Warriors & Witnesses

I surprised myself yesterday bursting into tears as I came across a picture online of Kenji Goto. Just the day previous I had been looking at a web magazine on the Christian history of Nagasaki [link here] and was jolted by the name ‘Goto’, a group of islands off Nagasaki well-known, I learned, for its history of the utterly remarkable hidden Christians. This underground culture of believers came to be following an edict banning Christianity from the land, a ban that was made public by the 600 mile march from Kyoto to Nagasaki of the men (and children) who were to be murdered as examples, by the Powers.

Among the merchants and missionaries crowding the shores of the southern-most island in the mid sixteenth century there was a dangerous entanglement with politics which led, in the early seventeenth century, to the launch of what Diarmaid MacCulloch in The History of Christianity describes as

‘one of the most savage persecutions in Christian history . . . The Church in Japan, despite the heroism of its native faithful, was reduced to a tiny and half-instructed remnant. It struggled to maintain even a secret existence for more than two centuries until Europeans used military force to secure free access to the country after the 1850s, and rediscovered it with astonishment . . .’.

One of the three named saints of the 26 martyrs of 1597 was John So-an Goto. He was 19 when he was killed. Kenji’s name and the name of the islands have no relation in meaning, only in sound (and in Roman script), I know, but  Kenji was, among all the other things he was (son, husband, father, journalist, Japanese), a Christian, and in a sense heir to the martyrs whose witness the Church commemorates today.

Jps Martyrs

(L) a detail from the Nagasaki memorial; (R. top) a painting of St. Paul Miki in samurai clothing; (R.bottom) Kenji Goto. Note the top-knots on the men on the right – loved that!

The word ‘martyr’ has its roots in the Latin for ‘witness’. The early Christian converts in Japan were mainly from the elite and influential warrior class known as the samurai. Inazo Nitobe’s Bushido: The Soul of Japan might help to lay out some foundations for the claim that there is a great deal of convergence in the virtue ethics of the samurai and the Christian. And it is no surprise to read of St. Francis Xavier’s love for the Japanese who he found to be ‘more ready to be implanted with our holy faith than all the nations of the world.’

But I admit that I have never been able to wrap my mind around the extreme concept of martyrdom. I have equal difficulty with related ideas of war and its evil (modern?) corollary, terror. There is at least one point on which they share territory: each seems to be a spectacularly ghastly form of political theatre, a stage on which we invest with truth the poem by Robert Burns:

Man was made to mourn: a Dirge

Many and sharp the num’rous ills

Inwoven with our frames!

 More pointed still we make ourselves

 Regret, remorse, and shame!

 And man, whose heaven-erected face

 The smiles of love adorn, –

 Man’s inhumanity to man

 Makes countless thousand mourn.

While victims of terrorism are not always (or even usually) martyrs, martyrs are always victims of terrorism.

So while I sit with the story of Kenji and I remember the martyrs, I think of their passion, conviction and courage. Were it not for St. Paul Miki and his companions, I would not be, via strange and benevolent twists and turns, in Japan and teaching at a Catholic school. G.K.Chesterton remarked that courage was a quality that ‘has ever addled the brains and tangled the definition of merely rational sages’:

Courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. “He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,” is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers. . . This paradox is the whole principle of courage. [One] must seek life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; [one] must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine.

(From Orthodoxy, Chapter VI ‘The Paradoxes of Christianity)

 And in my prayers I reflect on this poetic description of the martyr archetype and wonder about passion:

Our lives are our contribution to the universe.

We can give this gift freely and lovingly, or we can hold back,

as if it were possible by refusing life to avoid death.

But no one can.

How much worse to die, never having lived!

The . . . lesson of the martyr [archetype] is to choose to give the gift of one’s life for the giving’s sake, knowing that life itself is its own reward and remembering that all little deaths, the losses in our lives always have brought with them transformation and new life, that actual deaths are not final but . . . a more dramatic passage through into the unknown.

