Meet ‘Grandmother’ Nishi

Let me introduce you to Mrs Hanako Nishi. Sixty years ago, in the remote fishing village of Sakitsu on the far southern island of Amakusa, Japan, this holy lady profoundly influenced my approach to the Crucifixion of Jesus. Her influence is still alive for me today.

Mrs Nishi or ‘Grandmother Nishi’, as she was called by all in the village, was a war widow. Her husband and two sons had lost their lives while serving in the Japanese navy. Grandmother Nishi was alone and desperately poor. But in each Sunday’s Mass offertory basket, she would place ten one-yen aluminium coins wrapped in tissue paper. Just like the Gospel widow that Jesus praised, she, too, trusted and gave her “widow’s mite”.

One evening at dusk, during Lent, I went over to the church and knelt in the back pew. Grandmother Nishi was praying the Stations of the Cross. She was deaf and prayed in audible whispers, which I could hear clearly. When she came to the Twelfth Station, ‘Jesus dies on the Cross’, she looked up at the picture in a long silence. Then, giving a solemn low bow, she said in a voice that came straight from her heart: “Jesu yo! Arigato gozaimasu” ("My Jesus! I thank you").

Her prayer was so simple, so genuine. To say a simple ‘thank you’ as a prayer to Jesus on the Cross was a moment of revelation for me. That simple word of gratitude, said today, spans 2000 years, and brings us to the foot of the Cross itself. The Crucifixion becomes a living scene.

As a cradle Christian, I was used to the Crucifixion. It was so familiar! Grandmother Nishi was an instrument for the gift of insight, which makes us look at a thing we think we know as though seeing it for the first time. Her gift made a vague generality become a living particularity.

Jesus gave up his life for us. “Greater love there is not, if one gives up his life for a friend” (John 15:13). Because of Christ’s death on the Cross, the gates of Heaven are open and waiting for us. We became God’s friends. As a friend, Jesus is right beside us when we meet suffering. We have been generously gifted through the Crucifixion of Jesus. Surely, active and concrete gestures of gratitude are called for! ‘Jesu yo! Arigato gozaimasu.’ Thank you too, Grandmother Nishi.

Columban Fr Barry Cairns lives and works in Japan.

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