Monday, 26 May 2014

Superstitions, Sacraments, and the Incarnation

Bonnie has a good post about the use and abuse of Saint Joseph statues when trying to sell a home.  I don't disagree with what she writes: putting Saint Joseph in a place of honor where you can see him and remind yourself to ask for his intercession seems like a better idea than burying him upside down and out of sight.  Poor, cold Saint Joseph!  And it's certainly not recommended that people with no faith or only passing faith partake of the superstition when they've no personal relationship with Jesus, let alone St. Joseph!  But it got me thinking about superstition in Catholicism, what it means, where it came from and why, and what its place is in our Faith.

I've always been a Catholic, and there's never been a time when I haven't been.  There are no moving reversion or conversion stories to be told, though I certainly came to a greater understanding of my faith as I grew older, and that "conversion" is still happening today, and much needed.

I'm also a poet.  I've been a poet as long as I've been a Catholic.  I'm also a poet because I'm a Catholic; and this is why.  I remember feeling as a child what the poet feels (and have since discovered others who have experienced the same): the stirring of the soul where the divine reaches into nature and seeing with some hidden, heightened sense, but for a moment, as one whose vision has suddenly cleared, how things really are.  C.S. Lewis called it joy.  We partake of this joy in the Mass, the Communion of Saints, though it doesn't always feel so obvious to us.  Now, imagine that kind of earth-splitting revelation occurring in the everyday.  An Annunciation of nature, as it were.  When the certain slant of light on the grass or a glimpse of cloud or a line from a song shatter one's mundane existence and show the true face of the world.  It's so beautiful it hurts.  And it disappears just as quickly as it came, or else one would die from the joy of it.

To those familiar with this world, superstitions make a good deal more sense.  There are connections between the reality outside our physical world and this one, and we aren't able to fully understand them, not until we're in heaven.  It was these seemingly unconnected connections that helped Chesterton to believe in orthodoxy, which he expounds upon in the book of the same name in the chapter titled "The Ethics of Elfland."

To grasp the essence of superstition one need only read fairy tales.  Fairy tales are infested with them!  Why else should cutting off a cat's head save a princess from a wicked witch?  There's no natural connection between the cat, the cutting of its poor head, and the princess and the magic of her evil stepmother.  And yet, intuition accepts the precept without question.  It is the kind of intuition that we see in children, which survives past childhood, if we are lucky and humble enough to let it.  If we don't let accusations of "what superstitious nonsense!" tell us to stop looking for otherworlds in the back of wardrobes or down rabbit holes.  (Or stop hoping that a dying god somehow killed death.)

Through this lens, superstitions make a little more sense.  I don't think it's coincidence that the Catholic Church is accused of having superstitious rituals.  Why should lighting a candle somewhere halfway round the world usher God's grace to a friend in need?  Why should chanting an ancient conversation between a girl and an angel at twelve noon each day be more appropriate than at other times?  Why, for that matter, should repeated words work as a spell and transform simple bread and wine into divine Flesh and Blood?

John Collier, The Annunciation

Here is what has to say about the word superstition:

su·per·sti·tion [soo-per-stish-uhn]
1. a belief or notion, not based on reason or knowledge, in or of the ominous significance of a particular thing, circumstance, occurrence, proceeding, or the like.
2. a system or collection of such beliefs.
3. a custom or act based on such a belief.
4. irrational fear of what is unknown or mysterious, especially in connection with religion.
5. any blindly accepted belief or notion.

Let's look at the first definition, which I think is what most people mean when they are talking about it in context with Saint Joseph.  "A belief or notion not based on reason or knowledge."  Well, then what is it based on?  A feeling?  How about an instruction, from an authority you trust?  Ah, now we're getting somewhere!  As Catholics, we know that the authority of the Church grants legitimacy to what might otherwise be superstitions--things not based on reason or knowledge per se . . . like the example of the candle I mentioned above.  But we also know that God reveals Himself through his creation, and so those who have not been born into the faith, or who lived and died before the faith was available to them, can come to know Him through nature, and in this way are not exempt from salvation.

Materialists say that men imbue things with meaning willy-nilly, but we know that meaning is there, whether we are granted the sight to recognize it or not.  Some people, I think, are more sensitive to this "sight" than others.  Particularly the mystics.  St. Thérèse of Lisieux was given a superstition of roses.  St. Teresa of Avila, a castle.  Other saints were sent animals as messengers.  Many of them talked.  These "superstitions" repeatedly point to relationships.  One relationship in particular.

A "custom or act based on such a belief" arises in solidarity with these saints, and those devoted to her ask, with St. Thérèse, for a rose, which may or may not be given.  And people who wear a little vestigial garment around their necks are promised heaven.  Not  because scapulars have any rational connection, in and of themselves, to eternal life, but because something, someone, beyond our understanding has designated it so.

All of the sacraments are superstitious in this sense.  A splash of water repels the devil like the Wicked Witch of the West.  Making a sign in the air and saying the words, "You are forgiven," actually makes it so.  The laying on of hands apprentice young men to the profession of Christ.  And it's a very physical thing that consummates a marriage.

A name causes the very rocks to cry out.  God becomes a man and suddenly, nothing physical is ordinary.  Nothing is coincidence.  Everything is significant.

