Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Pilgrimage for Freedom

“The glory of God is the communion of all things fully alive”
~ The Irenaeus’s axiom

The Popes and Martin Luther King's dream - Vatican News

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., an American Baptist minister, had a gift for capturing the hearts and minds of people with his homily-like discourses. His speeches—considered some of the most iconic of the 20th century— had a profound effect on the national consciousness.

In his book Strength to Love, published in 1963, King wrote: “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

As individuals, we all have challenges in life. The question is, how will we respond?

A Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom

On May 17th, 1957, nearly 25,000 demonstrators gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., for a Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom.  Three hours of spirituals, songs, and speeches urged the federal government to fulfill the three-year-old Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The last speech of the day was reserved for Martin Luther King. He delivered his “Give Us the Ballot” oration, which captured public attention and placed him in the national spotlight as a major leader of the civil rights movement.

“We’re moving up the highway of freedom toward the city of equality … our nation has a date with destiny, and we can’t be late,” King told an audience in New York, imploring whites and African Americans to join the pilgrimage.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. addresses crowds during the March on Washington on August 28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. It was here that he gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech.

Life as a Pilgrimage

I personally love the word pilgrimage, because it implies that where we are going is always towards God, diving deeper, and uncovering the Divine that is within each of us.

A book that has had a lasting impression on me is called “The Way of a Pilgrim.” Written by an anonymous nineteenth-century Russian peasant, it examines the practice of how to pray without ceasing. Through his travels, the author delves into the value and power of

prayer. These rich religious experiences are presented in a humble, simple, and beautiful narrative.

A pilgrimage provides us with the opportunity to live in prayer. Prayer is considered the soul of faith. Not because faith cannot be found or expressed by itself, but because it depends on prayer to express faith with vividness. Within faith there is “reason,” “will” and then comes “grace,” which illumines reason, and motivates the will (a type of burning desire) and gives rise to the supernatural. 

The understanding of illumination of the intellect through the working of grace is essential. Then comes the free consent of the will, then comes the inner revelation of the truth that depends on loving trust. Love is the sanctuary of freedom and must be present for one to have faith.

The difference between a journey and a pilgrimage is that a journey is a set amount of traveling, a discrete trip. A pilgrimage is a journey made to a sacred place, or a religious journey.

A pilgrimage often involves a journey into an unknown or foreign place, where a person goes in search of new or expanded meaning about the self, others, nature, or a higher good through the experience. It can lead to a personal transformation, after which the pilgrim returns to daily life. At the highest level, this freedom is that of love. You cannot demand or command love, it can only be prayed for. Jerusalem is a pilgrimage destination for both Christians and Jews.

Western Wall in Jerusalem

Placing notes in the Western Wall refers to the practice of placing slips of paper containing written prayers to God into the cracks of the Western Wall, a Jewish holy site in the Old City of Jerusalem. This practice is thought to originate in the early 18th century and stems from the Jewish tradition that the Divine Presence rests upon the Western Wall.

The Internal Pilgrimage is a Process for the Transformation of Life

St. Jerome wrote in his 13th letter to St. Paulinus, that “access to the courts of heaven is as easy from Britain as it is from Jerusalem.”  St. Jerome lived for a time as a hermit, became a priest, served as secretary to Pope Damasus I, and in the year 389, established a monastery in Bethlehem. 

Of all the many inspiring quotes of Dr. King, I think my favorite is this: “Along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate. This can only be done by projecting the ethic of love to the center of our lives.”

When pianist and harpist Alice Coltrane passed away recently, she took with her a personal connection to the jazz of the 1960s—a time when her husband, saxophonist John Coltrane, helped usher in a new era in American culture. John Coltrane and Martin Luther King Jr. shared a great deal in common. In 1966 Coltrane paid homage to Dr. King with “Reverend King.” He was making a statement with the song because many black activists viewed King with distrust for his emphasis on peace and love, and his willingness to work together with whites.

John Coltrane’s classic song “Alabama,” recorded in 1963 after the Ku Klux Klan bombed a black church in Birmingham, eulogized the four young girls who perished and the dozens of others who were injured. Spare and with no lyrics, “Alabama” is a haunting, beautiful and peaceful song for prayer and meditation. It has the  ability to help us listen deeply, with what I call “spiritual ears.”

John Coltrane’s music takes me on an internal pilgrimage. His music is rooted in the philosophical tradition of antiquity. He was a fierce and visionary askesis, on a quest for cosmic knowledge and agape Love.  Coltrane was like a visitor to this planet. He came in peace, and he left in peace. During his time on the earthly plane, he kept trying to reach new levels of awareness, of peace, and of spirituality.

Seek and Love God to Find Your True Vocation

The way for any of us to live according to our true vocation is to seek and love God with everything we have, and to love our neighbors as ourselves.

However, who is our neighbor? The parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29–37) clearly reveals God’s desire that everyone is our neighbor; and that it takes courage and love for us to cross boundaries and borders to discover one another, to support one another, and to heal one another. 

Richard Rohr wrote in a recent daily meditation that we all “simply must open our eyes, look across the room, the street, the division, the border—and reach out to that neighbor, offering our hand, our compassion, and our heart.”

“We are free to be whatever we want to be.  I would like to be a saint.  Saints are what they are, not because their sanctity makes them admirable to others, but because the gift of sainthood makes it possible for them to admire everyone else.” ~John Coltrane

   Send article as PDF   

2 Replies to “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Pilgrimage for Freedom”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *