Seduced by “The Occult”

Lisa Mladinich, a Catholic blogger on Patheos, posted a story earlier this week titled “Killing Us Softly: Seduced by the Occult.” To summarize, her 14-month-old daughter started “scrawling all over her papers with a black crayon.” This concerned Ms. Mladinich. The daughter stopped after attending Mass, but started again after Ms. Mladinich visited her massage therapist, who it turned out had been receiving Reiki treatments. Ms. Mladinich drew the conclusion that demons (or perhaps the Devil himself – she isn’t too specific) had attached themselves to the massage therapist through the “occult” practice of Reiki and were harassing her daughter. She ended the relationship with the massage therapist and her daughter went back to coloring “in bright, gentle shapes and dots.”

I’ve got several reactions to this story.

First, it matters what we believe, because we interpret our experiences through our beliefs. Ms. Mladinich believes in a devil who is actively working to hinder and harm good Christians such as herself. She believes any spiritual practices not explicitly sanctioned by her church are gateways to that devil. And though she does not say so, clearly she believes scrawling with a black crayon is a bad thing. With these beliefs, it is not surprising Ms. Mladinich drew the conclusions she drew.

Many of the comments on the Patheos site largely reflect a different interpretation based on different beliefs, namely that there is no devil and no way a Reiki treatment could affect a distantly associated third party. They criticize Mladinich’s “superstition” and offer their own rational explanations of the events. All of those reactions are interpretations of the same experience through a belief in rationalism and a disbelief in devils and demons.

I’m not arguing that both interpretations are equally valid. But both interpretations follow the same process – they assign meaning and understanding to experiences based on beliefs. The same experience plus different beliefs equals different interpretations. It matters what we believe.

Next, before you label something as evil perhaps you should make an effort to understand it and to see for yourself if the results are positive or negative. The Buddha told his followers not to believe anything just because they heard it, or read it, or because it was traditional. “But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it.” This is good advice for Buddhists and Catholics and Pagans and everyone else.

People are afraid of what they don’t understand. “Occult” means “hidden” and generally refers to knowledge and wisdom not readily apparent to the casual observer. It is not hidden because it is evil, but because the very process of searching for it can transform a person. This writer uses “occult” to mean any spiritual practice she’s not familiar with and that aren’t taught by her church. If she took the time to learn a bit about Reiki or Tarot or magic she’d learn their origins aren’t with any devil but with some of the most spiritual people throughout history, some of whom were Christians. The whole Western Mystery Tradition springs from the mystical practice of the Abrahamic religions.

The Catholic Catechism condemns magic as “attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others.” I’ll skip the rant against the Catholic church and their own lust for power over others and simply say this is a gross misunderstanding of magic. It assumes we have no power of our own. It assumes we should be disconnected from the power of the natural world, even though we came from it and are an inseparable part of it. It assumes only their church has access to the Divine.

More importantly, it ignores the results. If “occult” practices bring health, wisdom, happiness and a greater connection to and concern for the rest of humanity and the rest of Life – and they do, as I can attest from first-hand experience – then they are certainly not evil.

And if you really are harassed by evil entities you’re going to need some protection techniques. Most of those techniques have been developed by practitioners of “occult” traditions – you aren’t likely to learn them from your local priest or minister.

Not all of my reactions are inspired by Catholics. We Pagans like to quote Sandra Bullock in Practical Magic: “there’s no devil in the Craft.” But for us, there’s a more relevant quote in that film from Dianne Wiest’s Aunt Jet: “you can’t practice witchcraft while you look down your nose at it.”

I’ve seen comments on “Seduced by the Occult” from Pagans that are indistinguishable from comments by atheists. How can we talk about our magical practices, our esoteric traditions, and our experiences of goddesses and gods and then dismiss someone else’s experience as superstition and rot? Even if you believe it’s all myth and metaphor, it’s still very real myth and metaphor. If your first reaction to Ms. Mladinich was disbelief and ridicule, perhaps you need to take a closer look at your own beliefs… and your own practices.

What really happened to Lisa Mladinich’s 14-month-old daughter? The only completely honest answer any of us can give is “we don’t know.” Perhaps she was having a bad day. Perhaps she didn’t like the massage therapist. Perhaps she was experimenting with black – we should look in on her in 10 or 15 years and see if she’s reading Anne Rice and listening to The Sisters of Mercy, or their 2025 successors.

Maybe there is something to Ms. Mladinich’s concerns. Reiki is energy manipulation and about as religiously neutral as you can get, but the Reiki master’s story that the massage therapist’s burning feet were caused by having been burned at the stake as a witch in a past life sets off alarm bells in my head. Maybe something maleficent really was passed from person to person to the young child. I don’t know.

But I do know this: jumping to conclusions based off inaccurate assumptions isn’t helpful to anyone, even if those assumptions have the weight of the Catholic church behind them.

The purpose of religion isn’t to make us feel good. The purpose of religion is to challenge us to live up to our highest principles and to fulfill our ultimate purpose, our True Will. That challenge and the skills to rise up to it can come through any religion, including Catholicism, including Paganism, including Humanism and other non-theistic, non-supernatural paths.

But while some beliefs and practices help us to learn and grow, other beliefs and practices hinder us. Beliefs that cause us to live in fear aren’t helpful. Beliefs that cause us to ignorantly label others as evil or stupid aren’t helpful. Beliefs that cause us to judge different beliefs and practices without understanding them and without looking at their results aren’t helpful.

My hope is that this story will be an occasion for all of us to examine our beliefs for ignorance and prejudice and to make sure the results of those beliefs are in accordance with our principles and our True Will.

And if they aren’t, then we need to change what we believe.

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