Exactly when or where the words escaped my lips I can’t recall—perhaps after a miraculous First Saturday rosary at a certain Nagasaki church. At any rate, I vowed to the Mother of God that I would pray Her rosary at every Catholic church in Nagasaki.
Nagasaki Prefecture, that is, not just the city. At the time I didn’t realize how much landscape that promise encompassed, nor how many churches—some prominent, some tucked away in hidden nooks, and others, historical gems, almost crumbling away. It would be an ongoing, step-by-step pilgrimage.
One step of which I’ll now recount.
In my guide book I had marked a swath of churches stretching westward toward Sasebo (of the Naval base) from my starting-point, Kawatana, a town perched atop the pate of Omura Bay. Kawatana lies just a few miles west of Higashi Sonogi, where the 26 Martyrs, on the penultimate day of their death-march, were herded to the shore and into three boats that would take them to Nagasaki and the crosses that awaited them there.
Before setting out, I prayed a crucial prayer to Jesus on my knees in my sardine-tin of an apartment:
“Lord, give me victory over Satan.”
Some hours later, I reached Kawatana but couldn’t find the church at first. Dumb luck—or “God-incidence”—won the day, though: passing a store, I was inspired to circle back and drop in. Turning left, there I found the church, set off on a rise above the street, beyond a stone wall.
The door was unlocked; I prayed my rosary in a pew and, done, took a little tour. To the right of the Altar stood the Blessed Virgin on a pedestal, in her eyes a look of triumph and her foot crushing the Serpent’s head, its tongue lolling out. I had been Catholic a few years but had never seen this depiction of Her up close, nor was aware that the same crushed Serpent, too small to make out with the naked eye, hung around my neck on the face of a small Miraculous Medal.
Next on my agenda: Funakoshi Catholic Church. I headed onward, westward, to find that my guide-book was of little help once I had ventured off the highway and into the suburb where the church supposedly stood.
I ended up ascending a narrowing, winding road past a score or two of houses on a hillside, no church in sight, until I found the road shrunken to a virtual footpath and myself plumb in the middle of a zoo—I must have made quite an exhibit for the visitors—and, backing out with difficulty, I wended my way back down. Luckily, I spotted a man in front of his house, who pointed out the driveway to the church, descending out of sight right next to his property. Squeezing my car into a leafy spot at the edge of the road, I headed down on foot.
A modest little church, the doors locked, opened perhaps only for Sunday Mass. I prayed my rosary on its front step and went back up to my car to find a curious present there beside my right front tire: a big, fat, brimstone-colored viper—a mamushi—coiled up and on the verge of death, its head smashed and mouth strangely twisted, and its forked tongue lolling out to one side.
Being an inveterate hiker, I had seen many mamushi in my day, but never one so big, nor ever one thus colored, as if it had come fresh-smelted from a furnace—or perhaps a Lake of Fire. I must have run over its head on pulling in.
The helpful man and his wife were now packing up their car, perhaps for a picnic, with their little son and daughter at play on the street. I pointed out the moribund viper for their safety’ sake, and the father, startled, said, “Mamushi?” Apparently not an everyday event in his neighborhood.
Sadly, I can’t recall my itinerary of churches that followed immediately on Funakoshi, but it must have been about 36 hours later that I found myself heading north toward Sasebo in the wee hours of the night, very short on sleep and gulping coffee to keep myself awake.
A song from The Wizard of Oz came to me—I knew not why—and, buzzing on caffeine, I started doing jazz improvisations on its melody in my head while navigating the dark, narrow, twisty road before my straining eyes. What with the lack of sleep and the caffeine overdose, I thought myself quite the musical genius as I plunged onward toward Sasebo.
But first, one must get past Yokose-ura to reach the turnoff to Sasebo. That turnoff was easy to miss in the dark; somehow I found myself passing the same spots time and again, circling Yokose-ura as if I were invisibly tethered to it.
The first Japanese feudal lord to receive baptism, Omura Sumitada, had built the port of Yokose-ura and a church for the Jesuits in 1562; in fact, he was baptized there. Enemies of the new religion soon razed the place to cinders. That perhaps is why my car was tethered to that ghost of history, as if I were racing to nowhere on the inside of a centrifuge.
Meanwhile, my own seeming musical genius was wowing me as I played with that melody in my head, drilling my eyes at the onrushing pavement in the wee-hours darkness, trying to find that turnoff, when something—or someone—inspired me to blare out the words of that song:
Ding-dong, the witch is dead!
And I hit my brakes with a Screech!—something in the road.
I backed up to get my headlights on it before getting out to inspect the thing: a black viper, coiled up dead, its head smashed and its mouth open in that same eerie twist, the forked tongue lolling out to one side.
Now what was that prayer again?
Lord, give me victory over…
“But,” you protest, “ya run over snakes all the time.”
Really? In more than two decades in Japan, I wore out four cars exploring nooks and crannies tucked away in far flung places, and what with all those journeyings, my tally of smashed snakes totals…
As for the third one…
There was to be a memorial Mass down in Shimabara on the grounds of what once was Hara Castle. That stretch of earth was my spiritual home; many an hour had I spent there, rosary in hand, alone with the silence of the 37,000 Christian souls buried in that sacred soil, victims of the Shogun Iemitsu’s demonic wrath. For his horde had put them to the edge of the sword in the cherry-blossom season of 1638, beheading “even the little girls,” as one soldier lamented.
I had never before attended one of these memorials and knew not what to expect, but having hightailed it down to the Hara Castle ruins from my home some hours away, I got there with only minutes to spare before Mass would begin, and I was in sin and desperate for a confessor—desperate to receive my Lord on that soil seeded with the blood of the 37,000. To my surprise, the grounds of the bygone citadel were swarming not only with faithful, but also with priests from all over Japan: there must be a familiar face among them.
Indeed, a solid Japanese priest: the pastor of Hondo Parish in Amakusa, that verdant archipelago off in the distance, just across the strait to the south. I ran to him with my plea and he led me out of the crowd, to the precipice overlooking that rare panorama, heard me and absolved me, and left in a rush to duck into a tent beside the makeshift stage that held the Altar. A moment later he emerged decked out for Mass: he was the main celebrant, but he had had time to hear my confession at the last minute; now there’s a priest.
After Mass I left reluctantly, having a long drive home—but I was free of my sin and had received my Lord there on that soil ringing with the silent cries of the 37,000 slain and baptized with their Christian blood. The outer grounds were crowded with visitors as I wended my way down the drive most carefully; but I heard a Thump-thump! beneath my tires and stopped to investigate.
Behind my right rear tire, you guessed it: a fat viper coiled up, head smashed, mouth twisted, and that forked tongue lolling out to one side.
I stood there edified, staring down at the Biblical creature, the Sacrament confirmed.
Ding-dong: the Witch is dead.
A version of this story first appeared in the National Catholic Register.