Sunday, October 09, 2016
Magic, Miracle and Mystery
Ah! Already in the social media, the little pumpkin Jack O'Lanterns are coming out to play. As always, a one day festival is strung out for a month or more, not that Hallowe'en is technically a festival, just the Eve of the Feast of All Saints. Of course, this is a time of year well steeped in ancient religion and superstition. We Christians may have plonked a major festival on top of a pagan celebration, but both do point to something, though we point in different directions.
The underlying nature and abiding atmosphere of Hallowe'en is the central mystery of life and death. We're sandwiched between two great unknowns of before-we-were-born and after-we-die and, as the nights draw in, and the chill wind blows the leaves from the trees, our minds perhaps linger more on the memories of loved ones past, and the future appointment that we have with the Grim Reaper. Yes, this time of year does point to that.
Ancient Paganism as it stood does have some resonance in Christianity. Both revere the natural processes around us, both stand as stewards of Creation. Yet, while the pagans worship divinity contained in nature, we Christians worship the One True God who cannot be contained in nature and necessarily stands apart from His Creation.
One of the themes that has come out of the Christian perception of paganism is that of magic. Christianity has always condemned the practice of magic. The idea of divination and magic are contained in Genesis with prohibitions in Leviticus xvi and Deuteronomy xviii. We see magic used to bring a message purportedly from the Ghost of Samuel conjured up by the Witch of Endor with disastrous effect in I Samuel xxviii. St Paul condemns witchcraft in the fifth chapter of his letter to the Galatians. We have also that famous and dreadful phrase "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live" from Exodus xxii, a phrase that has seen bloodshed, torture, and death on a massive scale. Interestingly, the persecution of witches did not come about until after the Protestant Reformation: witch hunts were only part of the Inquisition on the grounds of heresy and the Inquisitors usually had bigger fish to fry (if you'll pardon the rather tasteless pun). The Protestant grounds were based on a reading of Exodus xxii:18 and fermented with a good rage against superstition.
What is really behind this Christian hatred of witchcraft?
Perhaps we see it most clearly when Our Lord is tempted to change stones into bread. He can do it, but He does not. Satan seeks to tempt Our Lord into using His power to force nature to do His bidding. Our Lord reminds Satan that "man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God". God has ordained the Laws of Physics as He has in order for the world to be as it is. Bread is bread; stone is stone. If Our Lord were to change stone into bread, it would demonstrate a caprice which would actually damage His mission to submit to nature and thus redeem the world from within. All things are created at a word from the Creator. Magic, then, seeks mastery over Creation, and seeks to manipulate Creation by force using the caprice of the magician!
What about the Lord's miracles? Are these not instances of magic? First, we see that Our Lord performs miracles in full submission to the Father. He prays, and blesses, and glorifies His Father. The miracles He performs do not pervert what His Father has created. Water is supplemented to become wine; bread and fish are extenuated; blind eyes, deaf ears, a dead body - all have life and function restored to them. There is no contravention of nature. Stones remain stones.
What about the Sacraments - the Holy Mysteries? Are Christian Priests really magicians? We'd be the worst magicians in the world if we were! No. The Sacraments exist to give us grace to turn back to God. They change us from within: they change our hearts, minds and intentions. In the Sacraments, we effect nothing, all is done by God as part of a covenant. God is no familiar spirit, or genie, or wish-fulfilling leprechaun. It is His way or..., well there is no or.
The Christian is to be a steward of God's world, to be a blessing to it and help it to be fruitful. There are those who want to control the world by changing it substantially. Some try to do this through sorcery and magic spells: we have the idea of the witches' coven seeking to cause mischief and ruin by convincing Macbeth to murder Duncan and proclaim himself king. We think of the magician who seeks to force his way into the beautiful woman's affections through the use of a love philtre. We see another whistling for the wind. We see the animist dancing for the reign. Each seeks to command nature by forcing their will upon it.
How familiar that sounds. Arthur C Clarke says, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Indeed. We use science to manipulate the world around us so that it does things that it isn't meant to do: roses in winter, bananas growing in Croydon, permanently lactating cows, Orcas in tiny tanks, light in darkness. While I am suspicious of scientific proclamations, I cannot help but agree that Global Warming is a fact and caused by the human lust for control over the planet, over Nature herself.
As William of Baskerville says to Adso of Melk when the latter needs to visit the little Benedictine's room, "Adso, in order to command nature, one must first learn to obey it"- a sentiment perhaps later adopted by Sir Francis Bacon. This is something that perhaps human beings have forgotten and, as a result, unwittingly inflict disasters upon ourselves. We tend to call these disasters "natural evil" but it seems all the more likely that this "natural evil" is in fact human stupidity, selfishness, and sin in disguise. What's the point of prolonging our lives if, in so doing, we withhold the privilege of life from others? What's the point of a beautiful uniform lawn, or fatter strawberries, or bigger pumpkins if it kills off all bees and other insects?
Where pagans and Christians agree is that this is a wonderful world worth taking care of and worth submitting to its rhythms and tides even if they don't always work out in our favour. I believe William of Baskerville is right, we should first seek to obey nature by obeying God's decrees, ordinances, commands and love before we learn to command nature. In doing so, we lose magic as a force against nature and recover it when we work with nature, harnessing its power. We lose Miracle as a quick fix of getting better and, instead, see it as Our Lord intended as a sign of God's mastery over Creation and His unending concern for our well-being as citizens of Time and ultimately Eternity. We lose Sacrament as a bargaining chip to keep people subjugated to a pharisaic and political religion, ruthlessly persecuting those who will not accept its rule, and see it as part of God's relationship with the Church to allow it to convey His blessing to the world and all its inhabitants.
The correct way to understand Magic, Miracle and Mystery, is through humility and obedience seeking to play the part that has been ordained for us by Almighty God. This is how the Kingdom of God is truly near us, and in us even now!