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An American Missionary I Once Knew
by Kingo Hiramatsu

Chance meeting that decide a man's destiny are not to be merely thought of as exclusively belonging to the world of fiction. They are common occurring part of reality. When I look back upon my past, I realize that there have been a number of men I have met that have greatly influenced the course of my life.

Today, I would like to tell you about my encounter with one of these men, namely, Father John Murrett, an American missionary. I am certain that, if I had never met Fr. Murrett, my life would have been completely different. Shortly after the war, in 1946, I was beginning my course of studies at Doshisha University. In those days, conditions were not exactly suitable for study. It required most of one's energy just to find food enough to keep alive. Being undernourished, and not getting enough rest, my body was racked by consumption which made if necessary for me to live in a sanatorium. I was forced to give up my studies at college and immediately upon entering the sanatorium, underwent a very painful chest airing treatment. In those days, medical facilities were inadequate and there was no suitable medicine for my illness. The only hope for a quick recovery, was to continue receiving treatment while spending long hours in bed getting as much rest as possible. Life in the sanatorium was an endurance contest between me and my sickness. Only patience would bring victory. It is not my purpose here to tell you about my fight for survival, so I will not go into detail about my many vicissitudes after I entered the sanatorium. However, my recovery was disappointingly slow and I had to remain in the sanatorium for many years.

Practically every day I was in the hospital, patients died and the doctors could do nothing to save them. Some, praising God, were beseeching his help, while others were uttering curses against Him. I was filled with apprehension that I would fall into the last category and so began reading books about religion and philosophy. I was seeking peace of soul and read practically anything I could find. I searched for answers to elementary questions about the meaning of death and the corruption of the body after death. No matter how hard I tried, I could not find any satisfactory answers. As my condition improved, my interests turned from abstract metaphysical problems to the more practical study of English.

I began to spend my days listening to English programs on the radio and studying English literature. Through these efforts, I was able to break the dreary tedium that I had been experiencing. Finally, in 1955, after a long uphill battle, I was finally well enough to leave the sanatorium. I fully realized that, as soon as I left the hospital, I would have no easy time as I went about trying to make a living. I was troubled and at a loss about what I would do. That very day, an American missionary visited the sanatorium to inform the director that facilities had recently been completed in his dormitory where two or three students could live and receive care upon leaving the sanatorium. The director, who knew better than anyone else how much I was worrying about what I would do when I left the hospital, immediately introduced me to the missioner.

It was no time at all before I found myself settled in a college students' dormitory by the name of Villa Maria, located near the Heian Shrine in Kyoto. I was given a special room in the dormitory, and my daily routine was very different from that of the other students. I never dreamed that I would receive such wonderful care. The original contract I had made at the dormitory was for three months. The missionary paid all of my expenses during this time. I soon learned that this American missionary was a priest who belonged to Maryknoll, the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America. Before World War II, this priest had been doing mission work and teaching English at a middle school in the city of Dalian, Manchuria. After the war, he came to Japan where he began teaching English at Kyoto University and took charge of a dormitory for college students. At the dormitory, he worked to make the spirit and teachings of Christ a reality in the lives of the students. Everyone who knew him and saw the exemplary life he lived, was deeply impressed.

I was having no easy time adapting to my new surroundings. We used English in the house, and there was so much I didn't understand. Three months passed very quickly indeed. The missionary was concerned about my future and came to ask me about what I wanted to do. I wasn't able to express myself well in English, so I got out my dictionary and wrote him a long letter. I wrote that I wanted to get work somewhere but that I didn't have confidence in my physical strength and, to be honest, just didn't know what to do. Fr. Murrett, after kindly taking the time to correct the mistakes in my letter, advised me that I should return again to my college studies. At that time I was already 27 years old. Since I had left college, the education system had completely changed and I began to think that perhaps it was too late for me to become a student again. After my long struggle with illness, I felt that I was experiencing a new springtime in my life. I had a longing to do some kind of studying again and, although I had many apprehensions, I began to think that it might be best for me to take Fr. Murrett's advice and go back to school. The only problem that remained, was how to get enough money to cover my college expenses.

At that time, I wasn't strong enough to work, and I virtually incapable of supporting myself. When I wrote these things to Fr. Murrett, he told me that it would be best for me to go back to school and that I needn't worry about anything. He would be able to pay my tuition and, of course, I could stay in the dormitory free of charge. I was never so happy in my life, but felt a little hesitant. It took a huge sum of money to put a man through college. I began to wonder if I'd ever be able to pay him back in the future. No matter how many times I asked myself this question, the answer was always 'no', I was overwhelmed by the kindness that had been shown me but I doubted that I would ever be able to repay the money. I realized fully that money problems were capable of breaking up families. Even when one borrowed from a close friend or from his parents, he should be careful how he went about it. Feeling the way I did, and not knowing what to do, I wrote Fr. Murrett another letter.

