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The Practice of Prayer, part 3: Wants and Needs

Prayer is an alternative to working hard to get what you want.  One discovers eventually that what you want is almost always what you don’t need. —Meditations  by Thomas Merton

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God.  When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures. –James 4, 1-3

The consumer economy is fueled by advertising, which is designed to persuade us to want certain things and also to blur the distinction between wants and needs.  It teaches that to want and not to have is an intolerable discomfort  and a sign of unworthiness. This view seduces us into working long hours at meaningless or destructive jobs, into burdening ourselves with debt, into looking down on those who lack what we have and resenting those who have what we lack.   This contempt and hostility destroy communities and make us more prone to violence.

Some so-called spiritual teachers say that, instead of working to earn money to get what we want, we can somehow get what we want directly through some secret spiritual technique—perhaps a “Christian” formula for prayer for wealth, perhaps more New Age technique of positive visualizations.   But this approach continues to take our passing desires as our highest good. It continues to associate virtue with the satisfaction of our desires, and to promote

Merton points to a different understanding of work and prayer. As a Trappist monk Merton participated in a life that valued both manual labor and prayer.  But neither labor nor prayer were primarily directed toward the satisfaction of personal desires

When we work well with our hands, with the material of the created world, we must work through fatigue and accept limits placed on us by our materials. But we also have the satisfactions of knowing that our work is necessary and of savoring the beauty of the created world.

When we wait quietly before God,  listening as much as we speak, we may find hard commands laid on us; we may have to lay aside some of our wants and pleasures. But we also draw near to the one who knows and loves us, to the source of all meaning and all joy.  What more could we want? What more could we need?


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