In search of faith

When I returned to the Catholic Church at the age of 29, I had a burning question:  What does it mean to be Catholic?

Every day after work, I went straight home and consumed the spiritual classics (which, alas, sailed right over my head).  I obsessively checked to make sure I wasn’t breaking any commandments.  As a result, for a long time, I utterly failed to understand what Catholicism is all about.

In the end, I realized, Jesus told us plainly:  the two greatest commandments are to love God and love your neighbor.  Catholicism is basically about love.

My next question was, how do I become a loving person?

Faith, hope, and love are the three quintessential Christian virtues.  And I’ve heard it argued that they go in that order:  faith in God’s goodness allows us to hope for good things in the future, and when we have hope for ourselves we then have positive energy to spare for loving others.

So that meant I had to start with faith.  And, as I would come to realize, accepting a creed on an intellectual level wasn’t enough.  I had to really live my life as if I trusted God completely that even when things looked like a total mess, they were going to work out somehow.

As it turns out, I am really, really bad at that.  I’ve met people who wouldn’t call themselves Christians at all who seem to do that better than me purely on instinct.  But I’ve come to believe the important thing isn’t to compare and nitpick and intellectualize things.  I just have to point myself in the right direction and keep walking.

I have a little angel on my desk now that says “Trust in the Lord with all your heart.”  Throughout the day, whenever it catches my eye, I recognize that frustration, impatience and cynicism have crept into my heart, and I remember to return to a place of patient trust and peace.

It almost feels as if, three years after returning to the Church, I’m finally taking the first step in becoming Catholic.

There, there, child

I had an interesting conversation with my sister today about a certain politician.

“I agree that he says things that are unacceptable,” I said.  “But I don’t want to attack him personally.  I just think of what the Japanese would do.”

“What would the Japanese do?” she asked.

“Well, in Japan, when someone says something that demonstrates emotional immaturity, people don’t attack that person.  They treat him like a child.  I mean, like a child that they love.  They just say, ‘Okay, this is the level of emotional maturity that this person is at.  Let’s help him get to the next level.'”

In fact, the Japanese will often indulge a person who is demonstrating emotional immaturity by agreeing with them, giving them what they want, or at least sympathizing with them.  This can have the effect of embarrassing the person into acting their age when they realize they’re being condescended to.

Of course, sometimes the only result is a pampered adult.  Ultimately, change has to come from within; the most other people can do is encourage it.

But in the end, I don’t think the Japanese would vote for someone they viewed as childish.

In my opinion, it’s actually a brilliant system that combines compassion with prudence.  Help the child grow, but leave adult society to the adults.

How the Buddhists turned me Christian

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.

It’s true what they say about love and death

When I started this blog, I said that one of my aims was to answer the question, “What has Japan got to do with the Catholic Church?”  So far I’ve compared Japanese culture to Church teachings, finding that sometimes they’re quite similar, and sometimes quite different.  But today I want to introduce a third category:  the uncanny.

And where better to start than with death?

Specifically, a play about death.  A play in which Death is one of the main characters.  This play is called Elisabeth, and was originally written, I believe, in Austria.  However, what I want to talk about is the Japanese adaptation of the play, which, after the localization process, wound up being something astonishingly . . . well, you’ll see!

First of all, the plot.  This is a historical play about the life of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, with just one twist:  Death is one of the main characters.  As the story goes, Elisabeth died as a girl and descended to the underworld, where she met Death.  However, Death fell in love with her, and rather than accept her life, he restored it to her, saying that he wouldn’t let her die until she fell in love with him.  The play goes on to tell the true story of the life of the Empress, with the addition of Death pursuing her throughout her life, and, in the end, winning her heart.

The original version, as I understand, depicts Death as an abusive beast, and is something of a morbid horror story (the historical Elisabeth did have something of a fascination with death).  The Japanese version I saw, however, changed the play to make Death a romantic gentleman.  The biggest change in the script was the addition of an entirely new song, a love song which Death sings to Elisabeth when they first meet, establishing this as a classic love story.  Except, you know, that she has to choose Death over her husband and, well, die, before the happy couple can be united.

It was a wildly popular play.  Something about the idea of Death as a romantic gentleman waiting to welcome you into his arms really struck a chord with Japanese women (and a fair number of Westerners, as well!)  And if you ask why . . .

