Setting Our Hearts Upon the Deep
“So, I leave my boats behind/ Leave them on familiar shores/
Set my heart upon the deep/ Follow you again,
(from The Galilee Song by Father Frank
Andersen, Missionaries of the Sacred Heart)
A teacher friend recently
posted a picture of herself on Instagram; she was out for a winter walk in
Edmonton, Canada. I felt an unexpected
tug at my heart upon seeing her and the familiar, deep snowbanks. Living in the Philippines this year has meant
that I’ve experienced only green scenery and hot temperatures. The wintery scene reminded me that I am very
far from home indeed, even as I continue to delight in the many opportunities
that I enjoy in this vibrant country.
Mark Twain wrote that a
man who carries a cat by the tail learns something he can learn in no other way. What I’m experiencing now is that a Canadian
teacher temporarily residing in Metro Manila learns something about herself and
many of her former students that she could not learn in any other way.
I have listened to
stories about the Philippines for most of my teaching career. Long before I ever arrived in this warm and
welcoming country, former students had educated me about jeepneys and tricycles
(common modes of transportation here) and Christmas celebrations that begin in
September. I had heard about favourite local
foods, including roasted pig and babinka and balut. On countless occasions, Filipino
students have shared about the place of their birth with a wistfulness that
made me even more curious about this faraway nation.
Now that I have had the
opportunity to live in Manila for a few months as part of my International Year
(a part of the formation of FCJ Sisters in Temporary Profession), I have
discovered that I am inspired by all those who have dared to leave this tropical,
archipelagic nation to live in North America.
In the process of settling down here, I have come to experience more
deeply that living in a new country is about much more than adjusting to a
different climate and an unfamiliar language.
While the opportunity to live in a foreign place can seem like an
adventure to be sure, once the ‘honeymoon period’ wears off, the day-to-day
lived experience can test one’s understanding of how one fits into the world.
To the homeless people who
ring the bell at our convent in Quezon City, I am referred to using the
adjective ‘matangkad’; that is, I am the ‘tall’ Sister. By Canadian standards,
I am of average height, but when I walk on the sidewalks here, tree branches
are trimmed in such a way that I must duck my head. When I travel in standard jeepneys (small public
buses), I sit too high to be able to see out the windows. The tricycles (a kind of motorcycle with an
attached passenger cab) are perhaps only a little larger than my coffin might
be someday. This is a city that, on the
whole, was not built for people of my ‘great’ height.
My size is just one way
that I can feel like a fish out of water.
My first week here, I was reprimanded by security for talking to another
Sister on the light rail train as Covid protocols here require silence from
passengers. On another occasion, during
a meal together a student asked me if I always used a fork when eating rice. My affirmative response was clearly
surprising (and even a little bizarre) to him as many people here routinely eat
with their hands. Even asking for help
finding an item at the grocery store can turn into a frustrating interaction
when it becomes apparent that the foodstuff I’m requesting goes by a different
name in the Philippines. The occasional cockroach
wandering into the house can, on my worst days, feel like the stuff of
There is something
about living in a different place that can, at times, strip us of our sense of
belonging. It can seem like a lifetime
of learning has not prepared us for current circumstances and we are children
again, learning everything for the first time.
Sometimes, it is utterly exhausting and even deeply emotional. When, I can not understand or be understood,
when it’s a struggle to perform even simple tasks, it can invite the question: was
coming here the right decision?
In the Scriptures,
little is said about the reactions of the fishermen that Jesus called on the shore
of the Sea of Galilee. In the Gospel of
Matthew, their response is encapsulated in eight words: “Immediately they left
their nets and followed him.” And yet,
these men were leaving nearly everything they knew: their livelihoods, their
homes, and surely many family members and friends. Some of them, the New
Testament later tells us, even went on to travel all over modern-day
Europe. This cannot have been an easy
thing, so what sustained them in those moments when they were feeling far from
In reflecting on their
experiences in his hymn ‘The Galilee Song’, Australian priest Frank Andersen,
MSC, writes “I feel my spirit called like a stirring deep within/ restless ’til
I live again beyond the fears that close me in.” In these lyrics, I recognize something of the
process that has helped to sustain me during my transition to life in a new
country. Firstly, to start trying to
‘live beyond the fears’, it has been necessary to name the anxieties that
ignite within me when my height or my limited Tagalog (the predominant language
in the Philippines) or my ‘strange’ Canadian customs result in embarrassment or
difficulty in the routine of my day. Naming
them has meant being honest with myself, sharing about them with the members of
my community, and taking them to God in prayer.
It is in the silence of
prayer, that I can become more deeply aware of the ‘stirring deep within’, the
voice of the Spirit, inviting me to a place beyond my insecurities. It is in this place before God that,
gradually, I start to see that the worries that plague me have no foundation,
that they are formless and without substance.
It is here, too, that I experience gratitude for the companionship of
God who intimately knows my anxieties and gently challenges me to release
them. This process of letting go takes
time and deep-rooted honesty and humility.
It is the work of a lifetime. Thankfully,
God has the patience and persistence to be with me every step of the journey.
As I recall my former
students and think of all the people who have relocated to Canada, I am inspired
by the courage so many have shown in leaving their “boats behind” on “familiar
shores.” As millions of immigrants have
learned to find their way around unfamiliar cities, taste new foods, adjust to
language differences, purchase heavier clothes for cooler weather, and make
sense of a different political landscape, they have also been invited to acknowledge
their insecurities and move beyond them in a challenging, exhausting process.
challenge is for everyone: we all carry anxieties
with us in the ebb and flow of our everyday lives, whether we are living in new
places or not. Perhaps you, too, are
aware of the ‘spirit deep within’ inviting you to reflect on uncomfortable insecurities
today. What ‘familiar shores’ is God
calling you to leave behind, even if only for a few hours? How are you being encouraged to ‘live again
beyond the fears that close [you] in?’ In
the quiet of prayer, listen for God’s invitation to greater freedom as you,
too, set your heart upon the deep.
By Michelle Langlois,
Originally written for
the Religious Moral and Education Council Journal, ATA, Alberta, Canada
suggestions for teachers who are welcoming immigrants/ refugees into their
Adjusting to a new
language can be exhausting. It is okay
to encourage students to ‘take a break’ when they go home in the evenings and
speak their first language at home.
Pictures make a big
difference. Using word walls to help
students learn new vocabulary is good for immigrants and can help other
students who struggle with vocabulary.
Invite your students to help you create a word wall in your classroom.
Many Filipinos learn
some English in the Philippines, but there will still be a lot of English
terms/ idioms they may not understand
Consider finding the
flags of your students on-line, printing them, and putting them up in the
classroom. A country’s flag is like
having a piece of their ‘homeland’ in the room.
Consider having a word
of the day posted in your classroom, using the first languages of your students
as a starting point. ex. Salamat (means
Thank you in Tagalog)
Encourage students to
talk about their difficulties living in Canada; what is different for
them? What things do they find
hard? Using gentle humour when
sharing about our fears can sometimes be a big help.
Ask your students to
share about their countries. What do they miss?
What was their favourite place?
Knowing that someone is interested in hearing about their country of
birth can be a great support.
Consider bringing in a
food from another country to share; places like TNT can have good options. Or if you see students eating different kinds
of food, ask them about it.