Our daily bread

Question:  The worship of God, and of his saints, is liable to degenerate into a sickly sentimental worship of relics, or just pictures and charms. It is true that many people are attracted to this sort of thing, but it is often because they have quite unreal expectations of getting miraculous favours in return for a small investment of time or money. Is there any evidence that they will generally move beyond it? And in any case, surely a spiritual movement ought to dissociate itself from all such things.

Answer:  There is some difference of practice among religious traditions. Some, such as the Puritans and the Quakers in Britain, and the Zen sect in Japan, have never permitted giving charms or amulets to their followers.

Others allow it, on the ground that anything that leads to centring of attention onto spiritual things, even in a very crude way, will help to take the mind away from purely material interests, and reliance on purely material schemes and actions. They also believe that after a certain amount of attention, some stirring of genuine religious feeling will arise, which are then pursued for their own sake.

Let us take an illustration from a very old French film, which was supposed to have been based on fact. A well-known and highly regarded banker began unexpectedly to interest himself in promotion of some new exploration companies, which promised ultimately very rich rewards for investors. Ruby mines in Burma, diamond mines in Malaysia, and so on. He was skilful in his promotion techniques, and many were persuaded to invest.

For the first two or three years some substantial dividends were paid but nothing like the fantastic fortunes that had been expected. But the investors had been warned to be patient. Then by chance the authorities discovered that only a tiny part remained of the substantial investments in one of the companies. They investigated, and found the same thing had happened with the other companies. The police came to arrest the banker, but he had disappeared, as had apparently all the money.

A week later, however, he turned up before the examining magistrate and the angry plaintiffs, with a suitcase of papers. These were share certificates in young and extremely promising companies, which were now beginning to boom spectacularly. The certificates were in the names of the various investors, according to what they had put into the paper companies.

“The fact is”, he explained, “that the general public has not got the judgement or imagination to back really sound investments. But their imagination can be stirred by fantastic projects. So I advertise these colourful schemes in distant places, and the public rush to put money into them. But I take that money and put it, in their names, into really good ventures, not so romantic sounding but which my expert judgement tells me will, in fact, be very successful. I suppose technically I have swindled them, but look at these figures. The companies have all done very well. The wealth has been created in France, where it will help society and not from some distant ruby mine.” The magistrate laughed, and the plaintiffs gratefully tore up their charges.

In something of the same way, sects of devotion may allow exaggerated expectations from charms and amulets and ceremonies; they believe that at a certain stage of development it is right for the faithful to associate their present needs with prayers to the Lord. But the true traditions all insist that believers must come to recognize that happiness and fulfilment will never come from material advantages alone. A minimum of material prosperity – our daily bread – is needed so that we may worship God and live a constructive life according to his will, but we are expected to grow up, so to say, out of dependence on needless luxuries.

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