might die knowing that, living, he had pleased her.”
Sinners who are dying need divine mercy, but they also need human mercy. So long as we do not divert them from seeking divine mercy if they have not sought it yet, we should show all mercy in their dying, even as we would give them food and drink in their living. And, if we owe this to all, how much more do we owe it to believing sinners whose last steps toward eternity may not be steady but faltering.
I do not know what to make of Roman Catholicism and Roman Catholics in the end. Though I know confessionally where Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II are supposed to be now, in my gut I do not. I do not know if the sister acted out of saving or common grace. I do not know if she had mercy as one who had received mercy or had nothing more than human compassion for other humans. But she teaches this Christian lessons he needs to remember and gives him an example he needs to emulate.