Six months after Sister Alegría (née Beth Blodgett) and I moved to Honduras in 2006 and began to live our Methodist-Quaker monastic life, cell phone service came to this remote region of the country. Almost overnight it seemed, everyone had cell phones, and it wasn’t long before people were declaring them “necessary.” When someone asked why we didn’t have one, we explained that phone calls would interrupt our contemplative lifestyle. “But what if one of you gets hurt? How will you get help?” “Then the other will walk to the road and will notify the next car that goes by” – just as anyone would have done a year ago before there was cell phone service! Cell phones can be useful, and Sister Alegría and I make phone calls most weeks by borrowing phones or renting them, but they are not necessities. We don’t need them.
People have become sloppy in how we talk about needs and wants. I believe that a need is something we can’t live without: a necessity, whether material, psychological, or spiritual. Unfortunately, even the dictionary reflects the use of the word “need” as “something necessary or wanted.” Living in rural Honduras, poor among the poor, I have become much more conscious about how I use the word “need.”
My life at Amigas del Señor Monastery has taught me that I can be OK without all of my bodily “needs” being met all the time. For example, I don’t need the three square meals a day I was raised with. At the monastery, I’ve learned to fast. On Thursdays we abstain from eating until mid-afternoon and focus on spiritual practices rather than physical work. Any other day of the week, if a meal is late, I notice: I feel hungry, get a headache, and might even get grumpy. On Thursdays, when fasting, I find it’s much easier to miss those meals without ill effect, or even without thinking about food. In fact, the experience of fasting makes it easier to go without meals than when that happens at other times.
I also don’t need perfect nutrition. Sister Alegría and I came to Honduras thinking we should provide ourselves with a good diet. We tried hard to buy and grow fruits and vegetables. However, the failures we’ve had in our agricultural attempts and the difficulty and expense we’ve confronted when purchasing fruits and vegetables have helped us recognize that “five a day” is not a necessity. We have accepted the cycles of feast and famine that poor people live with. When we have little money, we eat our beans and corn contentedly. When we have a windfall – a glut pineapple harvest (the one thing that actually grows in our acidic clay soil) or a gift of meat from a friend – we eat and enjoy, trusting that our bodies will absorb the nutrients they haven’t been getting.
Besides physical needs, people often designate certain emotional and psychological conditions as “needs.” I have read Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication, and I think he has some good ideas, but I caution against the way he uses the word “need.” The things he lists as needs - like creativity, love, and peace - are good and desirable, but I don’t actually need to have them to be OK. I have found that when I get beyond my sense of needing certain emotional conditions, I can live more fully.
For example, when I became a novice after three years of living in Honduras, my parents expressed disapproval and disappointment. I was disappointed, in turn, by those reactions of theirs. Up until then, they had encouraged me to explore and follow my interests, including my decision to spend a year at the monastery as a sojourner. But this more permanent commitment was too much for them. It took me a long time to be able to respond to them with understanding instead of defensiveness. I wanted their full acceptance and approval. After many months of conversation, I began to see that their concerns and desires came from their love for me: they wanted me to be safe, taken care of, and in touch with them. Eventually, I realized that even though I deeply desired their approval, I didn’t need it. My happiness and ability to get on with my life didn’t have to depend on them. I could be OK by accepting them and our relationship as it was, and by having compassion for their feelings. Shortly thereafter, they began showing more support for my choice to live in Honduras.
The human desire for more and better things seems universal. The capitalist Western world has tried fulfilling this desire with tangible stuff - fashion, technology, houses, vehicles – and it has spread this “answer” to life’s problems around the world. People in poor countries like Honduras want to live like Americans. But consumer products don’t satisfy our deeper needs. Moreover, they are unsustainable. Those of us who can choose to live a simpler lifestyle have a moral obligation to do so – to lower our standards of living so that our consumption levels more closely approximate our “fair share” of the planet’s resources.
Jesus told us he came so that we might “have life and have it abundantly.” I don’t think by “abundant life” Jesus meant “abundant in stuff.” Physical and emotional needs are only real when we identify with our bodies and our egos. Our truest need is not for some physical thing, or even for emotional satisfaction. I believe our only true need is for God. Our deepest desires and longings can only be satisfied by God “him”self – by connection with the Sustaining Spirit of the Universe. However, this connection is difficult for the rich to achieve – like a camel squeezing through the eye of a needle. Choosing poverty or an austere lifestyle has proven through the centuries to be a spiritual practice that can to bring persons closer to the Spiritual Source, as seen in the lives of the Buddha, Jesus, Clare of Assisi, and Peace Pilgrim.
I too want to be a saint. I want to not be dependent on physical and psychological fulfillment to be happy. I want to love God and neighbor. I want for humanity to survive and for there to be a green earth for future generations. I want for more people to know peace and joy and love. I want for there to be no need – for all of us to be able to recognize we don’t really have needs for things – that God can truly satisfy all our real needs. I want to believe it myself. Perhaps I’ve made a baby-step in that direction as I become conscious of how I use the word “need,” recognizing that I often mean wants or desires rather than necessities. May I be able to say with the psalmist, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.”
Sister Confianza del Señor (born Prairie Cutting) is a professed nun at Amigas del Señor Monastery in Limón, Colón, Honduras. Amigas del Señor and Mulnomah Friends Meeting (NPYM) have shared in a Covenant of Caring since 2009. Sister Confianza may be contacted at email@example.com. Read anecdotes from the Sisters’ life at groups.yahoo.com/group/amigasdelsenor/.