If this were a matter between two Japanese, there would usually be an intermediary and it would be easy to communicate how I felt. What was even worse was that I didn't think my English was good enough to enable me to express myself satisfactorily, so I knew I was going to have trouble communicating. Each day when I saw Fr. Murrett, I would become anxious about my inability to convey my feelings. As a result, I went about writing letters in earnest. No matter how busy Fr. Murrett was, he would always carefully correct my mistakes and then write his comments at the end. He wrote the following. "Don't burden yourself worrying about how you are going to make money to pay for your living expenses and tuition. My real purpose for being in Japan is to do whatever I can to assist needy students. I have many benefactors in America who send me money which they hope will be used to help students who are in need. Please do not think that you alone are receiving a special gift from me. Such is not the case. Because of the kindness of these benefactors, many students before you have been able to finish college and others are studying now. These good people would never expect or want any of you to pay back the money they have given you in assistance. Their only desire, perhaps, is that you will live good lives and develop your talents to become responsible and useful citizens in society."

Quite a few of the 20 students who lived at Villa Maria depended upon the kind assistance given them by Fr. Murrett in order to carry on their studies. Some had lost their parents in the war, another was still awaiting the repatriation of his family, while still another had left his invalid mother at home and had come to Kyoto. In those days, there were many young students caught in the turmoil of the times who were poverty stricken and forced to endure much suffering. The aid given them by Fr. Murrett was certainly a 'gift from heaven'.

Here, I would like to go back for a moment and describe briefly what Villa Maria was like at that time. Villa Maria was a dormitory run by the Maryknoll Fathers, an American Catholic foreign mission society. It was located in a very quiet section of Kyoto near the Heian Shrine and the Museum of Fine Arts. A two --- story wooden frame structure stood in the center of the 2000 sq. meters of property and was surrounded by a number of smaller buildings. In front, there was a small yard with a tiny pond as well as a rather large Japanese garden and a flower bed where flowers bloomed all year round. The second floor of the main building was used for the students sleeping quarters and had six very large bedrooms. On the first floor there was a chapel, a refectory, a kitchen, a guest room and Fr. Murrett's Office and bedroom. There were also study and recreation rooms which were more than adequate to provide for the students' needs and make life enjoyable. In a separate building, there was a specially equipped infirmary and rooms where the five of us, who were receiving special treatment, lived. The house rules were very strict and some students felt that it was like living in a seminary or a military barracks.

Except in the winter, rising time was at 6:00. After washing up, we would proceed to the chapel for morning prayers and Mass, and, after that, we ate breakfast. We all sat around the table with Father Murrett and spoke in English during the meal. From the time we were little boys, we had been taught that it was good manners to eat in silence, so it wasn't easy for us to adjust to this custom of speaking at meals. This custom was so different from our own. What was even more disconcerting, was the fact that we had to speak in English. Most of the time, we weren't aware of what we eating. Now and then, someone would crack a joke and, even though some of us didn't get it at first, the laughter was infectious and we'd all laugh together. After breakfast, we would have morning duties and each student would have to clean the place that was assigned to him. When we finished with morning duties, we were free to do whatever we wanted. Some went to their colleges, some to the recreation room and others took a morning stroll. It wasn't until 20 minutes after five in the evening that the bell rang calling us to chapel for evening prayers. Occasionally, for some reason or other, a student was unable to get back to the dormitory on time, and was excused from evening prayers. Otherwise, everyone was back in time. When evening prayers were over, we ate supper. During the free period, from 3:00 until supper time, those who wished could take a bath. After supper, from 7:00-10:00, we were expected to study our lessons. Before the study hour, we had a little free time which we resourcefully used to write letters and do our laundry, among other things. When I think back, it seems that we had a very strict schedule. However, students in those days kept the rule very well indeed. Time in the schedule was allotted for the study of English, and new students, who were poor in English, as well as those who wanted to continue their study, received instructions from Fr. Murrett. One important rule in the dormitory was that 'only' English should be used. Even when we were talking among ourselves we used English, but, those of us who had recently entered the dormitory, were often frustrated by our inability to communicate and, at times, would fall back into Japanese. Besides English lessons, there were catechism lessons once a week. Everyone attended the lessons during which Fr. Murrett talked to us in English about the Bible and Christian teaching. After he finished, we would have a question and answer period. I did the best I could do to adapt, and took part in the discussion with the other students. Once a month, a meeting was held during which the students could make any requests they might have. At this time, Fr. Murrett would caution us about infractions of the house rule. We exchanged ideas and everyone cooperated in every way they could to make Villa Maria a success. Father told us again and again that it was a mistake to think that American family life was anything like the glamorous life shown in Hollywood films. Actually, family life in America, especially Catholic family life, was very well disciplined. Although we had very strict rules in the house, the atmosphere was congenial and I think we gained a lot in being able to learn in an experiential way about the American way of life and the sense of humor of American people. Nowadays, when I hear about how the former students at Villa Maria are putting their English to work and I learn about the wonderful accomplishments that they have made both at home and abroad, I can't help but think that these successes are the fruition of the efforts of Fr. Murrett.