(Carol Pearson, 115)


Notes from a Sunday Morning Walk in Autumn

Amid the glowing foliage, sparse, red and rusting leaves hang on the Sakura trees. At the edge of a small dark, still pond an old man unsteadily playing ‘Ode to Joy’ on a silver horn. Sitting on a rock below him, a little boy, his grandson, is reflected, holding a fishing pole. Overhead, the azure sky, the giggling trill of a hawk, sunshine. The splendors of the day, the season, enrobe me.

A flash of blue darts at the stream. Is it, was it – all of a sparkle, a trice, – a kingfisher?

A pair of white herons flap across this blue Okayama sky, the hills laid out before me, all decked in gold brocade. Something softly breaks in me that reminds me of exultation. Whether or not it has meaning, it is beautiful, this world, this here and now, and I think/thank God.

Gingko leaves
Have fallen now.
A band is floating
Upon the river,

Kintsugi Tea Bowl


Listening (to good scents)

Star Festival (Tanabata) decorations (image by OK)


The star festival celebrated in east Asia as the planet makes its earliest, barely noticeable, dip toward autumn has the legend of a love story attached to it. Each year, on the seventh day of the seventh (lunar) month we wonder: will the cowherd boy (Altair) be meeting the weaver princess (Vega) across the Milky Way? I’ve long thought of this event as a summer festival with resemblances to some traditions around the winter Christmas festival. Instead of decorated evergreens, for example, tall stalks of bamboo can be found all over town. These are festooned with colorful pieces of paper on which, in beautiful calligraphic script, wishes are written. Should the star lovers meet the wishes are bound to come true. Once, wishes for greater skills in the arts–writing, painting, music and weaving–were traditional. One story has it that, if on the day of the star festival, you collect water from a lotus leaf to use for grinding ink on your inkstone, your longing to become better skilled in calligraphy could be fulfilled.

Silver Puddle Lotus

Lotus leaf puddle mirror (image by OK)

Collecting this enchanted water would most certainly have been possible on the night of the Star Festival as a light rain was falling on the evening I made my way over to the island and through the forest to the big thatched house in the Garden where the incense ceremony, my favorite summer game, was to take place. The air had that rain-freshened earthy, green cleanliness about it, accented by faint hints of moss, fragrant bark and damp undergrowth. The theme of this year’s ceremony (naturally enough) was the Star Festival, though it was plain that we would not be seeing the lovers meet. Outside the front door a pot of pink lotus blossoms wore delicate silver raindrops and in their large elephant ear-like leaves lay puddles like mirrors.

There are certain tastes and smells in east Asia that one is said to ‘hear’ and I’ve always found this synaesthesia quite delightful: one ‘listens’, for example. to incense.

photo (1)

I had been thinking of listening having come across, for the first time, the concept outlined by a 70s era theologian, of ‘hearing to speech‘. If you have ever experienced such a hearing, it is something you never forget.

Depth hearing […] takes place before the speaking – [it is] a hearing that is far more than acute listening. A hearing engaged in by the whole body that evokes speech –a new speech—a new creation. (Morton)

Living where I do and between languages and cultures this particular quality of intimacy is now rare in my life. But I was reminded of this kind of hearing again in the reading for the recent feast* of the Assumption that tells of the encounter of Mary & Elizabeth as their bodies began to stir with the promises of the prophets.

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, [… she] was filled with the Holy Spirit. Elizabeth said to her cousin,”As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

I have always loved this sound-activated spurt of inner joy. Who does not thrill to the sound of the beloved?

*(Gentle reader: a tangential question. Have i missed something? Why do they use the word “solemnity” rather than “feast” nowadays, I wonder? There is a place for solemnity, I know,but it is an inner, mental posture whereas a feast is a communal, relational celebration. Does not the latter seem more apt, at least for something as wonderful as this encounter?)

