I love magic. When I was a boy, my brother did magic tricks that filled me with wonder. Once, he made me invisible. I remember running through the house, waving my hands in my parents’ faces and shouting, “Here I am!” while they looked straight at me and couldn’t see me.
My brother taught me wonder at an early age with his disappearing coins and flabbergasting card tricks. I will be grateful to him till the day I die for suffusing my mind and heart with the idea that there were things in this world that were past our abilities to understand.
Of course, what my brother did was not really magic. It was just sleight of hand. Clever trickery that I knew at some level to be naturally explicable. Such “magic” is just prestidigitation. It’s about getting you to look at the wrong place while the “magician” is doing something clever with his hand elsewhere. It’s not “magic” in the sense that one is drawing on unearthly powers or familiar spirits or the demonic. It’s just agility (albeit often agility that dresses itself in the costume of some adept of the mystic arts). But the hocus pocus is just for show in all such “magic”.
Now the mention of hocus pocus brings us to a curious point. Hocus pocus is a corruption, oddly enough, of the words of consecration in the Latin Mass–Hoc est enim corpus meum: This is my body.
This illustrates a problem that has troubled the Church off and on since the very beginning: the inability of some people to distinguish between grace and magic.
Jesus himself, for instance, was accused of doing cures and exorcisms by demonic power. “He is possessed by Be-elzebul, and by the prince of demons he casts out the demons” (Mark 3:22) was the charge. (Jesus’ reply, of course, was that the very disciples of his critics drove out demons too, so by what power were they acting? No. If Satan is driving himself out he is a house divided. That’s ridiculous, so Jesus must be acting with God’s power.)
On other occasions, the charge of occult power against Christians was not a criticism, but a seeming selling point. The most famous such moment is seen in Acts 8:9-24, when a Samaritan magician named Simon joins a small stampede of new converts eager to get himself baptised. He quickly reveals he has not the faintest idea of the difference between sacramental grace and magic he has practiced. When the apostles lay hands on new disciples in the sacrament of Confirmation and they begin to manifest the gifts of the Holy Spirit, all Simon can see is power. He offers money to Peter in order to purchase such power (thereby lending his name to the sin of simony) and is properly rebuked by the apostle.
Various other scenes in Acts likewise distinguish between the magical impulse that seeks power apart from God and that of surrender to grace. Elymas, a Jewish magician with a cushy place at the side of a Roman proconsul understood instinctively that Paul was a threat. So did Paul, so he invoked the divine power of Jesus and rendered Elymas miraculously blind (Acts 13:4-12).
Another time, some exorcists in Ephesus tried to treat the Name of Jesus like a magic spell, saying to the demonic powers:
“I adjure you by the Jesus whom Paul preaches.” Seven sons of a Jewish high priest named Sceva were doing this. But the evil spirit answered them, “Jesus I know, and Paul I know; but who are you?” And the man in whom the evil spirit was leaped on them, mastered all of them, and overpowered them, so that they fled out of that house naked and wounded. (Acts 19:13-16)
So what’s the difference between magic and grace? Both seem to involve some kind of supernatural power, after all.
The difference is basically this: magic (whether mere human deceit or demonically-empowered) seeks control over nature and other people without any regard to God. Grace, in contrast, is the life of God himself freely cooperating with and not trying to dominate us.
The danger of the magical approach to the world is that it promises us a sort of divine control over creation, either by our own innate power, or with the help of spiritual agencies who are not God. Grace calls us to surrender to God and cooperate with him. Magic calls us to ignore God and (in the blackest instances) invoke spiritual agencies in defiance of God.
Be clear. When I speak of “magic” and magicians, I do not mean people like my brother or some stage magician, doing amusing trick for fun. I mean those people who seek (typically through lying words and actions) to gain power over people, things, and events. I mean people who are trying to create and rule their own realities independent of God. Most such magicians today are materialist ones. They don’t quite believe in things like evil spirits, but they do very much crave the kinds of things evil spirits crave, which is good enough for the evil spirits, who encourage such rebellion against God.
Many people make use of lies in the attempt to create alternate realities. We see this, for example, in the great tyrants of the 20th century. Stalin actually had meteorologists shot for “counter-revolutionary weather forecasting” because they predicted bad weather that disagreed with his Five Year Plans for revolutionising Soviet agriculture. Hitler, who built his whole empire on lies could not distinguish reality from fantasy as the Third Reich came down around his ears, moving imaginary armies around in the bunker as the Soviet army closed in. In North Korea, a whole civilisation is prostrate before a liar who has created an entire fantasy world completely cut off from reality. Closer to home, my own President lies constantly and his lies are called “alternate facts” by paid shills who labor to create alternate realities for him and suck as many people as possible into that fake world.
All this is magical thinking: the blasphemous attempt to create reality by the power of the word of the human liar in parody of the God who creates reality by the Power of the Word. That’s what distinguishes magical thinking from Christian thinking. The Christian is characterised by a willingness to surrender to the power of God. The magical thinker instead attempts to ignore God and make an end run around him by sheer force of will.
The doom of the magical thinker is to lose touch with reality—and then, sooner or later, to collide with it again, often at ruinously high velocity.
God, of course, is merciful and orders all things to our redemption. The pain of our collision with reality is meant to call us back to God as it did the prodigal son. The blindness of Elymas was fitting discipline for a man who was blinding himself to God. And Paul, who had been himself miraculously struck by blindness, knew that better than anybody.
It’s not a bad thing to sit down and do a fearless inventory of the places we ourselves might be engaging in magical thought. Where are we trying to force our will on God, creation, and other people by lies? Where do we need to surrender to grace and stop trying to create alternate realities? Take a few minutes this week and ask God that question. If you realise you are doing it, don’t panic. Take it to confession, leave it in the hands of Jesus, and surrender to his peace. He will surely give you the grace you need.