Does one Rolling Stones hit contain a hidden Catholic truth?

Rolling Stones

In the over sixty-year history of the Rolling Stones — now on a tour through one Canadian and 19 American cities — members of the band have engaged in a very great deal of rock music-related devilment. Yet the fundamental philosophy expressed in one of their classic songs is, to a large extent, in harmony with a basic Catholic tenet, one regarding prayer.

The title of the song, long a staple of their touring repertoire, declares that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” But its lyrics emphasize that you can, nevertheless, “get what you need.”

Holy irony! Church teaching strikes notes similar to the song’s by stressing that while God always answers our prayers — giving us what’s really needed — the answers we get from him may not always be the kind that we, with our human shortsightedness and other failings, want.

Asking wrongly

And how often we want what we shouldn’t. “You ask but do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions,” declares St. James in his letter (4:3).

So it would appear, for example, that if you pray, “Lord, let me win big at the casino tonight,” the odds that you’ll do so might not be favorable.

You can bet your prayer will be given a beneficial answer, though. It could even come through a big loss, just the opposite of what you want, but exactly what you need to avoid harmful gambling.

But suppose you’ve been praying for what you consider an undeniable good — an end to your unemployment, let’s say — without the desired result. Might not your joblessness actually present an opportunity to foster attributes, like hope, faith and humility, that belong on your spiritual résumé?

Moreover, your unemployment may allow you to explore new career or educational options, better approaches to money management, or who — on earth — knows what else.

Persevering in prayer

But what if, despite your prayers, you receive no deliverance from a grave situation, such as having a serious, or even mortal, illness? Failure to find the physical healing you want might prompt you to seek something for which you have an infinitely greater need: improved spiritual health.

But appreciating that what we will get may be better than what we specifically desire can be “Easier Said Than Done,” to quote another old rock song title. “Some even stop praying,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church says (No. 2734) “because they think their petition is not heard.”

But such people are deaf to Church teaching on the abiding efficacy of prayer, and the unexpected ways in which it may be answered. And as St. Augustine notes, “God wills that our desire should be exercised in prayer, that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give” (No. 2737).

Moreover, the catechism says, “We must pray … to be able truly to know what (God) wants” (No. 2736; citing Rom 8:27). To determine the spiritual legitimacy of our desires, then, we have to make an effort.

We also may have to work to attain that for which we pray. Suppose we’re asking God for our continuing good health. If we are able to take certain steps toward that objective ourselves, in jogging or walking shoes, for example, aren’t we obliged to do so?

In the Rolling Stones song we’re discussing, frontman Mick Jagger sings that attaining the superior alternative to “what you want” requires your trying.

An unintended hymn

We have to assume, of course, that what consonance the tune has with Church teaching is unintentional. After all, the Rolling Stones did write and record — and still perform — a song famously raising the prospect of having “Sympathy for the Devil.”

And then there’s been that — to put it very charitably — less-than-saintly behavior of some in the band. That has included widely publicized drug abuse. In fact, original member Brian Jones died in an apparently drug-related drowning. And guitarist Keith Richards was a heroin addict during part of his continuing career with the Rolling Stones

Through not only their lifestyles but much of what they’ve celebrated in their music — a good deal of it featuring Jagger promoting sexual licentiousness — The Rolling Stones have contributed substantially to the forming of a culture whose din and distortion can greatly distract us from hearing God, or raising voices to him.

Last October, in fact, Jagger hit sour notes of religious bigotry in a non-musical “Saturday Night Live” skit which featured lustful nuns, and otherwise mindlessly mocked and ridiculed Catholicism.

So, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was hardly intended to be a hymn. But if listening to it reminds us that prayers, in ways we might not immediately comprehend, are always answered, there’s a particular word that could be added to its lyrics: Amen.

This post Does one Rolling Stones hit contain a hidden Catholic truth? appeared on Our Sunday Visitor.

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