The surround-sound cicadian racket seemed to have been dampened. The only sound was that of the subtly percussive effects of the rain on the leaves of the surrounding trees. Our footsteps crunched on the gravel as we walked toward the door, my friend wearing a softly colored kimono with a playful obi featuring the image of a seasonally apt cricket cage.


Small calligraphy box set (image by OK)

We knelt in the spacious tatami room on a red mat in places each marked by a small calligraphy set (ink stone, block of pressed ink, brush), prepared the ink and, using our brushes, filled in our carefully folded score papers. The game began with the master setting the scene by telling the story of the star-crossed lovers. There would be (a whopping!) seven rounds of incense he said. First, two scents would be circulated, the first representing the Cowherd and the second the Weaver. The aim of the game would be to identify which scent, of the seven rounds to follow, belonged to each.

Listening to incense makes me aware of different parts of my mind becoming animated. There is nothing linear (IFTTT) or strictly rational about distinguishing between very slightly different blends of fragrance. It is like having a sense experience of grace; no will in the world can command it. The purpose is play (something many
adults don’t get enough of), to relax, attend, enjoy and allow yourself, as you become in-fused, (and sometimes a little con-fused :), to be, above all, in the manner of Elizabeth & Mary, enthused (en-theos-ed).

Cosmic Pop & Sizzle

There’s a musician, I hear, who has continuously recorded the sounds of nature, who claims that there is a mysterious moment around four in the morning when all birds and insects enter a momentary silence. In this moment, this in-breath preceding the Lauds of creation, there is utter stillness and quiet. And then,

the Song



Well, I was late for that particular moment but I was up at 4ish going down to the river, over the rickety bridge and into the magic forest. Cool twilight clung to my skin like a garment; the first flush of light, scarlet, rose on the eastern horizon, the morning star twinkled. As I entered the forest, the intense early morning fragrance of jasmine slowed my steps. The hush of morning vibrated with a gentle buzz of insects soulfully welcoming the day. (Lauds had evidently begun!) In the near distance were the dulcet tones of shakuhachi piping up the sun, soft waves of solemnity and joy, accompanied by the plucked strings of the Japanese harp, the koto. I was on my way to the ceremonial Lotus opening.

dawn music 1

Once a year gatherings are held from four in the morning for admirers to come and tune in to hear the flowers blooming. In Japan it is said that the moment a lotus flower opens up, it makes a “pop” sound. This is not the kind of sound that you hear with your ears. It is the kind that you sense in the body and hear with your heart. I was struck by people’s dress: a semi-formal affair it seemed, special but welcoming, rather like church. (Kimonos aplenty!) Standing around the lotus ponds, thick with leaves as big as elephants’ ears, voices were lowered: the holy was nigh.

pink lotus

In Buddhist tradition, the lotus flower is as central a symbol as the lily is to the Christian. Significantly, each flower is associated with messages to the mothers of the Buddha and Jesus. The lotus symbolises insight and enlightenment. The lily is said to be a symbol of purity and innocence and virginity but I don’t know how those associations came to be (without a good dose of ‘mansplaining‘); they certainly are not where I’d intuitively go with the lily. For one thing, the scent is a siren. I rather like it but acknowledge it can be overpowering. The lily reminds me of trumpet: an ear trumpet, perhaps. It may sound a bit wacky, but why not? The lily as herald and human-sized antenna: God chose the ear.

I was thinking, with a light and simple morning mind about sound in a kind of a cosmic way.The hard buds of the lotus open up all at once, hence the pop. Ancient yogic texts call the Big Bang the blooming of the primal lotus.

I was thinking, too, about the physicists at the Bell Labs in the 60s, who discovered that the incessant hiss their equipment was picking up that they just could not get rid of, came from the Big Bang’s photons tickling their antenna’s receiver (a.k.a. Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation). Yes, people of planet Earth: Behold and Be Amazed! We can hear that primal sound. [I also rather liked this one]. How marvelous is this?

