The whole onion: Seeking peace through selflessness

Posted: Friday, September 21, 2007

There is a story from "The Brothers Karamazov" by Fyodor Dostoevsky about an old woman and an onion.

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An angel tried to pull her out of the lake of fire with a rope with an onion tied at the end. The other people in the lake of fire climb on in the hopes of being pulled out as well.

The old woman, alarmed by this, cried out, "Let go. Let go. It is not you who are being pulled out. It's me. It's not your onion; it's mine."

When she said, "It's mine," the onion snapped in two, fell out of the rope, and she fell back into the lake of fire. There, as the story is told, she remains. If only she said, "It is our onion," surely the onion would have been strong enough to have pulled them all out together.

In saying "It is my onion," she was being profoundly self absorbed; indeed, she was denying her human personhood and deep communal connection.

This story issues an alert to us. When the opportunity for assistance comes to whatever we face in daily life, this assistance is often not just for ourselves but is intended for greater good.

There are angels of mercy all around, but we often do not see their true purpose to help us see beyond ourselves. Life, which can be full of suffering and transition, can become selfishly guarded as if we are the only ones suffering in a situation. Humans can hold on to grudges for a lifetime that lead to more suffering.

The words mercy and peace are often closely related. The Divine Liturgy in the Eastern Orthodox and some other Christian liturgical traditions begins with "in peace let us pray to the Lord." This beginning marks community coming together for a common purpose. This community of mercy shares common sacred space and is bonded in a Living Presence, here and now. Bishop Kallistos Ware of the Eastern Orthodox tradition writes: "We cannot enter into the action of the Liturgy or experience the joy of the Kingdom unless we have within our hearts, by God's mercy, a state of interior peace."

I believe that we can recover some of the great practices within the Christian faith that have become lost over the centuries.

First, I think we need to recover this whole notion from the early Christians that inner peace is important. The state of each heart makes a difference but this requires attention and intention to listen. This inner listening is a life long process. In these early traditions, Christianity was never about "my soul." We are connected and social beings as St. Paul teaches from 1 Corinthians 12: 4-7, "Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good."

Hence, the Spirit of peace and mercy is for the common good of all. The lake of fire, to which Dostoevsky refers, is the common earthly suffering and human condition that we all find ourselves in. The old woman's self interest kept her and all others in the lake of fire. She could not see that the Angel of Mercy's action in this terrible circumstance was not just for her own taking.

We can remain under the illusion that we are alone in a lake of suffering unless we find our own inner connection to peace. Angels of mercy invite us to speak peace in different languages such as, shalom (Israeli), salaam (Arabic), he ping (Chinese), sith (Gaelic). Peace or wholeness is God's gift to all nations and all creation. Let us begin by opening our hearts by seeking peace for the good of the whole.

• Sharon K. Cooper is a member of Aldersgate United Methodist Church.

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