The Unknown Island

The great Portuguese writer, Jose Saramago, once wrote a little story about a man who goes to see the king to ask him for a favor:

“Give me a boat,” [the man] said….

“And may one know what you want this boat for?” [the king asked]….

“To go in search of the unknown island,” relied the man.

“What unknown island?” asked the king, suppressing his laughter, as if he had before him one of those utter madmen obsessed with sea voyages, whom it would be as well not to cross, at least not straight away.

“The unknown island,” the man said again.

“Nonsense,” [the king asserted,] "there are no more unknown islands."

“Who told you, sir, that there are no more unknown islands?” [from the man.]

“They are all on the maps,” [this from the king.]

“Only the known islands are on the maps,” [said the man.]

The king: “And what is this unknown island you want to go in search of?”

“If I could tell you that,”[the man replied,] “it wouldn’t be unknown….”

“And you came here to ask me for a boat?”

“Yes, I came here to ask you for a boat,” [said the man.]

“And who are you that I should give you a boat?”

After a bit more cross-examination, the king finally relented and agreed to give the man a boat.  So he sent him down to the harbormaster with a note.  And this is what the note said: “'Give the bearer a boat, it doesn’t have to be a large boat, but it should be a safe, seaworthy boat, I don’t want to have him on my conscience if things should go wrong.'  When the man looked up, this time, one imagines, in order to say thank you for the gift, the king had already withdrawn."[i]

Many of us came to church today expecting that the message would be all about money; after all it is Commitment Sunday, when we ask you to make your commitment of financial support to the work and ministry of this parish.  And since we live in a society that has a somewhat unhealthy relationship to money – in which its hoarding and unjust distribution is looked upon as a great virtue – it would be reasonable to spend fifteen minutes or so examining our attitudes about money.  And next year I may very well ask you to do that!  But this year it seems to me that we might see ourselves more like the man in the story who goes to ask the king for a boat.

And if I told you that we were asking for that boat in order to go in search of the unknown island, would you think of me as one of those madmen obsessed with sea voyages whom it would be as well not to cross, at least not straight away?  Would you fire back at me that this is nonsense, that there are no more unknown islands, that all the islands are on the maps?  Would you begin to think twice about whether or not we really need a boat?

Because a boat, as anyone who has ever owned one knows, is a hole in the water down which you throw large sums of money, and watch that money sink away into the wet darkness.  You must pay for a mooring, and you have to cover the costs of crew and provisioning.  There is lots of maintenance on a boat, which is always succumbing to the corrosive effect of the water.  Plus there is fuel and other supplies.  And there are always repairs on a boat, lots of repairs.

If I told you we had come here to ask the king for a boat, would you ask me if I had really thought this through carefully?  And would you ask me to explain to you again about this unknown island?  How can I be so sure that there is an unknown island out there to be discovered?  Aren’t all the islands already on the map?  But of course I will assert to you that only the known islands are on the map.

Jesus always called his disciples to go with him to an unknown island.  Even when he assured them that they knew the way, the destination was always something of an unknown island.  And the Christian journey is, in many ways, a voyage in search of the unknown island.

For some the journey gets off to an easy start, as it does for the fishermen, who are used to boats anyway and find it easy to answer Jesus’ call to “follow me.”

For most of us, it is a voyage that leads, at some stage through the narrow straits of repentance, when we try to turn from our old sins, and live the new life of searching for the unknown island.

For some it leads through forgiveness of others, and acceptance of things we cannot change, which is also a lesson that needs to be learned by those whose search requires them to give up old habits, fight destructive addiction, and learn a new way of living.

For many of us the search for the unknown island requires us to learn how to give thanks, to learn humility, and to be willing to serve others.

For some, the journey is aided immensely by selling what you have and giving the money to the poor.

For others it is a painful journey that leads through sickness and suffering.  And we don’t know why this is so, any more than we know why one day sees clear sailing, and the next day we are buffeted by storms that make us wonder if we should have ever left port.

But always, always in the Christian life we are searching for the unknown island, which is to say that we are confronting our conviction that there is at least one unknown island left for us to discover.  And some days this seems more likely than others.

Every day in this parish we stand before God and ask him for a boat in order to go in search of the unknown island.  Unlike the king in story, God already knows where all the unknown islands are, but these are the secrets of God’s heart.  We cannot expect him to divulge them.  But we can and we do expect him to give us a boat.  For he already knows the answer to another question the king in the story asked, “Who are you that I should give you a boat?’  He knows you are the work of his own fingers, a beloved child, made in his own image, and brought back to redemption with the precious blood of his Son Jesus. 

God always gives us a boat.  He has given us this magnificent church to worship in.  He has given us a mission to care for the poor and the hungry.  He has given us one another, in a wonderful community of love.  He has given us work to do at Saint James the Less, and in our mission trips abroad.  And he has given us a song of faith to sing day by day by day.

In our enlightened world, we are often told that there are no more unknown islands left; that all the islands are already on the maps.  That such searches are, in fact the undertakings of fools who have been taken in by an old superstition.  We might as well be chasing a white whale.

But we see every day a world that yearns for justice, freedom, peace, forgiveness, healing, and love.  In such a world, if there are not unknown islands left to be found, then we are living without hope.

And many people believe that giving money to the church is as foolish as financing a boat to go after that whale: very much like throwing it down a hole in the water, where it sinks into the wet darkness.  But I suspect that these are those who do not believe in the unknown island, and who prefer to cling to their money though it brings little hope or peace or joy into the world.

You might think that the Tale of the Unknown Island is an adventure story, but Saramago’s version is actually a love story.  And I believe that God’s version of this story is also a love story.  He calls his people – no matter how broken, poor, sick, or unworthy we may be – to follow the way to the unknown island, where he promises we will at last find peace, mercy, healing, forgiveness, hope, and love.

Every day, I ask God for a boat, for me and for this parish family, and every day God answers that prayer one way or another.  God is always willing to give us the boat, and show us the way.  There is always need, however, for the rest of us to give our share for the journey.  And I suppose we do a better job of that if we have a greater faith that there is an unknown island of God’s love to be found.

Speaking for myself, I’d have to say that from this vantage point on Locust Street, I’ve always thought that it is easy to look out over the vast, spiritually empty miles that surround us, and see land that looks a lot like what was, until now, an unknown island.  For while this parish is not the final destination to which God calls us, I feel certain that you can see it from here!


Preached by Fr. Sean Mullen

7 November 2010

Saint Mark’s Church, Philadelphia


[i] Jose Saramago, The Tale of the Unknown Island, translated from the Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa.  London, The Harville Press, 1999

Posted on November 10, 2010 .