These cosmic sound waves are 30,000 light-years wide and are 55 octaves below what humans can hear. But when they are shifted to regions of the audible spectrum, the cry from the birth of the cosmos can be heard. [Source: BBC]

The first word of the Rule of St. Benedict is ‘Listen!’; ‘Shema!’ (Hear!) the Jewish prayer proclaims.

Jesus Enters His-Story via the spiral of the Ear.

Jesus Enters His-Story via the spiral of the Ear.

Image, NY MetMuseum, Salvador DaliMadonna (1958)


Summer sizzles in Japan and from this one personal perspective it is most welcome. The ringing in my ears (Big Bang Photons? Why not?!) gets a host of critters to sizzle, buzz and aum along with. I am positively vibrant with the sounds of the universe! There is the Worshipful Company of Cicadas whose daytime antics, creaking and quacking and shimmering and jangling, unfailingly lift my spirits into pure joy (and often hilarity). There is, too, the Worshipful Company of Crickets whose lullaby is like no other I know for its comfort and encouragement.

That early morning in the Garden I sat at the poets’ pavilion beside the running stream and felt cooled by the sounds. My notebook was giving off the most wonderful wafts of scent having been crammed into my backpack against a little sachet of (real) incense. At sun up the pigeons began to growl and splashes of colour became apparent among the sea of green leaves on the ponds. The musicians, facing east, continued to play until the sun was truly riz’n.

The Sun has Risen

The Sun has Risen



Mirrors, a Summer Reflection

At the heart of the up and coming Extremely Large Telescope they are building in Chile, there will be a mirror. That mirror that reminds me of a honeycomb. A rather large honeycomb, though, which is about half the size of a football field.
This curved mirror will be segmented, all 39.3 metres wide of it, and consist of 798 hexagonal mirrors, each 1.4 metres across and 5 centimetres thick. It will catch loads more light than is currently possible and be able to create images 16 times sharper than those of the Hubble. (Do these numbers not strike you as Biblical in the manner of Noah-like cubits, say?) This amusingly-poorly-named telescope (younger relative to its neighbouring ‘Very Large Telescope’) will enable some astonishing depth of vision, however. Astronomers will look further into space in more detail than ever before. Stretch your mind into this:
This telescope will be so powerful that it will collect enough light to look to the observable limit of the Universe – soon after the Big Bang when the first stars and galaxies formed.
I don’t really know what this means. Sometimes I get glimpses or fleeting dreams leave a taste.
I wonder: Do each of us have mirrors collecting light in our hearts? Is that what a soul is?

I was thinking about the glass.
The primary symbol of self-discovery, self-knowledge, contemplation and reflection is the mirror.
The earliest mirror known was water, in the surface of which the human saw her soul reflected. Like consciousness itself, the mirror possesses the capacity to reflect the actuality of the visible world.
I was daydreaming about the telescope, and light and seeing to the edges of the known, as I buzzed by a few silvery flooded rice paddies on an errand earlier in the week. How could I not think of Alice and her Looking Glass? What if, I thought, we could see a patchwork of rice-paddies from a bird’s eye view? Or, say, from space? Would they not look like eyes, too, mirrors or gateways? Who would take time to reflect at edges of these pools? Who would dare to follow Socrates injunction to ‘Know Thyself’?
Mark Miodownik writes of the reflexive relationships; I wondered about glasses and our sense of ourselves.

The material world is not just a display of our technology and culture, it is part of us. We invented it, we made it, and in turn it makes us who we are.

