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I always thought I knew what I wanted, but when I was young I was almost always wrong – seriously wrong.
As a kid growing up poor in the inner city, I’d steal change from Mom’s purse, or once, from a second grade classmate, to buy ten cent comic books at the corner newsstand or ice cream at the parlor for a quarter. Guilt didn’t bother me, nor the fear of getting caught. I enjoyed whatever I took or got. I ate the ice cream cones and hid the comic books under my bed.
At fourteen I loved constructing model plastic cars, Thunderbirds and Chevys my favorites, but they cost three dollars each. So I climbed a 10-foot fence around a department store near us, with screwdriver in hand, pried out a glass window, and robbed car models, wristwatches, and candy. I filled two large garbage bags, went home, and hid them in the garage.
Later I gave the watches away to neighborhood boys, and we munched on the candy and laughed while playing Canasta. I enjoyed putting the cars together and lied to Mom and my stepdad about where I got them.
A few weeks later, two detectives came to our door, having tracked the overly generous kid down. The watches my friends wore, and the model cars downstairs confirmed their suspicions. I was arrested. Underage, I sat before a juvenile court judge, then had to visit my probation officer biweekly. My angry parents grounded me throughout that whole summer of 1964.
I learned it wasn’t about what I wanted, but all about how I got it, and it had to be legally.
So, it’s a fair question: what do you want? And more importantly, how will you get it? Do you ever pray for material things? The Baha’i teachings do indicate that even those kinds of acquisitive prayers can be answered:
Prayers are granted through the universal Manifestations of God. Nevertheless, where the wish is to obtain material things, even where the heedless are concerned, if they supplicate, humbly imploring God’s help — even their prayer hath an effect.
I will not go into the why of the things we want. There are quadrillions of motivations for wanting something, whether tangible or intangible. Abraham Maslow described those categories as five: physiological, safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. The order is significant, because we need bread and water to feed our bodies and brains before we can do anything else.
But as a student of spirituality and philosophy, combined with religion, I’ve found that religion teaches something in addition. That something comes before fulfilling even physiological needs, because it has everything to do with how we fulfill our needs, any need. For no matter what it is we want or need, we must first determine how we will get it.
In the passage from Abdu’l-Baha above, he states a truth: that prayer can help fulfill our needs – or rather, that prayer can lead us to fulfillment. This makes perfect sense when we know we must have an idea, plan, method, or a way to obtain what it is we want. Praying for that idea or plan, as we know, leads to inspiration, confirmation, confidence, assurance, and a fuller consciousness of the details of our desires, all of which we might never have found otherwise.
The Universal House of Justice, in their 2014 letter to the beleaguered and persecuted Baha’is of Iran, described prayer as:
… the spiritual food that sustains the life of the spirit. Like the morning’s dew, it brings freshness to the heart and cleanses it, purifying it from attachments of the insistent self. It is a fire that burns away the veils and a light that leads to the ocean of reunion with the Almighty. On its wings does the soul soar in the heavens of God and draw closer to the divine reality.
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On the wings of prayer we draw closer to God, closer to the divine reality that knows everything, that has a solution for every difficulty.
Living is difficult. In some ways, it’s supposed to be. Those difficulties can help us grow and learn and develop powers of the mind, spirit, heart, and body. Those powers allow us to avoid errors and mistakes that we might bring upon ourselves, and provide us with more inner spiritual power to deal with events and circumstances that inevitably arise.
I submit to you that “spiritual food” is the real food, and should be first on Maslow’s pyramid of needs. Prayer supplies that food, as Abdu’l-Baha wrote:
Rely upon God. Trust in Him. Praise Him, and call Him continually to mind. He verily turneth trouble into ease, and sorrow into solace, and toil into utter peace. He verily hath dominion over all things. If thou wouldst hearken to my words, release thyself from the fetters of whatsoever cometh to pass. Nay rather, under all conditions thank thou thy loving Lord, and yield up thine affairs unto His Will that worketh as He pleaseth. This verily is better for thee than all else, in either world.
We get what we want in only a few different ways. One, by luck – it falls into our lap unexpected and unannounced. Two, legally – we work for what we want, and eventually achieve it. Three, illegally. Four, by the grace of God. However, our attitude as much as the act determines the category. I can lie, steal, and cheat to get something legally as well as illegally. I can thank others for helping me, or use them to my selfish advantage. Legal doesn’t always mean right, as when slavery was legal, but illegal always means wrong, even if the law is unjust. Then we should protest civilly and work to change the law.
There are many ways to get what we want – and if we get it, then what? How do we keep it, or enjoy it, or use it, or pass it on to others? In the next essay, we’ll explore how to keep what we’ve got.