Every week, the leader approaches the altar to offer a human. This is done in order to invoke the good will of a terrifying, ancient, and almighty cosmic being. He then drinks the blood from a goblet. Meanwhile, the crowd chants practiced hymns and then falls in line to eat pieces of flesh. I have attended these rituals every week since I was a child, never questioning the strangeness of it all. The grotesque tortured body of a frail man crucified by the wrist is housed in a lavish, intricately-designed gold-and-ivory temple. Ominous poetry is read, that call upon the ancient deity to strike down our enemies and bring fortune to the faithful. Remain meek and you will inherit the earth. On a special day, the leader marks our foreheads with ash — a threat that our days are numbered, that we should reconsider our ways. He gave you life and He can take it away at any moment.
During these weekly ceremonies, we respond in unison: “Amen. Yes, we believe.” The verses have all been practiced; we recite them without much thought. I believe in the maker of the heavens and the earth, of all things visible and invisible. Deliver us from evil. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death. We are surrounded by the shadows of darkness that seek the ruin of souls. In his book, “The Lamb’s Supper”, Scott Hahn said that the Catholic mass was intended to mirror the mystical, glorified, apocalyptic retribution described in the book of Revelations. Heaven on earth meant holy warfare between the armies of God and the legions of the Enemy. It is all quite morbid, but it is also a celebration of a tender, unifying love that serves and liberates.
Devout Catholics would insist on the solemn beauty of the Eucharistic celebration. There are many stories of how the heavens would part when the bread is consecrated, how the saint’s palms would bear the marks of Christ’s wounds, or even how the sacred host, which represents Christ’s body, once turned into actual flesh. Nobody questions the absurdity of these stories — if you hear it, you say a quick amen and pass it on. In fact, if we read it literally, the bible is filled with absurd magical stories. I know we are supposed to read between the lines but if people back then didn’t really believe that holy magic existed then the bible would just be an anthology of culturally-important myths. In other words, if people didn’t really believe that Moses brought plagues upon Egypt or parted the Red Sea with his magic wand then there would be no good reason for anyone to follow him into the desert, without food or water. And, unless people seriously believed that the son of a carpenter healed the terminally ill with his magical touch, revived the dead, walked on water, or rose from his own death after being tortured and killed, then he would’ve just been a peaceful revolutionary who had delusions about being God on earth.
I know a lot of people who seem to think that they are angels or demons trapped in heavy human bodies but nobody gives them any serious attention. Some TV pastors today even claim that they are literally the incarnation of god, Jesus, or some historical figure, and one tends to wonder whether their followers genuinely believe them. Could it be possible that the church’s impressive authority throughout history is based on a genuine belief that their holy men have magical powers? In other words, if we are to follow the laws set down by the old prophets then we must also believe that these prophets were truly inspired by God and were capable of actual holy magic. Also, we must believe that priests (the successors of St. Peter) are capable of magical acts, like casting out demons or healing the sick. There are priests today who claim to be healers — wherever they go, sick, desperate people flock to experience the power of God. To follow the teachings of the Church is to believe that holy magic is real.
The origin of dark magic is necromancy, or calling upon the dead to reveal movements occurring in the spirit world. This is supposedly a violation of the trust a man must have on the elusive Divine Plan. That is why conservative Christians want to boycott children’s books that feature witches and wizards. To them there is real fear there of the Enemy shaping the soft mind of the youth.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is explicit about any attempt to contact or request assistance from unholy beings by any means, including all forms of divination and spell-casting (2116). It also says that any kind of magic that uses occult powers for one’s own gain or for others — even if it is for healing — contradicts religious virtues (2117).
Ironically the Church has also given a certain group of people the license to conduct rituals invoking higher magic in order to heal people, sanctify totems, or cast out demons. They do, however, make an important distinction regarding where that magic comes from. Historian Brian Copenhaver noted that magic isn’t necessarily bad, since it is still part of God’s plan, even when it does violate Divine laws. He observed that the bible makes a distinction between who is called a “sorcerer” and who is called a “prophet”. There is real magic in Catholic belief, but it is differentiated between what is from God and what is from the Enemy. Saints are so in tune with their inner divinity that they easily display magnificent powers: they are capable of seeing into the future, healing the sick, being in two places at once, or even levitating. In fact, before someone is canonized the Church investigates whether this person was capable of real miracles. When a person is just that close to God, people pray to her so that she may speak on their behalf.
Unfortunately, scandals of hypocrisy and power have resulted in some distrust of the institution. People have also begun to doubt the supposedly “infallible” teachings of a decidedly fallible institution. Though current demographics may still confirm that many people are listed as members of a particular religious affinity, this doesn’t mean that they actually live out their teachings. Magical belief survives today in that most shallow form of faith in the Divine: superstition. The faithful still wear talismans that protect them from evil, or seek out carved holy idols in order to touch them and be blessed. Novenas promise that your prayer will go answered after a number of days. There are saints for every oddly specific desire: each with their own prayers and symbols.
Strangely, we don’t see this as a mockery of faith but instead as proof that there has always been a terrifying, ancient, and powerful magical force that moves through us and the world around us.