Superstition and the Supernatural

After you see the new exorcism movie, The Rite will you respond with superstition or supernaturalism? Superstition is any sort of belief or behavior which is magical. A magical understanding of the religion is primitive, immature and dangerous. Basically a superstitious or magical understanding of religion involves sympathetic magic or an irrational link between certain behaviors and their outcomes. It means, in some way, we are trying to manipulate things to produce an outcome that we desire.

Sympathetic magic links two otherwise unconnected things together–usually one physical and the other metaphysical and expects a causal result. So, for example, you have a black cat, and you believe that black cat symbolizes evil, so you cast a spell which you believe transfers the evil to the black cat, then you kill the black cat in order kill the evil. The form of magic which makes an irrational link between certain behaviors or objects with their outcomes is just as dangerous. So a person may believe that by walking in a circle clockwise thirteen times and throwing salt over the shoulder will ward off the evil eye. Similarly, carrying a rabbit’s foot or some other talisman to bring good luck or blessing or to ward off evil is a form of magic that makes an irrational link between an object or behavior and the desired result.

The problem is, there are a good number of Christians–especially Catholics I have to say–whose devotional practices verge on the superstitious. If a Catholic is living like the devil but wears the brown scapular because the Blessed Virgin promises that anyone who wears it will be delivered from hell–he’s being superstitious. If someone thinks just because they pray this novena or go through the motions to win that indulgence (but they are not properly disposed spiritually) that it will have an automatic benefit they’re being superstitious.

It is easy to think that the opposite of being superstitious is to be materialistic and dismissive of all everything supernatural. Untrue. The true balance to superstition is not materialism, but supernaturalism. The truly supernatural view is based on the foundational belief that the grace of God is working in our world and through our lives. It allows for, and expects miracles. It understands that God’s grace comes to us especially through the sacraments and we draw closer to him through sacramentals, but it rejects any magical interpretation, and always involves the human reason and human will in the interaction between this world and the next. Furthermore, while there may not be watertight categories and explanations for the working of the supernatural, there are theological reasons and rational interpretations of what happens. God’s working in the world always flows from and is oriented to his primary interaction–the incarnation of His son in human flesh. All supernatural works of God in the world flow from, and return to Jesus Christ–Son of God and Son of Mary.

The other distinction between the superstitious and the supernatural is the direction of the interaction. With superstition, or what might be called magic, the practitioner is always manipulating the material world in order to manipulate the supernatural world for his own benefit. We kill a black cat to kill the evil powers that threaten us. We wear a talisman to ward off the evil eye. We say prayers and do penance to get God to give us what we want. We wear a scapular to escape hell. We fast in order to get what we want. In other words, the whole transaction is initiated by us to get what we want. By extension, therefore, much of our activity in the world of living to make money, gain power and prestige and protection through the acquisition of more and more money–is a sort of witchcraft.

Supernaturalism, on the other hand, is God’s grace coming to us through the natural world. In superstition we try to impose our will. In Supernaturalism we try to conform to God’s will. In superstition we do something to get our way. In supernaturalism God does something to change us to his way. This is why when we do bring our prayer requests to God we always include the prayers, “According to your will.”

Finally, a word of clarification. It might sound here like I am opposed to traditional devotions, novenas, indulgences, scapulars etc. I’m not. I’m opposed to their unthinking practice, and the  tendency for them to drift into superstition–the tendency to use the devotions of the Church not to conform ourselves to the Divine Will, but to get God to do what we want. The devotions of the church are given to us to provide the words and ways for our love of God to be expressed. They provide a method and system for our contrition, our submission to the Divine Will and a way to draw closer to Christ. They must be accompanied by true conversion of heart, genuine compunction, true devotion and an unwavering trust in God, in who we live and move and have our Being.

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  • Jason

    Good article. Jesus spoke often about a kingdom with very different values and priorities; one that seems to have a habit of challenging our 'liturgical practices' (if you will); one that seems to regularly reverse our expectations; one that doesn't seem to have a problem with 'standing us on our head'(if that's what it takes) to get our full Christian attention.

