Most of us suspect that the “secret” to following Christ involves suffering. And it is true that saints do suffer, and often quite heroically. Regular readers of the Seton Shrine website know, for example, the many and various sufferings that Elizabeth Ann Seton endured with great courage and almost incredible faith in God.
When we consider these stories, we might feel ourselves drawn in one of two directions. Either we think “I can do that” and do something that seems appropriately heroic or saintly in the same way the saint has done it. Or we think “I can’t do that” and then do something that will distract us from the thought that we will never become saints.
Perhaps surprisingly, neither one of these reactions really takes into account what is actually happening in the lives of the saints. I would venture to suggest that in the face of great adversity, a saint does not “tough it out,” “man up,” or “put on a brave face.” The saint does not aim for heroism or even “holiness.” In fact, the saint doesn’t really do very much at all. Rather, the saint has but one goal, and that goal is Jesus. The saint wants to follow Jesus, to abide in Jesus, to be transformed by Jesus. And so, whatever the saint does is in fact not so much a “doing” as it is a “letting-it-be-done-unto-me.”
The real “do-er” is Jesus.
“Faith lifts the soul,” said Mother Seton, “Hope supports it, Experience says it must be and Love says. . . let it be!”
In fact, the most that we can say the saints “do” is “offer.” They give their sufferings to God. And when they do this, an amazing thing happens. They tap into the real “secret” of suffering, which is this: when we offer God our suffering, He offers us His mercy.
The truth is, God wants desperately to pour out his mercy on us—this is just how He is. And when a person starts to understand this and live it—as the saints do—life becomes simple, sweet, and wholly a gift. And this way of living is about the most attractive thing imaginable, a sweet fragrance that draws others in.
After the death of Elizabeth Ann Seton, her friend Charles Carroll Harper observed,
“Mother Seton did not put on sack-cloth and walk bare-footed in the streets as if to say ‘see how good I am.’ But she accommodated her disposition to the disposition of others. With the ignorant, she was simple, among the learned, she was instructive. She smiled when her friends were gay, and the afflicted were consoled to see her weeping with them.”
True holiness is experienced by others not as strictness or piety or obvious heroism. It is experienced as mercy, kindness, and gift. This is because the one who is “holy” is radiating God’s mercy and God’s kindness, the most gratuitous of gifts.
The undeniable sense of holiness as gift comes across in the life of Servant of God Takashi Nagai, known in his native Japan as the “saint of Urakami.” Urakami is the district in the city of Nagasaki that was ground zero when American forces dropped the atomic bomb there in 1945, killing 70,000 people and decisively ending World War II.
Urakami is also the Catholic heart of Nagasaki. And Nagasaki is the Catholic heart of Japan. The first martyrs of Japan were crucified in Nagasaki in 1597. When most Catholics were wiped out in subsequent persecutions, it was the outskirts of Nagasaki that hid secret communities that survived for three hundred years without priests.
Takashi came to Nagasaki to study medicine in 1928. The child of Shinto Buddhists, Takashi considered himself an atheist until he encountered the work of mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal, who is best known for his “wager,” an invitation to “try on” faith by living it.
Takashi decided to move in with a Catholic family. Their adult daughter Midori befriended him and when Takashi was drafted and sent to work as a surgeon in the brutal war Japan was waging in Manchuria, Midori’s luminous love, witnessed through letters and borne aloft by prayers, conquered Takashi’s heart. He returned to Nagasaki in 1934 and received baptism. He and Midori were married and went on to have four children together. Takashi pursued his doctorate. He contracted leukemia from his work as a radiologist, yet he continued his research and teaching.
When the bomb was dropped on Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, Takashi was working at the university hospital. He survived and emerged to discover that Urakami was leveled. His home and laboratory were no more. His beloved wife was reduced to ash. In this moment of severe suffering, something amazing happened. An undeniable hope entered Takashi’s heart. A newness, a life far stronger than all the death and destruction he surveyed rose up in him. “I felt liberated,” he said. “I felt that I had to seek the kingdom and His righteousness.”
From this time, Takashi, suffering as he was, lived in the sweetest, simplest way imaginable. He became an apostle to the Catholics of Nagasaki, many of whom were convinced that they were the victims of God’s wrath. Takashi’s powerful, paradoxical message was that the dropping of the bomb was “the expression of the providence of His love.” He concluded this from the fact that the intended military target had been missed and the bomb had drifted to Urakami. God had in a way chosen Urakami because he knew that in that city were pure souls who had been praying non-stop for the end of the war. Their suffering would atone for the war and bring it to an end. One of these victim souls was Takashi’s own beloved Midori, among whose charred remains he had found the fused remnants of the Rosary she had been praying at the moment of the blast.
Not all agreed with Takashi’s interpretation of the bombing. Yet the idea that God could use something truly horrific—what Pope Pius XII called “a crime against God and man”—to end and atone for the war, took hold in the hearts of many Japanese Catholics. Where before there was fear of judgment, now love, acceptance, and intimacy with the suffering Lord began to take root. It was the beginning of true healing.
From 1948 to 1951, Takashi’s illness progressed, and yet his reach expanded. Confined to his bed, he wrote endlessly about the events in Nagasaki, producing best-selling books that earned royalties that he willingly handed over to the state and the city to support the reconstruction. He became a figure of hope to many, a spiritual source of Nagasaki’s rebirth. The Emperor came to see him, as did Helen Keller. The pope wrote to him. All who came in contact with him found in him a joy, a lightness that they were seeking for their own lives.
A famous picture of Takashi Nagai from this time shows him smiling on his sickbed, his two surviving children close by. It speaks volumes. What is Takashi “doing” in these photos? What heroic feat is he accomplishing?
Like St. Elizabeth Ann, he is living out the saints’ “secret.” He is letting his own suffering be open to Jesus. Mercy is pervading his life; peace is suffusing his being. This is the gift, the offering both fragrant and sweet, that makes one a saint.
LISA LICKONA, STL, is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at Saint Bernard’s School of Theology and Ministry in Rochester, New York, and a nationally-known speaker and writer. She is the mother of eight children.