"A BEAUTIFUL and significant phrase, “Island of Peace within one’s own soul.” The individual lives his life in the midst of a wide variety of stresses and strains. There are many tasks in which he is engaged that are not meaningful to him even though they are important in secondary ways. There are many responsibilities that are his by virtue of training, or family, or position. Again and again, decisions must be made as to small and large matters; each one involves him in devious ways. No one is ever free from the peculiar pressures of his own life. Each one has to deal with the evil aspects of life, with injustices inflicted upon him and injustices which he wittingly or unwittingly inflicts upon others. We are all of us deeply involved in the throes of our own weaknesses and strengths, expressed often in the profoundest conflicts within our own souls. The only hope for surcease, the only possibility of stability for the person, is to establish an Island of Peace within one’s own soul. Here one brings for review the purposes and dreams to which one’s life is tied. This is the place where there is no pretense, no dishonesty, no adulteration. What passes over the threshold is simon-pure. What one really thinks and feels about one’s own life stands revealed; what one really thinks and feels about other people far and near is seen with every nuance honestly labeled: love is love, hate is hate, fear is fear. Well within the island is the Temple where God dwells— not the God of the creed, the church, the family, but the God of one’s heart. Into His Presence one comes with all of one’s problems and faces His scrutiny. What a man is, what his plans are, what his authentic point is, where his life goes— all is available to him in the Presence. How foolish it is, how terrible, if you have not found your Island of Peace within your own soul! It means that you are living without the discovery of your true home."- Howard Thurman
The idea to have us read a meditation from Howard Thurman and contemplate on the reading came to me the other day. I have been reading the book Meditations of the Heart by Howard Thurman, the renowned mystic and mentor to Martin Luther King. The book contains short meditations on the meaning of life and work and faith, short enough for us to read and ponder. And rich enough for me to offer a reflection upon for the Reflection time.
The first meditation is the one I shared. It speaks about us needing to find and return to an island of peace within our souls. Coincidentally, this week our choir sang a song about an island – no man is an island. One might say these two ideas are contradictory. But I say they are both necessary truths, necessary to apply and live-out in our lives.
I wanted to discuss why and how.
Let us first look at Thurman’s words. Thurman basically proposes a diagnosis of a problem and a prescription to deal with that problem. The problem is that, basically, we endure suffering in life. He says there are stresses and strains to life that cannot be avoided. Whether we are confronted with primary or secondary issues, we have to confront then. We must decide the roads to take each and every day.
There is also injustice and evil in the world. We can’t help seeing it. If we ignore it, then it only gets worse. It then gets so big that once we see it, it is too late. It swallows us. We must make sense of and deal with injustice and evil.
The reality of wrong and unfairness and injustice exists here and now. We are not outsiders living above it all. We are not immune from it all. No person is an island. In making facing the stresses and strains of life, in making decisions about the roads we must take, we do so in an interconnected world. How we handle stress and strain, the decisions we make, how we deal with injustice and hatred is crucial.
What Thurman also reminds is incredibly important. He reminds us that we ourselves are not perfect. Yes, we must deal with the injustices inflicted upon us or upon those we feel connected to. But we must also recognize that we are not perfect, that we too are subject to inflicting our own injustice on others. Rarely, we mean to do it. Not as rarely, we unwittingly inflict injustice upon others.
Political campaigns offer us numerous case studies all the time in this regard. Some love one candidate so much that they seem to exhibit hatred for another, even when that other has done a lot of good, good we agree with, and is far from thoroughly evil. This is an example of unwittingly inflicting injustice.
So the diagnosis is this according to Thurman: “We are all of us deeply involved in the throes of our own weaknesses and strengths. This gives way to the profoundest conflicts within our own souls.” Our interconnectedness is undeniable. But this doesn’t mean it is always good or even benign. It is not always peaceful and easy. It is sometimes filled with friction and heat.
So that is the diagnosis. What is the cure, what is the prescription that can help us?
Thurman puts it succinctly – “The only hope for this to cease, the only possibility of stability for the person, is to establish an Island of Peace within one’s own soul.”
What is this island of peace within one’s soul? Thurman gives us a nice description to explain the metaphor – the island is the Temple where God dwells. The island is the God found in one’s heart.
Here, there is an insight into, a glimpse of what Buddhist calls enlightenment. There is a seeing things as they really are. We see the wrongs and the injustices as they are. There is a self-transparency where we sit and look at ourselves in the mirror. We see the wrongs and the injustices which we wittingly or unwittingly inflict. We name things as they arise within us and name they honestly – this is love.; this is hate, this is fear.
In the silence of going back to ourselves, in the quiet of the true home of God, we see who we really are, what our deepest aspirations and hopes are, what we are meant to do in this life.
That said, we come back to our question – is there a conflict between establishing an island of peace within one’s soul and the fact that no man is an island, is there a conflict between going inward, finding the peace of God within ourselves and seeing we no person stands disconnected and isolated from anything else?
No. In fact, they need to go together. In stopping, sitting with ourselves and finding the island of peace within our souls, we build the capacity to live together in peace. In returning home to our spirits, we renew and refuel and reenergize our souls so that we leave our island homes and go to work, the work of cultivating peace, compassion, and justice on the continent where we all live.
So a better metaphor might be the Oasis of Peace within one’s own soul. In this interconnected world, where we share the same sky, the same sun, the same earth, we must find an oasis of peace within our souls. We must every now and again return to our oasis home where God dwells. There we are nourished and strengthened and renewed. There we drink the sweet water of compassion and wash in the waters of peace. Nourished, strengthened, renewed, our thirst quenched, we can live in the world and make a difference.
The spiritual life is basically this ebb and flow. In this world of beauty and ugliness, in this world of light and darkness, in this world of music and clamor, we do the work of cultivating compassion. Within this world, to keep us going, we ebb, we recede to the solace of the oasis, the oasis of peace within our souls. We rest within this oasis of peace for a little while, drinking in the presence of God. We do so not to remain there but to help us return, to flow back to do the work of cultivating compassion.
Cultivating compassion. We cultivate it in ourselves. We cultivate it toward ourselves. And we cultivate it to help others. That is why we are here.