So, why put Saint Joseph on his head?  Is that just a meaningless superstition?  Perhaps.  But I like to think it came from somewhere, from some shrewd, pious, superstitious old lady, who knew him well.  Perhaps she said, "Put him on his head, turn him upside down!  That'll give him a headache, and remind him to pray and pray for you!"  And as she cackles and walks away, you fancy you can see the vague figure of a Jewish carpenter, as she swings an arm around him in what can only be the most intimate of affections.

A closing note for the concerned: should the Church ever make a definitive pronouncement against all things superstitious, I shall drop my stance at once, at a single word from the Magisterium.  How superstitious of me!  c;

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  1. My husband and I have conversations, a lot, about the difference between our Catholic beliefs and magic (coming from a Protestant background I see the "pagan influence" in the church a lot and we've had a lot of conversations about where the line is drawn). I think superstition falls into this category too, and is covered by our belief that magic/superstition is a belief that what we do have the ability to change the course of an event, rather than our faith which is a belief that while there are things that are good and useful (prayers, novenas, devotions, etc.) that in the end God is the one in control.

    All of those beliefs like Holy Water, blessings, forgiveness only really occur because of God's will. (At least I think we're correct in this).

    1. Ah, Molly, thank you! You make a very important distinction which I neglected to make in the post: superstitions that rely on one's personal power are forbidden by the Church. I think we do have the ability to change the course of an event, whether it is an ability outside our realm of understanding (Church authorities don't condemn psychics per se, they just forbid them from using their "gifts" outside of the advice of a spiritual director and/or for profit) or an ability from devils. And I think we are forbidden from doing that. Because God is our Utmost Good. We must trust in Him, abandon ourselves to Him. It's like in the play Chesterton wrote, called "Magic," in which the magician performs real magic and wishes to God that it weren't real. He knows better. He knows he's thrown himself outside of the realm of God's grace. And we of course know that he need only beg the Precious Blood of Christ, in its proper place in the confessional, and be back in that grace.

      Anyway, these superstitions aren't rooted in one's personal power. The people who bury the statue of St. Joseph upside down do so because of some mysterious, unknown mandate that originates outside themselves, not within.

      Anyway, I hope I haven't discouraged you from the conversation or disagreeing with me. It's so interesting, and I'm still feeling my way around what I believe myself. I have a strong mythic sensibility that makes these subjects more important to me than others!

    2. Not at all. I just think that intent and understanding is key and that's what makes things like this walk the line between tradition and superstition.

      There's just a difference between someone going out and buying a kit, sticking it in the ground and calling it good (because they've done the action and the action determines the result) and someone who does it as, perhaps, a reminder to pray (maybe a novena), perhaps foster a relationship with St. Joseph and understands that the final result is tied to Gods will. Do some people use this tradition is a licit, prayerful way? Absolutely. Do some people do this just because it's the thing to do with no understand of how or why? Yep, that too.

      Growing up prot. there was always this disconnect between the physical and spiritual with the most extreme views that anything believe to have a connection between the two was "magic" and "evil", but it's one of the things I love about the Catholic faith - that there's a connection between what we do and what we believe. I love that we understand our actions can affect our lives, just that at the end of the day we have to remember who is in control of the outcomes and that it's not the action alone that determines the outcome.

      p.s. I'll have to look up that play.

  2. I like the idea of burying St. Joseph to sell a house (his statue, though, and never his Icon) part because he DOES need reminders..all saints do (except Anthony, who likes to remind YOU to think of him by stealing and hiding things (I just found a long lost and finally prayed for earring under the keys of my typewriter, though I CERTAIN I lost it in the car)..I guess it sort of boils down to whether or not you see saints as people still..holy and raised up..but people, who need reminders, who like to play and laugh and get the 'feel' of a place so they know WHO to guide toward it. Saints deal in relationships..I think burying Joseph lets him 'taste' the land you're trying to he knows who would fit it best..because places have magic as well.

    It's one reason I like to hang written prayers on my icons..or tuck things on them (sachets from friends or flowers or beads) because they act as reminders or 'catch the eye' of the saint a bit more..)

    But then, paganism isn't a threat to the church, we blend's secularism and the need to rationalize things that kills faith. I worry about a church with so many people 'thinking' and 'reasoning' their way into the Church..not because they're 'wrong' or 'bad' for doing so, but because there's limit to how we can 'reason' our way into a relationship, into faith, and into magic..and especially because the need to reason fights the reality of mystery. And you can't really leap into faith without accepting mystery..

    1. I guess it sort of boils down to whether or not you see saints as people still..holy and raised up..but people

      That's what I mean! Except I didn't mean that exactly, I sensed it, I was groping for it. Seeing saints as ordinary albeit perfected human beings, that's something Chesterton would have approved of. And you know that that's all praise and compliment from me! c;

      I guess his icon wouldn't do being buried because then he couldn't see. . .

    2. Oh, and getting Saint Joseph to taste the dirt, that is beautiful, Masha!

      I never thought of St. Anthony hiding things and then revealing them, but it makes sense now that you mention it . . . they're never in the place I left them, those things!

    3. Thanks!!!

      We never had half as much trouble with things going missing before St. Anthony came to stay..BUT in his defense, I lost a earring in the woods - way out back! - and found it again on the bean pole in the yard after hanging it's mate on his relic..and he's good about finding things when he's asked..and makes me feel all safe out among the birches.

      I wouldn't bury St. Joseph's Icon because it's just too too personal..not like a statue, more like a door, and I think he'd be hurt to open his little door into the ground and not into the house, like a proper guest..With his statue, he's got a bit of distance there..if that makes sense?


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