She asked, “Are you a believer?”

…these words exactly…the unsuspecting sensei dressed in street clothes whispered in Japanese.

Christians worldwide are now in the figurative spiritual desert of Lent. For 40 days and nights, they are preparing for Easter. This story is one that has to do with that journey. In the spirit of inclusivism, with curiosity and respect for all faiths, both Christians and non-Christians alike might find what unfolded in this small Japanese chapel interesting to ponder…
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Having recently arrived home from Japan, I keep thinking about an extremely interesting scene that occurred at Mass in Kobe when a woman who had been helping my Japanese friend follow along in Mass came up to her after Communion and ended up retrieving the communion host from her hand.

The scene keeps replaying in my mind as if from a movie. And the more I watch the scene, the more beautiful and important it gets on this Lenten journey towards Easter.

After seeking a Mass for two days in a remote region of Kobe, the concierge thought she’d found one, so I took a taxi there at daybreak prior to my late morning flight to Tokyo. The night before, while sitting in an ancient Shinto temple, appreciating the numinous presence of God during the beautiful chanting, my Japanese friend asked if she could come with me to Mass. Baptized years ago by a Baptist preacher while getting her PhD at Yale, she had drifted and was longing to reconnect with God. There we both sat, in a beautiful and dimly lit chapel in Kobe at sunrise, watching the drama of the Mass unfold. I was so glad I’d explained to her in advance what would happen throughout so that she could “see” the process of the celebration.

Nervous about Communion, I had explained to her about folding her arms to receive a blessing, since she is not Catholic. Yet as I watched her walk back to our seats, I noticed that she was holding the Eucharist in her hands (obviously she had not understood my explanation). Then out of nowhere, the same woman who had been bringing her missiles from one row back, approached and asked something. I heard my friend mumble about being a Protestant and then watched the lady reach into my friends hands and remove the Eucharist and return it to the priest.

I continued praying in that moment, but my prayer switched to one of tolerance and patience for my friend, on her path of exploration and learning, that she would not be mad at the woman nor lose the luster of this faith-filled moment in her life. In the cab on the way back to the hotel, she revealed that the woman’s question had been, “Are you a believer?”

To be totally honest, at first I was horrified when I watched that sequence with the two unfold. And to be sure, it is a hot-button issue from the Roman Curia on down, as Pope Francis himself was recently videoed addressing in a Lutheran church. I was worried my friend would perceive it as rude. I spent the ride home talking about the Church’s belief in the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist and how the woman felt she was defending the Body of Christ.

I explained how we call it “the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” because we believe that it is a real celebration of the last supper. Since Christ can only die once, which He did 2000 years ago, we have to be the ones to “die to self” at each Mass. In each and every Mass, then, we are committing to Him that we will let Christ take over. As St. Maximilian Kolbe taught his students, the “Math” of conversion is v=V, our “voluntas” (our will) shall become Christ’s capital “V” Voluntas (God’s Will), commanding our every decision.

Then, on the flight home, the entire scene hit me like a ton of bricks. How lucky she was to have been posed that question so explicitly. Few perhaps get such a crisp interrogation at such a teachable moment. So…am I a believer? To what degree does any Christian believe Christ? It brings to mind the boy’s father in Mk 9:24 when he exclaimed, “I believe; help my unbelief!”

The answer to this question is not binary.

Indeed, conversion is a process of becoming complete in one’s belief. This woman’s question is not just “a” question, it is THE question. In our answer lies the promise of Light – total illumination about the meaning of our lives, our existence, and the movement from the total darkness of the womb, to the combined day/night of Earthly life, to full enlightenment after our second baptismal birth through death (Lk 12:50).

Paul Kalanithi, in his remarkable book, When Breath Becomes Air, called on us to remember what Jesus said to the woman at the well (Jn 4:5-42): “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again; but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring water welling up to eternal life.” To this, a believer in Christ must echo, “Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty”…ever again.

E. Wesley Ely, MD, MPH
Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine
Vanderbilt University Medical Center
wes.ely@vanderbilt.edu

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