Monday, November 3, 2014

The Smile of a Ragpicker by Paul Glynn, S.M.

The Smile of a Ragpicker: The Life of Satoko Kitahara Convert and Servant of the Slums of TokyoThe Smile of a Ragpicker: The Life of Satoko Kitahara Convert and Servant of the Slums of Tokyo by Fr Paul Glynn

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Satoko Kitahara was a young Japanese woman born to a wealthy family with a prestigious heritage. In 1947 she, like so many of her contemporaries, had a feeling that life contained nothing but pointless emptiness after her country was defeated. Then one day she wandered into a Catholic church for the first time in her life and was drawn to a plain plaster statue of Mary, Our Lady of Lourdes.
This was the very first time I had seen a statue of the Blessed Mother. Drawn, I know not why, to enter that church, I gazed on the statue, sensing the presence of a very attractive force that I could not explain. I had always experienced a vague but strong yearning for the Pure. It was not something I could describe in words but it was definitely with me from childhood. ...
That encounter led to investigating Catholicism and conversion, which made her a definite oddity in post-war Japan.

Fr. Glynn tells us how Satoko lived her faith so completely that she remains a well known heroine for Japanese of all religious persuasions. As Satoko strove to follow Christ to the fullest extent she wound up becoming the "Mary of Ants Town," living with with the destitute in a shanty town in a public park where subsistence living came from ragpicking. One might call Satoko Kitahara the "Mother Teresa" of Tokyo to get an idea of the depth of her Christian example.

Father Glynn does an excellent job of bringing the reader into Japanese sensibilities and mind set so that we understand Satoko's life. In a broad sense, it is like a sequel to his more famous novel A Song for Nagasaki about Takashi Nagai. In that book we got a history of Catholicism in Japan along with Nagai's life story. The Smile of a Ragpicker brings us a deeper view of Japanese spirituality and the spirit of the country after losing World War II. I thought I knew a lot about such things already but Glynn's lyrical descriptions gave me a much deeper understanding.
She stood there for some time, both repelled and attracted by this ugly place that was home for one hundred people. The dingy huts were built from odds and ends, the bare earth was a festering mess of mud, puddles and rubbish. Some roughly dressed men and women had emptied a big cart full of rubbish collected from city bins and were now sorting it, indifferent to her presence. Suddenly she found herself doing something so typically Japanese. She lifted her eyes from the squalor, focusing them on the serenely flowing Sumida, and then on across the river to Mukojima, where cherry trees flung up bare limbs in silent prayer for spring to come quickly. Silhouettes of rooftops and chimneys stood out sharply against the opaque winter sky. "It was like a Sesshu sumie painting," she writes. "I was moved by the beauty of the setting.
This is a rich story on many levels. I especially appreciated the way gruff, rough anti-religious Mitsui was just as influential in Satoko's spiritual growth as she was on his. That was a surprise but one that was only possible because Satoko was so open to following God in every way she could.

Among the other surprises I encountered were:
  • A Polish history lesson also, all wrapped around Brother Zeno and (wait for it) Maximilian Kolbe. In all the stories I've read of this saint somehow the fact that he went to Japan and founded a ministry there (before returning to Poland and his well known eventual martyrdom at the hands of the Nazis) completely escaped me. Fascinating.
  • There was a special Japanese - Polish connection after World War I due to an effort to return orphans to Poland.
  • The Japanese people's famous sense of wonder and appreciation of beauty allows them to appreciate grandeur even in the midst of disaster such as an air raid.
On a personal level I cannot stress enough the effect this gentle saintly girl's story continues to have on me. I won't go into details here but her honesty in her spiritual journey, her complete faith and dedication, and her love of Mary affected me deeply.

This is a simply wonderful book that I will read many times in the future. I can't recommend it highly enough.

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