Yesterday, I posted an article about what parents needed to know about a new “game” that middle-school children are playing in which they attempt to summon an erstwhile demon named “Charlie” who answers questions about their life and their future. It is an international phenomenon that has caught the attention of reputable news outlets such as the BBC. See my previous article here for the backstory.
One of the questions that emerges from the story is, “Why are we so fascinated by the occult?” Whether we’re talking about horoscopes, or fortune tellers, or Ouija Boards, or other forms of divination such as the “The Charlie Challenge” that I wrote about yesterday, both children and adults are fascinated by the possibility of spiritual avenues to secret knowledge. What is this really about? And more importantly, how can we make sure that our children don’t fall prey to the dangers contained within these practices.
What Are We Looking For?
In my book, Broken Gods: Hope, Healing, and the Seven Longings of the Human Heart, I note the traditional Christian insight that behind even our darkest desires there is a divine longing that remains frustrated and unfulfilled when we attempt to express that longing in unhealthy, ungodly ways. As Chesterton put it, even the man who knocks on the brothel door is looking for God. If we want to change an unhealthy attraction for something or to something, we must first discover the divine longing behind that desire and prayerfully seek out healthy and godly ways to fulfill that longing. If we fail to do this, our attempts to simply ignore or squelch our inappropriate desires cause us to be locked in a perpetual cycle of indulgence followed by guilt and repression followed by guilt. Rinse. Wash. Repeat. If we were to apply this insight to an attraction to the occult, what would it teach us?
The Divine Longing Behind the Attraction to Evil
I would argue that each person intuits a natural need for spiritual guidance. Each person knows, on at least some basic, gut-level that we are not alone and that we are meant to seek answers outside of ourselves. In fact, research shows that our brains are hard-wired to seek transcendence, to search for spiritual connections. That impulse is so deep, so essentially human, it is almost impossible to ignore. God created this biological impulse within us so that we would always seek him, no matter how far we strayed psychologically and emotionally. We can run from him emotionally and spiritually, but even our bodily impulses are wired to re-orient us to seek God.
BUT that impulse needs to be trained. It needs to be cultivated. God intends that impulse to lead us to him, but unless we are taught how to have a personal, meaningful prayer life; unless we are taught how to hear his voice and know his will, that divine longing for spiritual guidance can propel us toward counterfeit methods of “discernment,” occult-based practices that hold out the promise of secret knowledge.
What’s a Parent to Do?
When Christian parent find that their children have been dabbling in the occult or have been tempted to (via “games” like Ouija or The Charlie Challenge or other popular divination practices) it is common to want to respond by trying to punish this impulse out of our children or to at least trying to scare them straight. Our fear for their spiritual well-being causes us to want to stamp out their interest in the occult once and for all. Unfortunately, these approaches, at best, fail to work (“Cavorting with Satan?!? No phone for a week, young lady!”) and, at worst, tend to simply confirm to many children that there is real power to these practices, power so great that Christians are afraid to even acknowledge it. This is exactly the wrong message to send our children. Our over-the-top reactions simply drive our children toward the very things we’re trying to protect them from. So, CAN we do?
Teach Your Children Well
In short, if we want to truly protect our children from the glamour of evil that surrounds popular methods of divination, we need to teach our children to satisfy the divine longing behind this distorted attraction for the occult. We need to teach our children how to have a meaningful, personal prayer life and how to hear God’s voice and discern his will for their lives. The more a person has mastered these skills, the less interested they naturally will be in the occult–and the less they live in fear of it as well. Rather than seeming powerful, exciting, and darkly attractive, the person who has a truly personal connection with Jesus Christ and who is skilled at the art of discernment and hearing God’s voice, finds occult practices boring, tawdry, childish, and silly. That is not to say that such a person does not recognize the inherent danger behind these practices, but the fear and fascination is gone, very much like the person who knows how to have a good time without getting drunk has little interest in “partying.” It isn’t the fear of indulgence that keeps such a person sober, it’s the knowledge that there are just better ways to get the need for joy met that make getting drunk seem silly and unattractive by comparison.
The more we can say that we are confirmed in a personal experience of God’s love the less we tend to fear Satan hiding behind every bush. The more we can say we know how to hear God’s voice and discern his will, the less we are drawn to occult practices that promise us a peek behind the spiritual curtain–not because we are afraid to look, but because we are already getting all the best-quality spiritual guidance our hearts could want.
The Right Stuff
There is a story I once heard about St Jean Vianney that illustrates the attitude I’m talking about. Satan used to love taunting St. Jean. He would appear to him and call him names like “potato eater” (implying he was a poor, ignorant peasant) and causing general mayhem around him in an attempt to distract him from doing God’s work. One night, St Jean awoke to a loud clattering in his kitchen. He got out of bed to investigate the disturbance only to find Satan hurling the pots and pans around the room. What did the Saint do? Did he hide behind a cabinet? Did he re-enact a scene from The Exorcist (“The POWER OF CHRIST COMPELS YOU!!!!”)? No, on both counts. He said, “Oh. It’s you.” And he went back to bed.
That is EXACTLY the attitude we want to cultivate in ourselves and our children about the occult. Of course we recognize that there is real power and real danger in the demonic, but that power is so inferior to the power of God grace. The person who is truly aware of the overabundant power of God’s love in their lives and who knows how to truly hear God’s voice and know God’s will is just not all that interested in Satan and his silly pomps and works and pretenses. The person who has had a personal encounter with the power of God’s grace is really not all that impressed with Satan’s ability to spin a pencil on a piece of paper. It’s just not all that interesting.
Where To Start…
It is beyond the scope of this post to go into detail about how, exactly, to help your children cultivate a personally meaningful prayer life and learn the steps of discernment. Suffice it to say that children are much more capable of real spiritual depth than most parents give them credit for. We discuss these things in our chapter on children’s faith development in Parenting with Grace and we will go into much more detail in our forthcoming book for Sophia Institute Press, Discovering God Together: The Catholic Guide to Raising Faithful Kids (Coming Fall, 2015). In the meantime, you can go a long way to making this happen for your kids by cultivating rituals for meaningful family prayer and worship, carving out time for your children to have personal prayer time, making your prayer lives–and what God is communicating to you through your prayer lives–a regular part of your family conversations, and regularly discussing how you experience God speaking to you and providing guidance in your life.
The more we teach our children to run toward God with all their heart, mind, the less we’ll have to worry about whether or not they know how to run from sin and the glamour of evil.
For more tips on raising faithful kids, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids and for more ideas on helping children make good moral choices, pick up a copy of Beyond the Birds and the Bees: Raising Whole and Holy Kids.