This is a lovely idea:
Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself.
Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies.
We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, its magnificence.
Alan Watts
So is this:
Christ has no body but yours.
No hands, no feet on earth, but yours.
Yours are the eyes through which Christ looks compassion on the world.
Yours are the feet with which Christ walks to do good.
Yours are the hands through which Christ blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet, yours are the eyes:
You are Christ’s body.
Christ has no body on earth but yours.
St. Teresa of Avila
And this, the simplest formulation:
We are a way for the universe to know itself.
Carl Sagan
This week, post-solstice, we are celebrating, serendipitously, the feasts of Corpus Christi and the Sacred Heart. Here, in the northern hemisphere, the very fullness of life is vivid around us.
May we know the body as temple and consent to shine the light that is uniquely ours to share.
Images: wiki commons

When the River Rises & the Figs Ripen

When the river rises and the figs ripen, when the irises are in full bloom and from the fields mirrors the colour of quicksilver materialize, then we welcome the nightly evensong of the frogs and I get on my bike and go hunting for the first viewing of planted rice sprouts.

People In The Know, know that, among many things, one of the things the Japanese do best are the seasons. Students will proudly confess, as if no one else in the world had ever experienced seasons, “We have four seasons in Japan.” Truth be told, it is quite possible that outside of Japan, you probably have not experienced the particulars of each season with quite the attention and love in which they are celebrated here.

My favourite name for the season we are in presently is Bai-u, the season of the plum rains, and I had occasion to see in the Plum Grove in the Garden a few days ago, the ground sprinkled with a good number of the small golden fruits fallen from the trees. Most of the green, unripe so-called ‘blue plums’ had already been harvested for the early summertime activity of making the delicious plum cordial called ume-shu.

Gifts of June

Yesterday, browsing through the Sasaki Sanmi’s great manual on the Way of Tea, I was transported into reverie by this:

. . . the sound of rain falling from the eaves and the singing of the kettle calm your mind. Isn’t it fun to hear the occasional falling of ume (a plum) to the ground?
Just passing the time of day during the early summer rain is apt to lead to joy . . .

The mornings nowadays are breezy and cool mostly, and when they are not there is a soft grey stillness that rests lace-like in the décolletage of the hills on the near-horizon. There are hydrangeas all over the show, in every possible hue and variation. The lotus flowers have begun to bloom and I shall, this weekend, be putting my nose in the way of some of the gardenia that blossom exuberantly along the canals and roads in town. On dry days one might be treated to evening cool descending with the moonrise and that beautiful twilight release of fragrance. On wet days, one might catch the whiff of a stick of incense burning to freshen and lift the spirits.

flower w raindrops

I do love the adornment of raindrops on flowers, don’t you?



The Young Leaf & the Beginner’s Mind

Spring from Poets'Pavilion

Momiji Grove in Spring

When we were learner drivers we could not wait to have the big red ‘L’ removed from our vehicles. We knew what other drivers said when they saw them. The peanut gallery commentary ran the gamut from making fun of the gear grinding, bunny hopping and unexpected stalls to complaints, criticisms and insults. Looking back, grown up motorists seemed to be impatient that we had not emerged Athena-like, fully competent, from the head of Zeus, that Great Master of All. Did we not know better? Had we not been in cars and on roads all our lives? (Well, er, yes, and that is how we knew what the general feelings towards that Big Fat ‘L’ were . . .) You will understand then how little we wanted to dally in learning limbo adorned with the scarlet letter. How different things are here. The sign of an inexperienced driver is a young leaf. It indicates that an apprenticeship is underway; that skills are in development. Anyone not feeling too confident behind the wheel can make use of the sign of the young leaf. Ideally, (and in my experience,) fellow motorists will exercise due caution and care.

Wakaba_mark(May it be so with this blog experiment, too.)


Another season of young leaves is upon us. Spring, new moon, beginners’ mind. Each delicate, fragile, and promising.

Labyrinth at Chatres        A tenderness of heart and mind is helpful when new life begins to unfurl. We stand at a threshold, as if at the opening of a labyrinth (Catherine of Siena x Jan Richardson: trust me, a rich and beautiful partnering.) As life spirals, each of us turns in and out of the fold, quickened, yet perhaps slow at first.

Step by step we find a new part of an old journey is underway.

  —— Images: spring momiji by OK; wakaba (cc) and Chartres Labyrinth design by Steve Snodgrass