[Today’s guest post is from Lisa Deam, who loves maps and the Middle Ages and brings them together in this post.]
Lately I’ve been feeling adrift. My family moved cities last summer, and I haven’t yet found my place in our new community. I’m just not sure where I belong. I watch my children, who are thriving, and I wonder why adults can’t make friends as quickly as kids do!
When I’m feeling lost, I turn to maps. As a mom, I program my GPS to drive my kids around our new city. As an historian, I like to study world maps to get a bigger picture of this territory called life.
I recently came across a map that speaks to my current situation. The map comes from the Middle Ages, my favorite time period. When I first saw this map, its geography grabbed my attention. It’s very strange, even for the medieval era! The map doesn’t have any recognizable landmasses; instead, it displays the world as a collection of small islands.
On the map, one group of islands appears at the edge of the world, in the outer zone reserved for the ocean. These islands are wild and remote (think Tom Hanks’s desert island in Cast Away), a fact that is emphasized by the menacing sea monsters swimming amongst them. In the central portion of the world, rivers and seas snake around a more civilized group of islands, each of which boasts one or more cities.
On this map, everything is surrounded by water. It represents how I’ve been feeling since my move. I live in an island world, where I’m cut off from everything familiar. I’m trying to build bridges to other islands to see where I belong.
Life sometimes takes us to a desert island. If we’re stressed or depressed, we may close ourselves off from the rest of the world. If things are going well, by contrast, we might begin to think that we don’t need anyone else; it’s all under control, thank you very much. Either way, it’s remarkably easy to live life alone.
The seventeenth-century poet John Donne said this is no way to live. In one of his meditations, he declared, “No man is an island.” We all know this phrase, but it’s worth quoting a bit more of its context:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less . . .
In this meditation, Donne verbalizes what I’ve been thinking about islands. I especially like the way he moves the discussion from islands to continents. Instead of existing for and unto ourselves, Donne says, we are all pieces, or, more evocatively, clods, of a larger chunk of land. (Side note: Donne’s meditation is the only context in which I’ll allow someone to call me a “clod.”) To make the world work, we genuinely need to stick together.
Donne’s meditation encourages me to keep reaching out, to keep building bridges or to strike out swimming so I can find and be part of a continent.
But my greatest hope is still an island.
Look again at the medieval map, and notice how a single island stands out from the rest. It’s the one in the middle. It consists of a walled city and three crosses on a hill labeled “Calvary.” This island is Jerusalem, where Jesus was crucified and resurrected.
Many medieval maps show Jerusalem at the center of the world, but this is the first time I’ve seen this city represented as an island. Somehow it makes sense. It reminds me of the words of David in the Psalms—God is “the hope of all the ends of the earth and of the farthest seas” (Psalm 95:5). You and I may not be strong enough to be islands, but Jesus is. He is an oasis amidst the stormy waters of life. He’s the refuge we seek and the beach we wash onto when we’re lost at sea.
On the map, Jesus is in the middle of all the islands of the world. He’s in the middle of my new city. He’s in the middle of all my difficulties. Because of this divine geography, I have hope. I am not alone!
If I strike out swimming, I’ll wash up onto the shores of Jerusalem and I may just find a continent, too.
Questions to ponder (and perhaps answer in the comments, too):
- Have you ever felt like you lived on an island?
- What can you do to be part of a continent instead of your own self-contained island?
- How is Jesus like an island in the sea of your life?
Lisa Deam is a writer who loves the Middle Ages. She is the author of A World Transformed: Exploring the Spirituality of Medieval Maps (Cascade 2015). When not roaming the Middle Ages, Lisa lives in North Carolina where her two children are helping her explore their new hometown. She can be found on Twitter and Facebook too.