  • Jason

    The Potter & the


    Good article – this is like the endless novena papers that Catholics often leave in churches: the instructions are to make 81 copies and leave 9 copies in a parish for 9 days, make a wish on Day Two and Day Seven, say the prayer for 9 days, and God grants your wish.Really – I'm not kidding you. Just last week, I removed 6 different novenas from one parish. There were papers all over the place, left in the pews and on tabletops.Funny things about that are: 1) what did these people do before copy machines? and 2) what about the conflicting instructions? While some novenas are 9 days, others are 3 days, and… well, you get the picture. 100% superstitious.Only Catholics that are devoid of any Bible teaching would believe that drivel. By the way, I read the book, The Rite, when it first came out in the spring of 2009, and what these 'exorcists' are taught at the Vatican is drivel.Only 40 hours in a class taught in Italian, and an English-speaking priest (who speaks no Italian), is designated "official exorcist".And several of the priests in the book, including the trainee priests's mentor, lacked any credibility.Also making the information suspect is that another main character's name, "Fr. Daniel" is a pseudonym. Red flag! Red flag!The history of exorcism is good in the book. But the writing is boring, and the way these priests exorcise people is nothing like Scripture.The main character sounded very sincere, and he asked his mentor excellent questions. But the mentor's answers were awful, and "The Rite" left me questioning the integrity of the mentor, Fr. Daniel and even the leaders in the Vatican that put on this class.A newspaper article reported that the mentor in the movie becomes possessed by the devil – and if someone in REAL life does not have the Holy Spirit inside of them, it IS possible to be possessed by a demon.But if the Holy Spirit has God's child sealed, there is no way any one of us could be possessed – "He who is in you is stronger than he who is in the world."If only Catholics would read the Bible – there is such comfort and many promises for us in the Bible.We have His protection. We do not need scapulas, or endless novenas that, in fact, dishonor our Lord.

  • SwissWiss

    One of Fr L's best! Glad you kept blogging.

  • Anthony S. “Tony” Layne

    Very good post, Father! We always need to remind ourselves that prayer isn't a rubbing of the lamp, that the words of the Lord's Prayer aren't "My will be done" but "Thy will be done". I haven't witnessed the practice CAADA refers to, but it does strike me as both superstitious and awfully close to "name it and claim it".

  • Ismael

    I have met several real life exorcists and they confirmed to me several times that the sacramental of exorcism is useful only if the person desires to be freed and desires to improve his or her own life. Indeed the most powerful "exorcism" is the sacrament of confession.—@ CAADAI am sorry but several things you are saying is nonsense.1- Novenas and other pious practices are not drivel nor superstition.They might grante special graces, but this does not mean they are some sort of 'magic ritual'.A protestant who thinks that he will be saved because he 'believes in Christ' but is an horrible sinner is no more superstitious that those who abuse the novenas.We have His protection. We do not need scapulas, or endless novenas that, in fact, dishonor our Lord.Novenas and other pious practices are a way to get closer to God and should be done PROPERLY.About the "novena" you reported… I doubt that was a Novena at all.Any pious practice requires these things to be effective: Faith in Christ, Grace of God and Perseverance.Hence your contempt of novenas is utterly unjustified. What it is to be avoided is ABUSING novenas and other pious practices. After all we can abuse common prayer as well in the same way.More about Novenas:—2- PossessionThere were canonized SAINTS who were possessed or tormented by the devil. Some where tormented externally (e.g. beaten) but there are a few instances where a saint was possessed by the devil, by permission of God.After all every act of the devil occusr because God allows it… and God allows such evil because from it there is good to be had from it (as Augustine also teaches us).——–If only Catholics would read the Bible – there is such comfort and many promises for us in the Bible.Many Catholics who practice Novenas also read the bible.

