A Pat on the Back From God

The guardian angels of life sometimes fly so high as to be beyond our sight, but they are always looking down upon us. ~Jean Paul Richter

It was January 1948 when young Father Anthony Zimmerman arrived as a freshly minted Catholic missionary priest at Yokohama port in Japan. He was the first of his order, the Society of the Divine Word, to journey from America after World War II had ended, but he would eventually be joined by many more, along with priests being sent out of China before the communists could catch up with them. Father Anthony still remembered how he felt when his feet touched the pier after riding riding the waves for twelve days. “I felt myself swaying,” he said, “and I watched as my 117 trunks of luggage were lined up for inspection.” Inside were many articles for the war-deprived missionaries: army-surplus shoes, winter underwear, jackets, canned goods, even a bicycle and tiny motorcycle. General Douglas MacArthur had given the word that missionaries were welcome in Japan, and his command apparently cut the red tape—Japanese tax officials gave only a cursory inspection to the luggage, and Father Anthony was waved on to start his new life in Japan. “The missionaries in our Tokyo house gave me a warm welcome that night,” Father Anthony recalled. “We went to chapel right away to thank God for the safe journey. I don’t remember whether I thanked my guardian angel specifically, but I usually kept in touch with him at morning and evening prayers, so I probably nodded to him then, too, asking that he accompany me during my future in Japan.” He went first to a mission in Tajimi, where he would study Japanese and teach English. Those were the days of food and fuel rationing, when Japanese families sold precious heirlooms at bargain prices to buy the necessities necessities of life. As they saw Americans helping them, giving them food and fuel and kind treatment, the environment slowly changed to mutual acceptance and tolerance. Yet living conditions were not comfortable. “Traveling took a long time, there was no flush plumbing, and we didn’t always like the food. When I once asked my superior what that terrible smell was, he answered, ‘Either it’s supper or the toilet.’” Father Anthony added that he commuted on rocky and deserted roads on a little putt-putt motorcycle. “Looking back, I think my guardian angel did not approve of all the risks I took, but I prayed to him daily and tried to keep him on my good side just in case.” By 1950, Father Anthony had relocated to Ehocho parish in Nagoya, but he still commuted to various sites to teach English, visit the hospitalized, and, if the Japanese people were willing, discuss the Christian message of healing and forgiveness.

On occasion he would make rounds at the Umemori sanitarium for terminally ill tuberculosis patients. It was in the spring of 1950, after a visit to that sanitarium, that something special happened.“After visiting with patients at Umemori, I packed everything into the jeep and started the drive back to Ehocho parish,” he recalled. “I was never good at finding roads, but I drove on anyway, expecting that somehow I would return safely. I was not particularly attentive, being lost in a reverie about the people I had just left.” He was thinking about how desolate they were. In war-ravaged Japan, funds for the care of terminally ill patients were limited. The wait before death was gloomy, bereft of joy and hope. But a few were grateful to be told of God’s love. For them, Father Anthony mused, his spirit still heavy at the sight of all that suffering, for them he could help open the gates of heaven. He was nearing a crossroad now but didn’t realize it was there. He was in a wooded area, trees and shrubs crowding to the road’s edge, and he saw only the continuous path of the road straight ahead. There was no stop sign, and he barreled the jeep onward to get home. Still deep in thought, Father Anthony felt a powerful jolt. The jeep, traveling swiftly forward, began to rock dangerously up and down and from side to side. It was like sitting on top of an earthquake. Was it an earthquake?earthquake? What was happening? Afraid of braking too hard and turning over, Father Anthony came slowly to a stop. And just in time. No more than fifteen yards ahead, an enormous truck came roaring from a side road that was hidden by the foliage and tore through the place where he would have been. “If we had collided, the truck would have totaled both the jeep and me,” he said. “Spontaneously, I looked to heaven to thank God. I relish the moment still.”

But what had gone wrong with the jeep? As his heart quieted from the near miss, he realized that he must have hit something large or, at the very least, blown a tire—a typical occurrence on those roads. Shakily, he got out to look. But there was nothing to see. The jeep seemed perfect—its tires were fine, and he saw no dents or scrapes. And the road was completely smooth, without a rock or obstruction anywhere. Frowning, Father Anthony got in again and started the engine. Flawless. As he pulled away, the jeep ran smoothly, with no hint of the shaking that had just taken place. There was nothing wrong with it, absolutely nothing. But something mighty had manhandled it and changed Father Anthony’s course. It was then that he realized what had happened and spoke to his guardian angel. “Sorry about that,” he said. “And thank you very much.”

Later Father Anthony learned that he was not the only priest to have been similarly graced. During that same period, a classmate, Father John, went routinely to a convent near Peking (now Beijing) to say Mass for the sisters there. He knew the route very well; it was a simple straight path. One morning he called a man with a pedicab to take him by that direct route. Peking was already surrounded by the communists, and the rumble of distant artillery could be heard. “Straight ahead,” Father John said to the man operating the pedicab. “No, sir!” the man said. Father John was used to bargaining, but this time it was different. The man had already started a roundabout route that would take fifteen minutes longer and cost more. “Straight ahead!” Father John again insisted. “No!” “You win.” Father John sat back in defeat as the pedicab began its circuitous and seemingly senseless journey.But the route had not been pointless. For as they traveled, a massive explosion ripped through the air and a bomb made a direct hit on the straight road where Father John would have been. Who can say whether the pedicab operator was an angel or simply inspired by one? But as both priests knew, angels take special care of missionaries. “What does it feel like at such a time?” Father Anthony asked. “It feels like a pat on the back from God, who says, ‘I know you’re here, and I like what you’re doing. I also have more work that I want you to do. So hang in there! But be more careful!’ One does not forget such a time and event.”

Father Anthony eventually earned a doctorate and taught in Japan. Later, retired, he wrote books on theology. “I suspect that in heaven, my guardian angel is going to tell me that he already knew all this was coming for me, and that is one of the reasons he made the jeep rock to keep me from being killed,” he said. “The episode is etched into my memory. It is a gift I will never forget.”

Excerpt from “Where Angels Walk” by Joan Wester Anderson

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