Original Standing

It is easy for anyone who takes religion seriously to become superstitious. Who has not thought before that his prayer is more or less powerful when he prays in a certain spot, or lets only the right words leave his lips? While most people do not fuss over everyday acts, the superstitious person makes a ritual of them. Its Latin root means “to stand over,” in awe, say some linguists. This seems to make sense if one is overlooking Niagara Falls, but how narrow a meaning if one has to look down to adore. Certainly how one’s spirit greets the awe-ful is the most telling part of the definition, and for most the spirit is overwhelmed, awe-struck, under, rather than over, its power. Niagara Falls makes men feel small.

The Church has interpreted this “standing over” as religious gluttony. The Catechism of the Catholic Church suggests that superstition is an “excess of religion” (CCC §2110)., Excess here does not refer to how long one prays, but to why one prays: “To attribute the efficacy of prayers, or of sacramental signs, to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.” In other words, a superstitious man is one who believes his prayers and sacrifices, apart from his relationship to the divine, are what shape his path. God and man do not share the task of carrying history; man acts as “God” by using God for his own ends.

If superstition is a maneuver, a tool for shaping creation, it is no wonder why it has been largely replaced: scientific and technological tools are more powerful. The impulse to mold nature is natural, and it nudges us to rolling dice, as much as to felling trees. Superstition places man at the center of magic, at the command of nature, which he believes exists for his purposes. In Leisure the Basis of Culture, the philosopher, Josef Pieper, points out that when religion is “debased into magic … it is no longer devotion to the divine, but an attempt to master it. Prayer can be perverted in this way, into a sort of technique whereby life under the dome is feasible.”

Despite its weaknesses, superstition survives, and we would be foolish to dismiss it as hack science, or bad religion. It is both of those, and yet it maintains a belief some would say true science, and especially true religion, have lost—namely, it attributes supernatural significance to the ordinary. Rubbing a rabbit’s foot, hanging rosary beads from a car’s rear view mirror, praying in special locations, wearing a certain shirt on game day, watching or avoiding watching an important game—each of these blows air back into dead chores. The meddler in magic says, “This nothing can mean something.” This is quite close to true religion; in true religion, the priest and the people say, “Look—there’s life in this!” The superstitious take a large breath, and puff up the dead man’s chest, while the religious look closer and see the chest slowly rising and falling.

Yet, we all this have a sense that our world is not the way it was meant to be. We have wandered from our home. At what other time in history has humankind been so desperate to right this wrong? The philosophical and psychical struggle of the past few hundred years, from Descartes to Rousseau to Marx to Nietzsche to Freud, and so on, has been a struggle to arrive where we began. Each of these men thirsted for the authentic way to live as man, to rule as man, to create as man, to think, pray, and believe as man; and so do we, up to our present charm for barefoot running, cave man diets, and genealogical research.

Communism, psychoanalysis, Nietzsche’s “Superman”—each was genuinely born as an answer to the mystery of our origins. But they were superstitions. Like true religion, they were rooted in the dirt, and in the present problems of man, but like superstition, were not concerned so much with mining the origin of that life, than with trying to breathe new life into the ordinary. For Marx, work was the material of the problem, and the answer. If work could be transformed, so could man. Retracing our steps to return to what man was supposed to be, who he was made to be, and his relation to work, was a waste. Marx did not die groaning over a lost Eden; he whimpered of the utopia on earth yet to be.

While superstitions remind us that the ordinary and the earthly hold the mystery of our origins, they still fall short of leading us there. So desperate are we to return home, that we are tempted erect a tent, and call it by the same name. We settle. But then something comes into view, or within earshot, and our senses awake as if to a familiar voice. The Greek philosopher, Plotinus, wrote a treatise on beauty in which he said that it is:

…something detected at a first glance, something that the soul—remembering—names, recognizes, gives welcome to, and in a way, fuses with. When the soul falls in with ugliness, it shrinks back, repulses it, turns away from it as disagreeable and alien. We therefore suggest that the soul, being what it is and related to the reality above it, is delighted when it sees any signs of kinship, or anything that is akin to itself, takes its own to itself, and is stirred to new awareness of whence and what it really is” (Ennead I.6).

Beauty unsettles us precisely because it wakes us, and calls us to a different world. This is obvious. But what Plotinus argues is that the unsettling, the shock, is not in response to something foreign, but to something familiar. In the presence of beauty, we touch that original life, and even merge with it, becoming who we were created to be. Our waking up is a remembering— literally “membering again” —a reunion with the Divine.

All this talk of the soul, and its kinship to the reality above, is likely to keep our heads in the clouds, but for the fact that beauty is met on land. What beauty strikes us? An orange sunset, smooth skin, laughter, the taste of tender meat.

The more down-to-earth we go—and food is right there—the closer to the core we seem to get. When the Hebrew people were being led to the Promised Land, they were neighboring with pagan nations. With respect to these pagans, God told the Hebrews to welcome the stranger into their land, but never to eat food given to them that was offered to idols, meat from certain animals, and certain combinations of foods. These strict dietary laws comprise several chapters of Leviticus. God had a reason for these rules: many pagan nations had superstitions about food. Some believed that if they consumed the blood of certain animals, they would become like those animals. The pagan hunter who drank tiger blood sharpened his teeth, and his mind.

These pagan peoples had an advantage on us moderns. They spent more time in nature, subject to nature, at the mercy of cold and heat, predators in packs and alone, darkness, and the inevitable rising sun. Their superstitions, perhaps by virtue of being that much closer to the chronological origin of man, had deeper roots in reality. They read nature like one reads a book, and they saw something.

Why would God command his people to fast from certain foods just because other groups attributed religious significance to them? False beliefs can spread easily, yes, but just as likely God wanted to warn his people of a religious truth these pagan cultures uncovered in their magical rites. It was a truth he would hint at in the provision of manna, the heavenly bread he provided for them in the wilderness, and fully revealed later in Christ: that one must eat his very body, and drink his very blood, if one wished to become one with Christ.

On the evening of the Last Supper, the first Mass, Jesus told his disciples to “do this in remembrance of Me.” Those words have been spoken at every Mass since then. It is the teaching of the Church that Christ is not sacrificed, over and over again, at every Mass, but once and for all in history. In the Mass, one remembers the sacrifice on the cross, and joins oneself to that moment in time. It is we who travel back.

There exists only one sliver of separation between the sacrifice of the Mass, and sacrifices of the superstitious—from the expertly crafted prayers of modern Christians, to the pagan rituals of drinking the blood of animals. It is the same sliver of difference between rubbing a rabbit’s foot, and falling down on one’s knees in prayer. It is not a difference in matter, for both make use of the earth. It is not a difference in belief, for both practitioners believe in their practice. The difference is simply a difference between wishing, and finding.

Avatar About David Warren

David John Warren is a freelance writer who lives with his wife in Glen Ellyn, IL. He studied literature and theology at Wheaton College (IL) and is a regular contributor at cardinaljohnhenrynewman.com.