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”.
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.
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.
To discover the answer to that question, go here.