Idries Shah recounts the tale of The Desolate Island in his collection “World Tales.” It appears in various sources from Egypt, the Talmud and Spain as well as a story written in the 7th century by the monk John of Damascus. Much of the material is believed to have originated in Buddhist sources. It has traditionally been seen as an allegory to instill energy for righteous deeds and spiritual labor during this lifetime, in order to reap the rewards of the heavenly realm. It tells the story of a slave freed by a generous master and set sail on a boat filled with treasures. A storm arises however, and the boat is destroyed along with all the crew. Only the former slave survives, cast up naked on an island. The citizens of the island promptly declare the former slave their king, dressing him in robes. He wonders at his good luck and questions his benefactors. A wise man tells him he has arrived in a realm of spirits. The spirits petitioned their God to send a Son of Man to rule them. Every year their God provides a man to serve as king. After the King’s one year rule, he is stripped naked and banished to a desolate island. The King questions the wise man further: “Oh Spirit of Wisdom, how do I face what is to come?” The Spirit of Wisdom replies “Naked you came among us, and naked you will leave. At present you are King, and may do whatever you please. Therefore, send workmen to the island, and let them build houses and prepare the land, and make the surroundings beautiful. The barren soil will be turned into fruitful fields, people will go there to live, and you will have established a new kingdom for yourself. Your own subjects will be waiting to welcome you when you arrive. The year is short; the work is long: therefore be earnest and energetic.” The King follows this advice. The day arrives and he is placed naked on a ship, sails set for the island. When he approached its shore, however, the people who he had sent ahead came forward to welcome him with music, song, and great joy. They made him ruler, and he lived ever after in peace.
I have both a narrative and a poetic response to the fable. First the narrative:
This fable speaks to me of the many and inevitable routes from inner slavery to freedom, from power back to helplessness. And of the routes to a different kind of peace. Although the fable itself charts a fairly linear progression through these states, it of course points to the many levels at which we experience these dynamics as recurring themes: We find them repeatedly in the changing tides of our lives, just as we find them in our central journey that delivers us from our prime of health and actors in the world, to the helplessness and potentially desolate island of age. For those of us involved in the fable’s inner work, we experience these states cyclically in our many arrivals at insight, confidence, numinosity, and even ecstatic moments - only to be banished naked again on the rocks, our only hope being the prior integration of true wisdom. In our particular historical moment this fable may also speak to our common experience as citizens in a powerful Kingly empire teetering on the edge of collapse (both our national empire and our global Anthropocene empire)...
It is in the kingly time that energy and vigor are called for, not a mere resting in our ease. We must strive to communicate with this unseen world, to send workers and tenders ahead, to populate the unseen with our intentions, our creativity, our Love, so that we may be received when it is time. All that we have achieved in the creative conscious must be gifted back to the unknown, a fiat of generosity to all that stands essentially and permanently beyond our understanding – that to which our conscious realm continuously cedes us back. In short we must undergo the most complete surrender and letting go. One day we must know how to have no answers and no options, how to know nothing and stand simply in our desolate body. We must learn finally that our Most Holy cannot be contained in our spare time. And we must learn finally how to Pray. Kabir says “All know the drop merges into the ocean; few know the ocean merges into the drop.” But we must learn that.
I am interested to know if Joan has any responses from her recent work in the Beatitudes. The bit she has shared with me arrived (synchronously, of course) to form some of the inspiration for this reflection.
I have a friend in Hawaii who received the text
all islanders received when a grave error occurred:
“Incoming missile. This is not a test.
You have fifteen minutes to take shelter.”
There are few basements in Hawaii,
no real shelters, few viable plans.
Amita and her husband had
constructed theirs months before:
When the time comes,
sit where you are.
Meditate and Pray.
The time arrived, and
while wondering at the
suffering ahead, and
before sitting to pray,
she released the chickens
so they wouldn’t die confined.
When the wise man is asked
“What are the fruits of a lifetime of practice?”
He replies “An appropriate response,
An appropriate response.”
My prayer today (and all days):
Let me be so tempered
Let me be so ready
When the face of God comes.
Jo Marie Thompson
January 31, 2018