Of Mick Jagger, a Weeping Icon, and Getting What We Need
We may not always want what God sends our way, but we can be certain that it’s always for our good – or the good of others.
“Every moment we live through is like an ambassador who declares the will of God.”
~ Jean-Pierre de Caussade
I can’t be the only dad who brandishes the Rolling Stones from time to time as a corrective contrivance. When I hear, “That’s not fair!” or “Everybody else gets to,” I’m wont to quote Mick Jagger and the lads: “You can’t always get what you want,” I’ll say with a shrug, “but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need.”
That last bit I might even intone melodically. You can bet the kids love that.
Despite my intermittent and annoying fatherly adaptations, the 1969 song has become a family favorite – at least judged by the amount of sing-along I hear from the back seat when it comes on the radio. The lyrics, not surprisingly, are a bit dicey as family fare: Is it a song about drugs? About ‘60s-style “free love?” Maybe political rebellion? Maybe a bit of each – who knows? Regardless, it’s a great tune, especially that opening chorus sung by the venerable Bach Choir of London in full hymnodic harmony. And who can argue with the chorus’s premise? We really can’t always get what we want. It’s a tough yet basic lesson of growing up, and thus the Stones provide us with parenting gold: A catchy nugget of pop music wisdom that I want my kids singing along to – and living out, both at home and beyond.
There’s a bit of back story to that recording that makes it an especially potent device in the paternal object-lesson arsenal. When the Stones went into the studio to record the song, producer Jimmy Miller had a very particular percussive effect in mind. You can hear it on the album version: A loose yet driving rhythm line in keeping with the song’s underlying message of getting along and pressing on. Stones drummer Charlie Watts did his best to achieve the sound Miller was after, but he couldn’t quite get it. When Miller, himself an accomplished musician, sat down at the drums to demonstrate, Watts said, “Why don’t you just play it,” and then departed. “It proved to be quite difficult to record,” Jagger later recalled, “because Charlie couldn't play the groove and so Jimmy Miller had to play the drums.”
In other words, Miller didn’t actually get what he wanted – Watts learning to play the part – but he got what he needed, even though he had to provide it himself. The song went on to become a big hit, and Rolling Stone magazine ranked it 100th on its 2004 list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”
Few folks who sing along with the song today are clued in to the last-minute studio personnel change. Nor would they care if they were – do you? I doubt it. It’s a catchy, fun classic, and it sneaks in some decent adulting advice along the way. So, even though the recording is missing a prominent Stone, you can keep singing along in good conscience. You can hear Charlie play on plenty of other RS hits.
But secret drummer identity is not my point here. The reason I’m recounting all this is because of a recent conversation I had with Fr. Rich Simon, my former pastor when I was a young convert in Chicago. We were reminiscing about the time in 1986 when we got wind of a weeping icon of the Blessed Virgin that was drawing enormous crowds to the near Northwest Side. Thousands of folks, Christian and otherwise, were packing tiny St. Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church in the Belmont neighborhood to catch a glimpse of a miracle.
“Do you want to come check it out with me?” Fr. Simon asked one day. How could I refuse?
When we arrived, the place was jammed and the queue to get in stretched around the block. We passed by the entrance to get to the end of the line, but the volunteer parishioners manning the door spotted Fr. Simon’s collar. They motioned him to the front and waved him in – and I got to tag along.
So many people from all walks of life, fingering their beads, muttering their prayers, and gazing at the iconostasis in front of the sanctuary. Some cried, some grimaced, others smiled ear to ear, but everyone seemed united in humble acknowledgement that something unprecedented was happening there, something holy and haunting.
The crowds parted as the ushers escorted us to the front. One usher opened a little gate in the altar rail and invited Fr. Simon to take his place at the kneeler directly in front of the icon; the other usher motioned to me to stay behind. That was fine by me, for I was already overwhelmed by it all, and it gave me a chance to watch how Father was going to handle it. He knelt and prayed, his eyes riveted on Our Lady, for a full five minutes. Even from where I stood, I could clearly see two streaks descending from her eyes, along with the cloths below that caught the unctuous overflow. What did it mean? What was Our Lady trying to tell us – what was God doing? Regardless of how you interpreted the phenomenon, there was no denying its power – or its authenticity. “It is extremely visible so it would have been easy to spot if there was fraud,” said the pastor, Father Philip Koufos, to the New York Times. “It has been very hard on us, but it is wonderful to see the look on people’s faces.”
Note that Fr. Koufos publicly testified that the seemingly miraculous occurrence in his church had been a challenge – “very” hard in fact. This was a very modest little ethnic parish, and so ill equipped to deal with massive numbers of the faithful and curious. The church had to hire extra staff and extend the hours it was open to accommodate the crowds, so you can sympathize with Fr. Koufos who expressed reservations about being visited by a divine sign. “Some cry for a few days, others for a few years,” he said of the longstanding Orthodox weeping icon tradition, which is why he added in his remarks to the NYT reporter “that he looked forward to the time when his church would return to normal.”
So, what’s the connection with the Rolling Stones? Simply this: We may not always want what God sends our way, but we can be certain that it’s always for our good – or the good of others. “At times, the crowds have been overwhelming,” the parish’s website attests, “yet the members of this specially blessed congregation have continued to warmly welcome everyone who enters their church to share in the spiritual joy that this Icon has brought to so many.”
In a more extreme and sobering context, it’s the same lesson the Israelites learned in yesterday’s first reading from Numbers – the scene in the desert where God’s people rebelled and were punished with a plague of deadly snakes. “We have sinned in complaining against the LORD and you,” they pleaded with Moses. “Pray the LORD to take the serpents away from us.” That’s what the people wanted; what did they actually get? “Make a saraph and mount it on a pole,” God told Moses, “and whoever looks at it after being bitten will live.”
The Israelites wanted to be free of their difficulty. God gave them, instead, the means to turn it around, topsy-turvy, and transform it into a source of grace. “No thought, no mental effort will teach us anything about pure love,” writes de Caussade. “We cannot be settled in the state of pure love until we have experienced a lot of setbacks and many humiliations.”
And when we do, we’ll surely get what we need – thank God.