One of the things I often wonder about my time in Japan is how, exactly, living in a country of people who don’t believe in God led me to believe in Him.
The first time I lived in Japan, I arrived an atheist and left believing in God, although it all happened so organically that it’s hard for me to pinpoint the cause.
But recently I was reading The Prodigal You Love, a book written by a former atheist turned Catholic nun. Speaking of the things that contributed to her conversion, she writes, “Most often, the people who successfully pierced my self-assurance and urged me to reconsider my beliefs did so not with complicated arguments but with humility and simplicity.”
When I read this, I knew the author had put her finger on one of the factors in my own conversion. Her descriptions of her encounters with simple and humble people were instantly familiar to me from my time in the Japanese countryside. It so happens that she also lived abroad, but the humble people she met were Christians. What I can’t get over is how, in my case, encountering humility had the same effect even when the humble people were not Christian.
In Catholicism, Father Robert Barron writes, “The healthiest spiritual people are those who have the strongest sense of the difference between themselves and God.” I suppose that when I was an atheist, I didn’t see any difference at all between me and God. Perhaps when I saw the humility of the Japanese and sensed how grounded they were, I realized that there was room for God in the picture.
But there was something else, too. Theresa Noble advises us to see in others the person God created them to be, rather than their present selves with all their imperfections. When I read that, I wasn’t sure how to put it into practice, so I asked a nun. She told me that you can’t treat someone differently depending on how they treat you–you just have to be decent to everyone, all the time, and eventually they may rise to meet the expectations implicit in your behavior.
Then I realized that that was just what happened to me in Japan. How many times had people lavished every courtesy on me when I had done nothing to elicit such kindness? Being treated better than you deserve does have the effect of making you think about how you could be the person that people are acting like you already are. It worked–receiving such charity opened my heart. Could it be that I subconsciously realized that in a world where love exists, God must also exist?
The second time I lived in Japan, I arrived a New Ager and left a Catholic. This conversion, I understand more clearly. There were many factors that converged, but as I’ve been taking them one at a time, let me pick up the thread of humility. I think that living in Japan caused me to realize how different I was from the humble people I met. I saw that I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t. And when I was finally ready to give up my rebellion, I knew that I had to go back to what it was that I was running away from. I tried to go back in my past and find a time before I was in rebellion, and what I found there, in the mists of my early childhood, was the Catholic Church.