Discovering Holy Ground in Japan

a Japanese garden

Last week I traveled through Japan, learning about a unique and beautiful culture – and discovering holy ground.

I watched Japanese worshippers taking off their shoes before they offered prayers at Buddhist or Shinto temples, and I felt their deep devotion. Although I was simply a visitor, I too removed my shoes as I entered the building, and I remembered how I had taken my shoes off when I visited a mosque. Although we Christians keep our shoes on as we worship, we recognize that, in the words of the hymn, We’re standing on holy ground; For the Lord is present And where He is is holy.”

God’s presence is not limited to temples, mosques, and churches though. Holy ground, I believe, is any place that opens us to God, that awes us with beauty, that enlarges our souls with love and compassion, and moves us into knowing God is here.

We can experience God’s presence anywhere, but some places deepen our awareness of holy ground. In Japan, we walked through steep, wooded mountains where centuries-old giant cedars silently gazed down upon us. This, I thought, was a sacred space, a place where God liked to hang out. I was glad and grateful to hang out there, too.

A few days later, I walked through a very different holy ground – Hiroshima Memorial Peace Park. This place of quiet beauty is located where the first atomic bomb was dropped, where fires raged, where thousands were killed instantly, and even more thousands died later. Today there is green grass and trees, a few monuments (one dedicated to the children), and a deep-toned Peace Bell to ring. There is an eternal flame dedicated to peace, and there is the skeleton of a large building, the solitary remnant of that dreadful destruction.

The Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum is also there. Although I didn’t remove my shoes as I walked through the museum, I felt like I should have. The walls held pictures of individuals who died on August 6, 1945 or in the time following, together with their unique stories and a few small possessions. Rooms were crowded but strangely silent as we gazed into the faces and learned the stories. Here was the story of a school child, here a mother and baby, here a father who had hurried into the bombed area to find his family and died later of radiation poisoning. The Museum tour ended with displays that told of efforts to limit atomic weapons in the future.

Why is this place of unbelievable suffering, this evidence of the inhumanity of war, a sacred place? I believe the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum speak of the power of healing and hope. The evil event has not been erased, but, through the decades, the hope and work for peace has been redemptive. Redemption happens when love, compassion, and healing rise through an experience of deep suffering and pain. Through our silent grief as we walked in the Museum, through the deep bonging of the Peace Bell when we pulled the rope and offered prayers for peace, we pilgrims joined the hope for peace.

Later I wrote this poem “Hiroshima Pilgrimage.”

Sixth day, eighth month,
eighth hour of the day:
the heart of darkness explodes
and the inhumanity of humans
is revealed in blinding light.

Many years later, the pilgrims come.
We shuffle silently through darkened rooms;
we read flowing Japanese calligraphy or
blunt-nosed English letters.
Both punch their truths at us.

In silence we meet the victims.
Not by the thousands, 
but singly they appear.
We see his picture, read his name, hear his story,
view his small book, lunch box, half shoe
left behind.
Then comes another face, and another,
and another and another.
Nearby a table holds cloth fragments,
infant sized, child sized, adult, too.

Circling deeper into darkness,
we enter the time beyond,
a time when weeks followed weeks,
and suffering lasted longer 
than flesh that didn't heal.
A people lost in hell wandered helpless
until they dropped.

Here within this grim memorial
we pilgrims read the stories,
our souls stunned into silence.
The eyes of those gazing back at us
ask questions:
"What now? You know my story now;
what will you do about it?
How will you bear witness to my truth?"

We travellers read the stories and were challenged to participate in the redemptive work of peacemaking. My prayer is that all of us, each in our unique way, will join in this sacred work.

Ringing the Peace bell in Hiroshima

If this writing has spoken to you, please pass it on.

10 thoughts on “Discovering Holy Ground in Japan”

  1. Thank you, Nancy. The first paragraphs of your piece reminds me of part of a poem by Elizabeth Barret Browning….”Earth is crammed with heaven and every bush afire with God. But only those who notice take off their shoes. The rest sit around eating blackberries.”
    Thank you, my friend.

    1. That’s right! “Earth is crammed with heaven!” There’s much to be grateful for in the midst of suffering.

    1. Dear Naomi,
      Thank you so much for writing — I felt the experiences in Japan so intensely, especially the Hiroshima experience, and I wanted it to come alive for others, too.

  2. Japan is one place I would have loved to visit.
    Your reflections are always so lovely and inspirational Nancy. Happy Holidays and much love,

  3. This was a powerful piece of writing. It made me squirm to read firsthand how thousands of people simply going about their daily lives were subject to unbearable suffering and death when the atomic bombs fell on them. And to see them as individuals as you did, Nancy, makes it even more real and horrific. How can we humans commit these atrocities on one another? And how can we continue to do so?

    But speaking of the peace work being done and reading your eloquent poem gives me hope that perhaps someday we will rise above revenge and violence, living as one, as God intends. Thank you, Nancy.

    1. Dear Laurie,
      Thank you for receiving this writing, for really taking in the suffering I wrote of. I do have hope for peace, probably because there ARE peace movements! It will take a long time for peaceful solutions to be the norm, but long ago there were no peace movements at all.

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