. . . I’m sure the Catholics out there are saying, “Well, of course, because it’s a true story–including the part about Death!  The minute they changed Death into a romantic character, the character essentially became God.  God, who is all-powerful, has chosen to grant us free will that we may freely choose to love Him.  But He doesn’t stop there–He actively pursues us throughout our lives.  And, should we chose to love Him, we can spend forever with Him after we die.  He Himself even describes this relationship as a marriage that supersedes our earthly marriages.”

Yes, yes, you got it already, and I didn’t even have to say anything.  But here’s the real kicker:

How did the Japanese know that?! 

Everybody wants a Church wedding

Once I was at dinner with a coworker when she asked me, “Aren’t Catholics supposed to get married in a church?”

“Well, yes,” I said, wondering where this was going.

“Well, my husband is Catholic and we didn’t get married in a church,” she complained.

“Your husband is Catholic?!” I said.  I remembered that she’d married a foreigner, but this was news.

As it turned out, he wasn’t a practicing Catholic, and my coworker was disappointed that they’d just picked up a marriage license and that was it.

I couldn’t blame her for being disappointed.  Even before I returned to the Church, one of my pet peeves was the modern man who just can’t be bothered to get married.

I dated one once, back when I was young and stupid. He didn’t see any reason why people had to promise to stay together forever. Like, what if they got sick of each other? Why not just share their lives for as long as they felt like it?

At the time, I found his way of thinking really creepy and repulsive, but I couldn’t articulate why. There is just absolutely no thrill in being told, “I love you . . . for now.” Instinctively, I knew it was a lie. Love had to be forever or it wasn’t love.

However, as obvious as that seemed to me, I learned that I couldn’t take it for granted that men would think the same way.

Until I returned to the Church, and all of a sudden everyone was on the same page again. Marriage was a sacrament in which the spouses promised before God to love each other until death. Love even had a definition; it was “willing the good of the other.” That’s right, love meant acting for the good of the other person, for the rest of your lives.  Now compare that to, “Let’s not make a commitment to each other in case we get sick of each other,” and you tell me which is more romantic!

Japanese women may not understand the theology behind it, but they sense the romance in a Church wedding.  In fact, many of them choose to get married in fake churches wearing Western-style wedding dresses with the vows read by a foreign man.

Literally, any foreign man will do.

I can’t say I blame them for trying to copy Church weddings–they sound pretty awesome.  Only, I’m not quite sure they’ve identified the secret ingredient.

There is no unlike button

It’s tempting to think, now that I’ve returned to the Church, that I should be able to give up my attachment to Japan.  After all, why cling to the glimmer of truth that I first saw here when I have access to the whole truth now?

Only, it hasn’t happened that way.  I certainly tried to disengage myself from what I thought might be an excessive attachment.  I read the insightful blog 1000 Things About Japan thinking that if I could put a name to what it was I liked about Japan, I could dispel the attachment.  The author certainly did manage to put a name to some elusive things like Japan’s “benevolent paternalism” and the concept of amaeru (“to depend and presume upon another’s benevolence,” indicating “helplessness and the desire to be loved”).  But in the end, I could only conclude that what I felt for Japan wasn’t an excessive attachment–it was love, and it wasn’t going away.

I’m comforted by the fact that even the saints seemed to think there was something about Japan.  St. Francis Xavier, a 16th-century missionary and one of the first Westerners to set foot in Japan, reportedly struggled with discerning whether God was calling him to Japan, or he himself just really wanted to go.  Interestingly, the qualities he admired in the Japanese are ones that I still recognize here today.  They were, and still are, a reasonable and noble-minded people.

At the same time, though, I do feel as if I’ve found in the Church what it was that I was traveling the world looking for.  I no longer wander through foreign cities searching for I-don’t-even-know-what and feeling vaguely disappointed when I don’t find it.  I’ve gotten to the point where I can actually think about leaving Japan without feeling like I’m giving up on the pursuit of happiness.

I know now that the key to everything is love.  Not “love” as the world defines it, but that greatest of loves taught by the Catholic Church, which desires to benefit another, with no thought of the self.  The kind of love of which Our Lord demonstrated the perfect example when he willingly allowed himself to be tortured and killed in order to set us free.

That kind of love can be found–or practiced–anywhere in the world.