Friday, September 9, 2011

Understanding Religion as Praying for Blessings

Shamanism, the folk religion of Korea, and of many other countries throughout the world, has influenced the practice of both Buddhism and Christianity in Korea. Even in our technologically advanced society, many find the possibility of finding quick solutions to personal problems appealing. In one city alone, Seoul, we have hundreds of Shamanistic temples that bustle with clients. It is an influence that turns many people off when they see it in Christianity, since it is so different from the teaching of Jesus.

"Praying for blessings," as many Christians do, is in many ways similar, according to a columnist in the Catholic Times, to a Shaman's attempt to communicate with spirit beings to bring a  benefit to the supplicant, including healing, warding off evil influences, and predicting the future. The columnist wonders which is to be preferred: a Catholic, who goes to Mass every Sunday but doesn't pray for the rest of the week, or one who goes to Mass and prays for personal  blessings? He admits to not being sure of the answer.

In explaining our tendency to ask for personal help to fulfill our desires, he compares it to the natural reflexes we depend on to defend ourselves: the boxer raises his arm to block a punch he sees coming, or the pedestrian who steps back onto the curb when seeing a car coming in his direction. This is a natural response to what threatens us, and a sacred duty for survival built into our very being. Therefore, there is nothing wrong with entrusting  ourselves to God for our well-being, and yet the Church is asking us to rid ourselves of this praying-for-blessings kind of spirituality. Why? the columnist asks. 

Because prayer, he says, is a dialogue with God. But praying for blessings is using God as a means or a tool to gain prosperity or comfort. A person accustomed to this way of praying is prone to covetousness. Instead of instilling a thankful attitude for the things we have, asking for what we don't have nourishes the desire for having more than we need. It is using God to enjoy the  goods of this world instead of using the goods of this world to enjoy God.

When praying for blessings there is usually little thought of others but only of personal desires. When concern for others comes into play, there soon follows the breakdown  of the praying-for-blessing way of living. The columnist reminds us that breaking the habit of  praying for blessings, and replacing it  for a more mature prayer life, is far from easy, precisely because in many cases the habit has been with us for a lifetime. Praying for others, he feels, should help  break down the habit.

As an example of what prayer should be, the columnist refers to the prayer of Jesus as he hung on the cross: "Father, if it is your will, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done." In this prayer, he says, we have the integration of personal desire and the will of God--there could not be a more perfect example.                                                    

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