I think I have discovered the highest good. It is love. This principle stands at the center of the cosmos.
-Martin Luther King
Not long ago, an image flashed into my brain that I just couldn’t shake. I kept coming back to it, wrestling with its implications, wondering if I’d finally found a way to illustrate — to myself, at least — my understanding of love and God, my confusion and dismay at the hateful partitions that divide us, my own imperfect faith and my stumbling movement forward in my efforts to do right. Then today at Mass, the King quote popped up in a visiting pastor’s homily on love, and the image flashed in my mind again, almost cinematic in its scope and detail.
This is it:
We are all in a circle as wide as humanity itself. Imagine a field with tall grass and a shadow of mountains ringing the horizon. Imagine a light breeze with a scent of earth. And imagine, at the center, the wellspring of all love in the universe. Some of us call this center God; some of us call it goodness, or kindness, or the guiding principles of life. The name we give it doesn’t matter. But it’s the same beaming nucleus for us all, the same source and impulse to love that warms us and draws us forward.
We spend our lives walking toward the middle, or we should. To our right and to our left are our loved ones, holding hands as we take each hesitant step. Beyond them are those we know not quite as well, maybe love a little less. Beyond them are those we don’t know but see as equals. Farthest away, on the other side of this colossal circle, are those we might not even recognize as human: We can’t see their faces, after all. We can’t see the light reflected in their features — the warmth in their eyes, the gentleness in their bodies as they lean to help their neighbors. So we judge them. Fear them. Demonize them as the Other.
Only when we walk toward the center of the circle, pulled by love, does the distance between us shrink and we see their faces in the light. The closer we get, the clearer they become, and those faraway masses cease to be strangers. We see the fullness of their humanity and wonder why we failed to see it before, why we thought they were different, why we judged and feared and demonized.
I made a fumbling stab at expressing all of this after church, when I spoke to the visitor who’d delivered the remarks quoting King: the Rev. Daniel Carson of the First Reformed Church in Schenectady. I found him, thanked him, told him my story, told him about my image of the circle, told him I’d grown up in an atheistic/agnostic family and converted to Catholicism 30 years ago this spring. Told him, too, that I’d never understood the urge to erect so many walls. We’re all in this together. We’re all following the same light.
Believing in God means believing in love — but saying we love is one thing. Moving toward it is critical, and not only because we long to be closer to the source; because it brings us closer to each other. Sometimes we lose sight of the love that binds and beckons, and we fail, we fall, we turn away. But as Martin Luther King reminded us — reminds us, still, from his place at the center of the cosmos — we can always turn back.
Because the love is there. It’s real. No matter what we call it, it calls to us at our places in the circle. And we walk.