Sacred Mysteries: ‘I want! I want!’ – a daily Christmas list of prayer

A ladder to the moon and stars: a detail of William Blake's print from 1793 - Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge / Bridgeman
A ladder to the moon and stars: a detail of William Blake's print from 1793 - Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge / Bridgeman

People pray for things they don’t really want, and that is one reason they find it hard to pray. I came across this observation in a collection of articles called God Still Matters by the brilliant, Lefty, beer-drinking Dominican priest Herbert McCabe (1926-2001).

McCabe is full of sharp insights, and he picked this one up from another Dominican friar, Victor White (1902-1960), whose life’s rocky road was to attempt to match Carl Jung’s psychology to Christian theology. White had found help in Jung’s writings when in the 1940s he himself was “stuck”. For White, “theology ceased to have any meaning to me at all: I could not get my mind into it, or anything to do with it, except with horror, boredom and loathing. You may imagine that that was quite a serious thing to happen to a theologian.”

In August 1946, White, whom Jung called punningly his “White Raven”, visited the psychiatrist at Bollingen on Lake Zürich. Jung invited him to be a founder member of the C G Jung Institute in Zürich. The first fruits of their collaboration was White’s book God and the Unconscious (1952).

There were some comical over-expectations on Jung’s part. He didn’t appreciate that a Dominican under vows of poverty and obedience could not travel abroad at the drop of a hat to meet him. Absurdly, Jung proposed that the Christian dogma of God as a Trinity could be adjusted to make it a quaternary – four persons instead of three.

A real difficulty was over evil, which Jung saw as present in God. White saw it as a privation of good in creatures, and so gave an unfavourable review to Jung’s book Answer to Job (1952).

I mention this to suggest that White’s idea about praying for things we want was not a glib or unthinking remark. Instead of feeling you ought to pray for the grace to be nice to your next-door neighbour, as McCabe puts the problem, you might in cold fact really want a short holiday in north Wales. If you pray for what you want, you might find fewer distractions in prayer. “The prayers of people in sinking ships are rarely troubled by distractions,” he says.

On the narrow point of impending death concentrating the mind, I’m not so sure. I’ve faced death several times (and it has obviously turned back), and sometimes then found little to say to God by way of fervent prayer or contrition. It has been more like handing over. Perhaps these have been rehearsals and I’ll do better on the night.

Anyway, I do not advocate any more than McCabe, a religion in pursuit of holidays in north Wales. But to desire things, to want, is a proper topic of conversation with God, who shares time with us as lovers waste time in each other’s company.

What do you want for Christmas? What do you want now? The celebratory poet of desires, Thomas Traherne, declares: “Wants are the bands and cements between God and us.”

It is true that our desires outrun our natural ability to achieve them. That can be the tragedy of the human condition. It is not clear to me where in the equation Blake’s image of crying for the Moon lies; he is a mysterious kind of mystic.

But Traherne urges no half-hearted shrinking back: “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you.”