Nihonga, Nicodemus and me

‘Word’ guy that I am, I sometimes find that the stories artists tell are more engaging than the works they create.

So it was yesterday when I happened across the tale shared by artist Makoto Fujimura on YouTube. He describes his struggle — not just to master, but even to attempt — an ancient Japanese style of painting called Nihonga. Stunted by a sense of unworthiness, his creative spirit was freed by an unexpected encounter with Christ.

But here, let Makoto tell the story…


I really felt for Makoto when I heard his words: ‘I didn’t have a place in my heart to hold the beauty, the very beauty I was creating…’ It reminded me a bit of Nicodemus, the Pharisee who came to Jesus at night… desperately trying to understand the attraction of the itinerant teacher and preacher. Nicodemus had heard stories, no doubt…but there was still something he just didn’t quite get about Jesus. And he certainly didn’t understand the notion that he had to be reborn.

Nor did I, until this date — April 14 — back in 2001. It was a Saturday morning – Holy Saturday that year. And as it happened, I was in church along with the rest of the RCIA group from our parish, preparing for the Easter Vigil.

As morning prayer got under way, I remember noticing that Jesus was not there in the Eucharist (the days of Triduum, of course, are the one time during the year when the tabernacle is empty, like the tomb).

But then, suddenly, Jesus was there…filling my heart with a sensation unlike any other I had ever felt before. It was as if I could hear him speaking my name: Jesus had come into my heart, just for a chat. Just to say hello. Just to waste a few moments with someone he loves.

I opened my eyes…and I started looking around at the people gathered in the pews, wondering if they were feeling what I was feeling at that moment…

Wondering if Jesus had spoken to them, just as he had spoken to me.

Wondering if they knew that – right then and there – we were standing on holy ground. The Lord was with us!

I wondered…but you know what? I did not speak about my experience in that moment. I dared not speak. Part of me, I suppose, dared not believe it was real.

Another part of me was inclined to hoard…to keep this little personal chat with Jesus to myself. I had the absurd idea that if I didn’t share, it somehow made me special.

Still another part of me knew all too well that, with my soul steeped in sin, I was not worthy of the Master’s love. I had not earned it.

And so it happened that I did not speak about my close encounter with Jesus for many months after that Holy Saturday morning – not even to Gerri, my Paradise Partner. I just couldn’t find the words.

This is my Holy Ground in Holy Week, quite close to home…

Since then, I suppose I’ve changed a bit. I’ve found a place in my heart ‘to hold the beauty,’ as Makoto Fujimura might say. And I’ve come to see that day — this day, April 14th — as kind of a second birthday for me.

Like Nicodemus, I had approached Christ while still very much in darkness. And much to my surprise, I heard Christ calling me into a deeper relationship, and calling me to share what I discover with those around me.

This blog — With Us Still — is one fruit of my second birthday. Today, with the benefit of 14 years of hindsight, I’ve actually begun to appreciate the brokenness I felt back then, as I sat mutely in the church pew. Or more precisely, I’ve come to appreciate the grace and forgiveness that have helped me to see I don’t have to be perfect. Nor do I have to earn God’s love.

It’s there for the asking.

And it’s always been there — for Nicodemus, for Makoto Fujimura and for me.

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Let us pause now…to recall that we are in the presence of the Holy One.


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3 thoughts on “Nihonga, Nicodemus and me

  1. Beautiful! I love how you linked Fujimura and Nicodemus into your RCIA experience, really excellent writing. Here’s a really nice painting of Jesus with Nicodemus:

  2. Pingback: Today’s find: Beckoning | With Us Still

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