  • New Covenant Journal

    Thank you for this post, Father. Peace be with you. I would like to add that there are so many kinds of Catholics and each have his /her own reasons for being Catholics. There is a very large number who believe in the power of Christ to help and protect them (through the intercession of His Blessed Mother and the Saints) by praying certain devotional novenas or wearing certain sacramentals like scapular, medals etc. And there is also a sizable and increasing number of Catholics who would like to approach Christianity by "faith and reason". I know that the allegedly "superstitious" Catholics would prefer to take a more simplistic approach to Christianity by "faith and results". And if these practices work for them and cause them to believe in the power of Christ, why not ?It is my opinion that a crying statue (whatever the reason for this) which converts thousands into the faith is better than a bible scholar who can convert only his sympathetic mother. Taking about exorcisms, let us admit that demons are real. Even Jesus casts out demons. For those interested to lean more about evil and demonic possession, listen to prominent Catholic theologian and exorcist Fr. Malachi Martin on The Nature Of Evil, Exorcism & Possession and watch a real video on an exorcism in America. Watch also this documentary showing a real exorcism in the Philippines.Fr. Gabriele Amorth, Rome's chief exorcist's book is definitely worth a read. This milestone book is a great resource on demonology and diabolic possession. Read about how one can get possessed and how to protect yourself and your family – here.Additionally, for a further understanding of this ancient rite, you can also watch this video about the Catholic Rite Of Exorcism.God bless.

  • Mark Adam

    A practice or prayer with belief doesn't mean a guaranteed connection or closeness with God.`Our own desire/ability to be open to receiving the Grace of God, and maintaining ourselves in a state in which this can happen, makes practices and prayers with belief one of many methods of connection and closeness with God.`The result is that OF or the same AS Superstition, when we merely perform a practice or recite a prayer without the requistite openess to receiving the Grace of God, but in and of itself it is that lack of being open that creates the affect AS if the practice or prayer was Superstition.`Novenas and other Devotions are not and never where Superstition(ous). Only people can be Superstitious or Shallow. `It is ussually the shallow that need the Grace of God the most, and it may be that a more-shallow devotion may become the first step down the road to a deeper spiritual life. `Even in the extreme cases, as mentioned herein above, the act of photocopying Novenas may indeed be fulfilling a vital role for the ones that practice such. This is true because the practice of the act is coincided with the openess to recieve the Grace of God. `We bloggers like to imagine ourselves as beyond the need for such things, but it may be no more to suggest that reading this very posting, while open to recieving the Grace of God, can be a practice to move us closer to God, and a pity the ones of us that scoff instead of being open….

  • Anneg

    Two things regarding the book The Rite: the class was not a Vatican class. It was held by and at the university in Rome that was run by Legionnaries of Christ. The book is very straight-forward, not sensationalistic and very scriptural.Second: Everyone, without exception needs scapulas. Without them, we could not move our arms. CAADA, you must mean scapulars.

  • Arkanabar T’verrick Ilarsadin

    I've seen the sort of thing to which CAADA refers. It isn't necessarily the novena itself which is superstitious, but typically the appended instructions. Those promise and/or guarantee that if you pray the novena as instructed, God WILL grant your petitions. Contrary language, e.g., "according to thy Will," may also get edited out of the prayer. I'd guess this sort of abuse is most common with St. Jude novenas.

  • Anthony Brett Dawe

    i'm still right about 'supranaturalbut you would have to explain it all the time so i geddt.

  • Noah of Christ Crucified

    Please Bless Me Father,If the Mother God says no one who dies wearing a scapular will perish, I believe her.If Jesus Christ says he will restore peace in the Family through the enthronement of his Sacred Heart I believe him.An evil person will not die wearing the scapular. A family that fights will not keep the picture in the pride of place in the family. I also believe that.I believe water baptizes you and the words of a priest absolves me from my sins. You say that this article did not attack devotions, but it did. Through these simple child like devotions the faithful do conform themselves to the will of God, that is why he gave them to us.Water and Bread do not save but baptism and the body and blood do. A failure to teach the role of sacramentals and private prayer comes from the lack of teaching on the primacy of importance to the Sacraments and Public prayer (Mass, Office etc).I think I have heard of more than on priest with contempt for scapulars and devotions (not you). I think your attempt at balance will only encourage them in their wickedness. Father, Please consider reworking this article a bit to indicate what helpful aids in salvation these things are. That these items are vehicles of grace only because God and his church say they are.May the Virgin Mary with her Loving Child Bless You!