Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Nun's Spiritual Ancestor Bequeathed Inner Peace

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Nun's Spiritual Ancestor Bequeathed Inner Peace

Article excerpt

ROME -- "Iggy, Iggy, you've got me talking to the ashes."

The scene was Okayama, Japan, in 1976 where Sister of Notre Dame Maureen O'Brien, a native of Boston, was addressing the little box at the foot of the statue of Our Lady.

The box contained the ashes of Sister Marie Ignatius -- Aiko Aoki -- the first Japanese Sister of Notre Dame de Namur, a woman who (along with Jesuit Father Bill Johnston in Tokyo) had helped O'Brien shed much of her Western cultural baggage.

That divestiture had begun 12 years earlier when O'Brien, then 26, arrived in Japan to teach. Iggy had O'Brien doing more than talking to ashes. She encouraged her to learn Japanese, to appreciate Japanese culture and food, and she was sharp enough, whenever O'Brien's energy or enthusiasm waned, to take her out to get a hamburger at a small restaurant near Tokyo's Kichijoji station.

In time, they dined instead on raw fish or eel, and O'Brien was drawn ever more deeply into the culture, into Zen Buddhism and Christian-Zen dialogue. The year Sister Ignatius died, their routine had developed into a tea meeting every Thursday, with the older sister telling life's tales -- especially about the World War II years, as a member of a Western religious order surviving as a Japanese in Japan.

In the years of those tea times, O'Brien was an assistant professor of English literature at the Notre Dame Seishin University in Okayama, and Iggy was semiretired. These days, in Rome, O'Brien is surprisingly typical of American Catholics who study or live and work in the city or in or around the Vatican -- their Rome jobs tend to keep them looking outward, often at the entire world church.

O'Brien is associate director of the Service of Documentation and Study, SEDOS, a depository and retrieval system for all sorts of information about missions, mission programs and mission countries (see accompanying story).

The open door to O'Brien's office on the grounds of the Divine Word College on Via Dei Verbiti is an invitation -- to a superior general on a hurried trip to Asia who needs information on health care in Korea or the Philippines; to a visiting missioner from Africa who needs help on how inculturation of the liturgy is progressing in other African countries; to a doctoral student looking for information for a dissertation. …

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