Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” … So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail
Today we honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. with a holiday, and I am lucky that many of my friends have spent the day sharing quotes and reflecting on King’s legacy of firm love in the service of justice. I am partial to the quote above, and thought of it when I woke up this morning. I can’t think of a better challenge than to be an extremist for love.
Never satisfied by soundbyte answers, I asked myself this morning “what does love mean?” What does it mean to be an extremist for love? Most people think of themselves as loving, most people think that they are doing the right thing. History fixates on the obviously horrific practitioners of hate, but most people are not that sort of extremist. And yet we, motivated by love, reach wildly different conclusions about how to act justly.
I just started learning a song cycle by Lori Laitman that I will be singing in a recital in April. The last song of the cycle has captivated me – it feels like it was written for my voice, and the poem, like all the poetry in the cycle, regularly moves me to tears (this complicates my learning process, to say the least). The poem, Pioneer Child’s Doll, begins: Here, child, is what we mean by love.
The poet, Judith Sornberger, described her inspiration in an interview. She saw pioneer child’s doll in a Nebraska museum: The head of the doll was actually an old, beat-up bedpost. You know, the knob at the top of a bedpost. How hard up would you have to be able to love a doll with that kind of head?
Here, child, is what we mean by love:
a block head doll of coarse-grained wood,
eyes two knife-pricks, mouth a crooked stab.
As we are given to love land
that few would covet, where no tree
dares stand up to the sky,
So shall you love her whose grain sack skirt
covers not petticoats, but sticks
whose curls must be imagined in the wood.
And as we break the stubborn sod
of our backs to know what we
can be on this earth,
So by the sweat of your palm
on her brow will you bring
to her flat face a sheen.
We know that love can transform, and we know that we are in need of transformation. About 6 times a day I pray Ignatius’ prayer for generosity: “Lord, teach me to be generous…”. I pray to be loving, to be kind, to be patient, to be fortified and transformed, to be better. And these are the prayers I think of as selfless. Could I sacrifice my prayers and my love to transform others instead?
Could love be the willingness to look at an ugly doll and see something lovely? Could it be the determination to be devoted to that which others would throw away? Could it be beholding the beauty in others? We lament that the world needs transformation, but are the true acts of heroism to see the world and behold in it the possibility of goodness? Isn’t that why we still envision Dr. King’s dream?
Maybe it’s more self-centeredness to imagine that the world hinges on how I see it, that if I look on it with love it will meet my expectations. I’m not sure I know how to pray for anyone other than myself. A self-emptying prayer that turns me inside out could be the loving extreme to which Dr. King exhorts me. Perhaps I am called to an outward facing love that wills the other into grace.
Love, grace, God, prayer – these things are the types of wonderful mysteries that we could talk about for eternity and never explain or exhaust. Dr. King set big, lofty goals that stretch us and our world. For me, it’s goal enough to try each day to discover more of what we mean by love.
The day will come when, after harnessing space, the winds, the tides, gravitation, we shall harness for God the energies of love. And, on that day, for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire. – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