During the late 1970s and early 1980s, young American Jesuits were being sent to Korea with the hope that there would be some among us who would remain in or return to Korea, especially if the language could be learned. In the summer of 1980, I was sent by my Jesuit superior to Sogang University, the Jesuit university in Seoul, South Korea. My language instructor, Miss Park, told me that I spoke Korean like I was from Mars; hence, my time in Korea was short lived.
While in Seoul, I was afforded an experience that I will never forget. Some Sogang students invited me to join them to visit Evergreen Village, a leper colony two hours by train from Seoul. I knew very little about leprosy and was both excited about the visit, but nervous about contracting the disease.
When we arrived at the village, we were so warmly welcomed. However, I could not believe the ravages of the disease. I saw people whose faces were disfigured, others with missing fingers and still others were missing parts of their feet. Their appearance clearly did not bother them, but I was deeply distraught by seeing human beings so disfigured.
While there for three hours, we were treated royally with food, refreshments and entertainment. I marveled at how happy everyone seemed. Nonetheless, I must admit, I did get a little nervous when they asked me to drink with them by passing around and taking sips out of the same bottle of Korean wine. I did that with enormous fear and wondering how long the incubation period is for leprosy.
It is my understanding that Evergreen Village no longer exists and that there is only one leper colony in South Korea, whose residents are well provided by the South Korean government. Further, leprosy is now called Hansen’s Disease which is a chronic infectious disease caused by a bacteria. The disease today, if not properly treated, can still cause severe deformity of the feet, hands and face.
In today’s first reading from the Second Book of Kings we hear about a valiant man, Naaman, the army commander of the King of Aram. Naaman was a leper and was sent by his King to Israel to be healed. As we learn he is cured of the disease by following the instructions of the prophet, Elisha. Upon his return home, Naaman proclaims that “there is no God in all the earth except in Israel.”
Let me offer a few reflections in light of my personal experience at Evergreen Village and the first reading. Hansen’s Disease can be treated, but we still sometimes use the word leper in our social interaction. It is not unusual to hear a comment like: “I feel treated as if I were a leper.” That is, some people, perhaps even you, have been treated cruelly or unfairly or marginalized.
Like all people, sometimes we feel marginalized from ourselves for whatever the reasons. It could be feeling remorse for an action taken or just in the dumps struggling with our self esteem. At times such as these, it is good to call to mind the words of Naaman: “there is no God in all the earth [like our God.]” We need to remind ourselves that we carry within us the divine presence. When we struggle interiorly, it is always beneficial to find that oasis within us where God resides.
Are there people in your life that you try to avoid? What better time than Lent to reach out to those individuals? Take the time to seek out those individuals and to offer them your friendship.
What about those individuals who have hurt you or treated YOU unfairly? Pray for the grace to forgive them and to even reach out to them and offer your forgiveness.
Naaman was cleansed of his leprosy by plunging into the water of the Jordan River seven times. He was healed. During this Lent, plunge yourself into the loving embrace of God to seek your own healing and to offer healing opportunities to others.