Post 10

Wanting like a Miser:
Reflections on Staying Focused

I know that not everybody is like this, but some of us lose peace as we consider all the different areas in our lives that aren’t up to snuff, where we know we’re dropping the ball.

The problem is that there are just so many areas!  We are like the biblical Marthas, worrying about everything. If you don’t like the word ‘worry,’ you can substitute ‘wanting’ because they amount to almost the same thing. You want things to be a certain way, and out of that wanting comes unhappiness and lack of peace and some version of worrying.

The average person wants so many things. In the first place, our bodies have needs that won’t take no for an answer. Then of course our minds and hearts want as well; the world offers so much that is food for mind, heart and soul. Chesterton says the perplexing thing about life is that there are so many interesting things but not enough time to be properly interested in any one of them. You could devote your whole life to studying tulips and you’d still not even scratch the surface.

Then of course the internet comes along and encourages us to want even more. Here are 100 places to see before you die, and here are the top 10 wardrobe essentials, and here are ways to improve your home organization or keep yourself in shape. So instead of wanting a few things, we want a hundred, and the focus changes depending on what our latest inputs were.

This dissipation of focus means that we often don’t succeed at anything in particular. All desires get cancelled out by other ones.

We may have periods of intense focus, but once that project is done or that desire consummated, we go back to being scattered, wanting everything somewhat but not one thing radically. We think we want such-and-such a lot, but to be true to ourselves, we have to admit that it’s on the list of things we want, but not actually at the top. If it were at the top we’d know it, because we’d barely care to think of anything else.

Now, in contrast to that, St. Josemaria Escriva holds up for us the image of a miser, and the image of a ‘wretched sensualist.’ Why? Well, in the first place, the miser and the sensualist both have that single-mindedness, that fiery focus. They aren’t scattered at all. Every penny is sought after and the sacrifices along the way are barely considered.

The second thing to learn from considering the miser and the sensualist is that they’re not just talking about wanting something; they really and truly want it (even more than they’ll admit).They want it so badly that it’s accurate to identify the person by the thing that they want. A miser isn’t just someone who likes money, among other things; he deserves that label because his desire for wealth has taken over his identity. A sensualist doesn’t just want pleasure, among other things; he deserves that label because it’s what he has become.

So St. Josemaria Escriva is making a distinction between someone who thinks they want to, say, be a good person, or to be a better Christian, and the person who really, really wants that more than anything:

You tell me, yes, that you want to. Very good: but do you want to as a miser longs for gold, as a mother loves her child, as a worldling craves for honours, or as a wretched sensualist seeks his pleasure?  No? Then you don’t want to.
The Way, 316

Thus the people who are ultimately given the title ‘saint’ are simply being labelled by the thing that they wanted most of all, a relationship with Christ. Fr. Robert Barron, who was perhaps quoting someone else, said that a saint is someone whose life is about one thing.

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things; one thing is needful.”  (Lk 10:41-42)