I’m always hyper-aware of Martin Luther King Jr. Day for several reasons. My own birthday falls right around the same time. I did my doctoral work at Boston University, as did the Rev. Dr. King; in many ways he is still a presence around the B.U. School of Theology. And I am, as are we all, deeply aware of his writing, his sermons, and the influence he had on the American psyche.
But as a Catholic, I’m always looking a little deeper. What sort of spiritual practice undergirded what he said and did?
Like many others, King came to his spirituality in a moment of fear and need. At the beginning of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, he received a particularly specific and frightening threat, and found himself terrified for the first time. He wrote later about how he cried out to God. “I am afraid…. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.”
And then, in that moment of fear and anguish, King felt the “presence of the Divine as I have never before experienced him. It seems as though I could hear the quiet assurance of an inner voice, saying, ‘Stand up for righteousness, stand up for truth, God will be at your side forever.’” From that moment on, King understood that social action without prayer is not the way of faith… that any action we take must be both inspired and undergirded by prayer.
We all know the story of Jesus’ encounters with his friends, Martha and Mary. The two sisters couldn’t have been more different from each other! Martha probably thought that Mary was lazy; Mary probably thought that Martha was shallow; yet Jesus made it clear how much he loved them both. Perhaps one of the problems of our age is that we feel we must choose, that spirituality and Christian action are separate and discrete entities, that it is an either/or situation.
When I think of this, my mind goes automatically to another man, one who lived most of his life in obscurity in a Paris priory: Brother Lawrence. He entered as a lay brother and worked in the kitchen until his age dictated less strenuous work—so he repaired the other monks’ sandals. Yet a collection of his thoughts endures as a spiritual classic today! Brother Lawrence knew something important that we often forget: the time he spent in communion with the Lord was the same, whether he was bustling around in the kitchen (with several people asking questions at the same time!) or on his knees in prayer. He learned to cultivate the deep presence of God, so that no matter what he was doing, “I am doing now what I will do for all eternity. I am blessing God, praising him, adoring him, and loving him with all my heart.”
Love was also at the center of King’s spirituality. Love of God and love of neighbor were intertwined; the fruit and discipline of the spiritual life was love. His dream was never fulfilled, and before his tragic death he recognized the problems associated with overcoming the demons of hatred. But his legacy includes a spirituality of hope.
That is, perhaps, the secret to our calling today, what Mary and Martha and Brother Lawrence and Dr. King all learned: contemplation and action are both integral to the life of a Catholic, and both must have hope and love as their goal. Neither is better than the other, and neither can exist without the other.
We are called to live in this world, with its faults and terrors and inequities; and our presence here means we have a responsibility to do our part to make it a better place, to stand up for what is right and godly. We can’t pretend we don’t notice or don’t care when we see God’s children in pain. But we cannot approach evil on our own; we cannot meet violence with love by ourselves.
Here are three things you need to do in order to discern what is right in the world today:
Only by turning to God in our fear and anguish, as Dr. King did; only by practicing a constant awareness of the presence of God in everything we undertake, as Brother Lawrence did; only by understanding that prayer and contemplation are what nourish and sustain us, will we be able to act.
So on this Martin Luther King day, a day so close to the start of the new year that we’re still working out our goals and priorities, let’s resolve to discern what is right… and to then do it with love.