When I think back, I fully realize that it is impossible for me to exaggerate the spiritual influence that Fr. Murrett has had upon me. I sometimes wonder whether modern man doesn't take too much pride in his knowledge and scientific achievements. Certainly, the position of science in the world today has been elevated as a result of the conflict between religion and science in the middle ages and science now stands as an antithesis to religion. Surely, no one can deny this historical fact. But, I think it is rash to think that all that is done in the name of science is good and represents progress. Under the all-conquering banner of science, man is challenging nature, but I am convinced that he is destroying nature and doing irreparable harm. Together with this tendency to see science as all-powerful, modern man often denies the existence of a supreme being and sees himself as having absolute power. When man trusts in himself only, he becomes overconfident and believes himself to be all perfect. This gives rise to an exclusive egoism. In the East, wise men of old taught the 'golden mean' of moderation while, in the West, men managed their affairs democratically by mutual agreement. But as man has come to believe that he alone possesses absolute perfection, the strife among nations as well as the conflicts between individuals have grown so that today we find the world in a state of confusion. Fr. Murrett taught us that Man's existence is not limited to his sensory perception. Through the example of his life, Father taught us that we have within ourselves a marvelous capacity for self-realization.

During the many years I lived with Fr. Murrett, I learned many things indeed. I learned the meaning of true humility and human kindness and the importance of self-reflection. Father taught me what it is to be a man of prayer. In this life, we all have a tendency toward false pride and find ourselves dissatisfied with our condition but, thanks to Father Murrett, I have learned that through self-reflection I can find peace and joy in my daily life.

Since my chance meeting with Fr. Murrett, about 34 years have passed. Fr. Murrett retired and returned to America where he lived at a home for the aged on the grounds of Maryknoll's headquarters near New York City. He passed away peacefully in late 1971. Villa Maria has closed its doors. About a year before Fr. Murrett went back to America, there were numerous students uprisings in colleges throughout Japan. Influenced by extremist groups in the universities, the students at the dormitory became uncooperative and it was impossible to carry on. Now, on the land where the dormitory once stood, there have been built a few houses and hotel parking lot. There is no trace at all of the inspiring spirit of the youths that once lived there. However, the seeds that Fr. Murrett planted in the hearts of the many young men who were at Villa Maria, are still living and bearing fruit. About this there is no doubt.

Nonetheless, I can't help feeling very sad when I think that, because of the thoughtless actions of a few students in the dormitory, Fr. Murrett was forced to give up his work in Japan. Fr. Murrett wanted to die in Japan. He loved the Japanese people very much.

Because of this experience I had, I have come to a deep realization of the meaning and importance of 'encounter'. If it had not been for my meeting with Fr. Murrett, it would not have been possible for me to continue my studies and I would not now be teaching at the university. So much depends upon chance. The meetings we have may, indeed, open the doors to much happiness for us, but there is always the possibility that they may have an opposite effect. It is indeed difficult for us to know where fate will lead us and whether our encounters will be rewarding or not. We have all probably had experience along this line. There are two things that are worth remembering in order to help make our encounters fruitful. First, we must do our best to understand how the person we meet feels and thinks. Secondly, we have to make constant efforts to prepare ourselves so that we will be able to make the most of the opportunities we have.

Fr. Murrett believed that a truly selfless man must be strict with himself and lenient with others, but, over and above this, it is very important that we should always be sincere in our relations with others. Sincerity gives birth to trust. Furthermore, we are living in an age that calls for ability. Nothing will ever be accomplished if we have a lackadaisical attitude. In dealing with egos, we have to be very strict and concentrate all our energies. This is what Fr. Murrett taught us directly or indirectly while I was living with him.

The fact that we are learning and studying on this campus together, provides us with one opportunity to get to know each other. It now remains for us to apply ourselves in order to take advantage of all the direct and indirect contacts we may have through regular classes and extracurricular activities. Of course, you, young students including those who are participating in this corresponding course are busy with your studies and are working hard to learn as much as you can. But I pray you will not find yourselves so busy that it will prevent you from having an encounter which will enrich your future lives. In conclusion, I would like you to remember the following words. "Treasure each new encounter you have. Even a chance encounter may have eternal consequences."

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2001-12-27

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