Fr. Rodrigo Ulloa, MM, reflects on his mission experience teaching English in light of this week's readings.
I want to connect the experience of the prophet Elijah’s story in the cave used for this Sunday, August 9, 2020, with the story of a student I met in Asia.
Part of my summers living in Asia were spent teaching English. Well, in 2018 I remember doing something different with one particular class. I asked the students on the first day of class to select three pictures of their own that they would use to introduce themselves the following day using new English words. The next day every student prepared a PowerPoint presentation and one by one began to describe their lives according to the three pictures they brought. The pictures portrayed various settings, including people, nature, objects and even text.
One student presented a “selfie” and I noticed that on the top left there was a title that read, “I should not have been born.” At the end of class I approached her and told her that I had one more question about her pictures. Using delicate words, I asked her what those words meant on top of her “selfie.” The look in her eyes told me she was surprised and she said to me, “You were paying attention!” In the rest of our conversation she explained to me that such title referred to a gloomy period of her young adult life where she felt pushed into a ‘dark cloud’ where there was only emptiness and void. I don’t remember what I said but I encouraged her to walk away from such a cloud.
Let’s fast forward the story. During graduation day, students came up to every teacher asking us for a ‘selfie’ plus an autograph on the back of their T-shirts. Suddenly—and I always get emotional when sharing this part—it was this same girl who asked me for a selfie. Then, showing me her cellphone, she exclaimed, “I changed my title on that selfie; I walked away from the cloud.”
In the first book of Kings, chapter 19, starting in verse 9, God invites the prophet Elijah to come out from that cave which is taking his true identity away, making him afraid and transforming him into an insecure person. Elijah chooses to respond to the promptings of God and walks out of that cave. COVID-19 can be looked at as a cave with different layers of abnormal restrictions imposed on our regular schedule. This virus contaminates surfaces but cannot contaminate our spirits. Our mental health depends on the level of happiness we are able to operate with, which is connected to our prayer life and spirituality.
I once read that everything begins when we take notice. God noticed that Elijah was not meant to stay in that cave. The student I met was not meant to dwell in and be stuck under that cloud. If you read what proceeds verse 9 you will see how Elijah confronted his fears. Same with us; we can face our caves and clouds, one at time. One at time is enough. There’s no need to rush. We do not want to relapse and fall into the same traps again.
When the student showed me her cellphone and pointed that she changed the title of that picture, I thanked God for such an inspirational and important moment. Whatever was causing her to keep the selfie title for that long came to a halt. Her level of happiness increased and she stopped giving power to that title, breaking the cycle of depression that seemed endless. But the most important factor is that once we move forward, we need to learn how let go of such untruths, as the student did with that selfie title, because we no longer identify with what they signified back then. Yes, the temptation to go back into the cave or the cloud is inevitable, but when our inner strength is rooted in the resurrection of Jesus, it can help us remain stable, grounded, and in the present moment.
Mental health is becoming a serious concern for people who have been physically or psychologically affected since day one of coronavirus. I believe the Catholic Church needs to invest more in educating all baptized Christians about mental health by means of catechesis, sacramental preparation, Sunday and daily homilies, bible study and youth groups, as well as Catholic radio and social media. Think of the nurses, doctors, caregivers, emergency response personnel, the unemployed, those who were not able to give proper burial to their loved ones - the list of those who are deeply challenged and grieving goes on. We want to prepare ourselves to attend and minister to people who will come to us showing signs of being inside a cave or a cloud. May God prosper the work of our hands.
Photo courtesy of Fr. Rodrigo Ulloa