Monday, May 29, 2017

The Difference Between Prayer and Magic

Michael Pacher 004


I have to admit to having an attraction to outlandish ideas.  I suspect this is true of more physicists than most people would expect, but isn't it obvious that physics is more about the edges of what is possible than about what is commonplace?  Physicists are fascinated by the detection of gravity waves indicating that two black holes have merged more than a billion light years away, but to anyone who is only interested in the practical, that must seem as wasteful and pointless as detecting the sound of a beetle colliding with a paper clip.  To a physicist, it is an interesting question whether or not it would be possible (in principle) to build a time machine; to an engineer, such a question is a waste of time, because even if the universe permits it in principle, we do not have access to the sort of stuff needed to build one -- exotic matter, black holes, things like that.

That is an explanation, if not exactly an excuse, for listening to a few YouTube channels that deal with outlandish topics such as time slips, Sasquatch, ghosts, unexplained disappearances, etc.  Some of these topics certainly have more substance than others -- in the list I gave, in my opinion the substantiality increases from time slips (which, though making for entertaining stories, are as close to utter nonsense as can be found for any proposed physical phenomenon) to unexplained disappearances (which do of course happen, and which are subject to being explained on a case-by-case basis).  However doubtful the supposed witness accounts may be, they are much more interesting, and more plausible, than the conjectures that the hosts (or guests) typically offer or even positively assert.  Few are able to resist the "mystery religion" temptation to pretend to have secret knowledge.

All this is to explain why, a few days ago, I put on one such channel to keep my mind busy while I was busy away from the computer.  The title of the topic that was to be discussed meant nearly nothing to me; if anything, it sounded like something that might be related to a pirate movie.  (I am being deliberately vague because I do not want to drive even the little traffic that I could drive to either the channel or the topic.)


The actual topic the guest was discussing involved his researches into Western magic.  By "magic" he did not mean stage tricks, he meant the real thing; and by "research" he did not mean anthropological research into it as a belief system or cultural practice, but as a practical means of obtaining actual results.  In fact, this is something he emphasized strongly:  what counted were actual results, which he believed he had witnessed or produced, and failures to produce results were not to be explained away, as has so often been done.

At this point I was able to break away from what I had been doing and shut this discussion off; this is a topic with which I do not wish to contaminate my imagination.  The guest's comments had reminded me a little too much of Chapter 6 in Chesterton's The Everlasting Man, particularly the following two passages.
Whether it be because the Fall has really brought men nearer to less desirable neighbors in the spiritual world, or whether it is merely that the mood of men eager or greedy finds it easier to imagine evil, I believe that the black magic of witchcraft has been much more practical and much less poetical than the white magic of mythology. ... To start with, some impulse, perhaps a sort of desperate impulse, drove men to the darker powers when dealing with practical problems. There was a sort of secret and perverse feeling that the darker powers would really do things; that they had no nonsense about them. And indeed that popular phrase exactly expresses the point. The gods of mere mythology had a great deal of nonsense about them. They had a great deal of good nonsense about them; in the happy and hilarious sense in which we talk of the nonsense of Jabberwocky or the Land where the Jumblies live. But the man consulting a demon felt as many a man has felt in consulting a detective, especially a private detective; that it was dirty work, but the work would really be done.
... But with the idea of employing the demons who get things done, a new idea appears more worthy of the demons. It may indeed be truly described as the idea of being worthy of the demons; of making oneself fit for their fastidious and exacting society. Superstition of the lighter sort toys with the idea that some trifle, some small gesture such as throwing the salt, may touch the hidden spring that works the mysterious machinery of the world. And there is after all something in the idea of such an Open Sesame. But with the appeal to lower spirits comes the horrible notion that the gesture must not only be very small but very low; that it must be a monkey trick of an utterly ugly and unworthy sort. Sooner or later a man deliberately sets himself to do the most disgusting thing he can think of. It is felt that the extreme of evil will extort a sort of attention or answer from the evil powers under the surface of the world. 
Before I move on, let me emphasize that I know nothing of the guest, and I cannot know how far he has trod this path.  Perhaps he is still closer to the "superstition of the lighter sort", with its comparatively innocent gestures.  That said, there is a difference between tossing a pinch of salt over the shoulder (which I would say is today more of a tradition than an actual superstition, and so is likely completely innocent), and a "small gesture" that is, to at least some extent, intended to have a magical effect, such as playing with a Ouija board or playing the "Bloody Mary" game, just as there is a significant difference between playing with a Ouija board and participating in a black mass.

Also, it is worth pointing out that the felt need to do terrible deeds in order to attract dark powers is an observable fact independent even of the existence of those entities.  "Slender Man" is just a creepypasta, but two young teenage girls really did stab another girl 19 times in an attempt to win the favor of the fictional character.

But what about Christian prayer?  Isn't that all about obtaining a result as well?  Isn't prayer just another kind of magical incantation?


Of course, many people mistake it for one.  That's part of the reason so many think there is nothing wrong with the "prosperity Gospel".  It's also the thinking behind the "study" of the effects of prayer on recovery from heart surgery.   This seriously misunderstands prayers of petition, which incidentally are only one kind of Christian prayer as described in the Catechism (which is obviously a good place to look for a much more detailed discussion on prayer).

Perhaps the best place to see the difference, though, is in Luke 11:11-13.
And which of you, if he ask his father bread, will he give him a stone? or a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he reach him a scorpion? If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father from heaven give the good Spirit to them that ask him?   
There are several things to notice here.  Our relationship with God is analogous to that between a child and the child's father.  This is a relationship of dependency and trust, and in the case of God, that trust is justified.  The Monkey's Paw or the old man on Pell Street might provide precisely what is requested -- choose your words carefully! -- but a loving parent will only provide what is actually good for the child, even if the child asks for something harmful.  Note that the father in the example given by Our Lord is not guaranteed to give the bread or the fish or the egg, only that he will not give something bad for the child.  Most modern children have at some time asked for candy and been given a piece of fruit.  Likewise, to a child, a tetanus shot may be as unpleasant as a scorpion, but the the parent knows that the child needs the inoculation; whom the Lord loveth, he chastiseth; and he scourgeth every son whom he receiveth.  The one specific gift we are explicitly offered is one we would never think nor dare to ask:  the Holy Spirit.

These are things Christians are supposed to know.  We are supposed to know that "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven," and "Not my will, but Thine be done," are implicit in every true prayer.

So what exactly does a prayer of petition do?  God is omniscient, so it does not tell Him anything He did not already know.  God is also all-good; when we pray, "Lord, have mercy!" it is not because He is not always merciful.

I suspect that what prayer actually does is to prepare the right disposition to receive blessings.  If we are thoughtless or ungrateful, material blessings are only material blessings -- which means they are ultimately shallow and unfulfilling.  Besides, the Father already "maketh his sun to rise upon the good, and bad, and raineth upon the just and the unjust."

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