Thursday, August 11, 2011

Are the sacraments magic?

One of the things that always irritated me was theologians who repeat the saying that, "the sacraments are not magic." They especially apply this to the Eucharist, emphasizing that the Consecration is not just a magic spell spoken by a magician to turn on substance into another with magical "powers," a talisman. The point seems to be that the presence of the Body and Blood of Christ is not physical (accessible to the empirical sciences), but sacramental. The effect on the average believer, however, whose intellect is formed by a rationalist/materialist educational system (even at Catholic schools) is that one should put the word "real" in "real presence" in quotation marks, since in our culture the empirical is the only really real thing.

When Pope Paul VI spoke in Mysterium Fidei of the "physical" presence of Christ in the Eucharist, theologians went wild. Of course, he wasn't referring to an empirical "physical" presence, but rather physis, or nature. The fact is, the Consecration is a transformation of one (created) substance into another (divine, hypostatically united created and uncreated) substance. And it is accomplished by the utterance of an authorized representative of God (and the action of the Holy Spirit, in other words, God himself).

Still, the apparent watering-down of the "real" in real presence has not been my only objection to this statement. It was also my belief that it is really not wrong to say that the Eucharist is "magic" in the sense that it is an occurrence that is mysterious and supernatural that transcends the empirical and even the limits of created humanity, so that no theory of "symbol," no matter how accurate, can adequately explain the real presence. The Eucharist is magic in the sense that it is a numinous event; it is an exercise of divine power in our midst (the divine power is the power of love and of the cross, not of magic rings).

What helps me clarify this meaning of the word "magic" is a recent essay by John C. Wright mentioned on Mark Shea's blog. In distinguishing magic from occult in fantasy literature, Wright writes:
What is magic? We all have moments in our lives, such as meeting our true love for the first time, or seeing a beauty-haunted sunrise, or witnessing a child’s first footstep, or hearing the laughter of a young girl, or remembering a mother pulling us into her lap with a book to hear a bedtime story, or seeing a butterfly take wing in delicate splendor like a living flower, when we know, and know in a way we cannot name, that life is magical.
The springtime in the sun, the winter whiteness in the moon, everything which is not merely quotidian or dull or mundane holds a reflected glint of the silver starlight escaped of worlds beyond our own, an echo of the horns of elfland dimly blowing.
That is what the word ‘magic’ means. The real magic in real life is, at its root, a religious or mystical insight which tells us this grim world of entropy, decay, disappointment, treason, cowardice and death cannot be the whole story, the whole world there is: there is some unseen profound beneath the seen and shallow surface.
I highlighted the most important point.

This is not a power of man over the elements, but the loving, providential, supernatural power of God--the intentional immanence of the transcendent on our behalf. Magic in this sense is our memory of the mysteries which were so much more alive before the entzauberung (disenchantment) of modernity spoken of by Max Weber. That is why fantasy often relies on the medieval. We have been so conditioned by Descartes that we are like black and white t.v.s receiving blindingly color signals but unable to display them. Fortunately some writers are able to hot wire our sensitivity to "magic' in Wright's sense to help us remember that the phenomenal and the visible and the empirical is not all there is, nor is it even the most important, although it is important as a means for an incarnate being such as Man to gain access to the Invisible and, as Lewis the so-called Platonist insists, more real. Our longing for this more, this desire for the supernatural, is a constitutive part of our being--the longing Joy that Lewis mentions.

The Church insists that the invisible is more real, too, by the way. Here's a nice quote from Gaudium et Spes.
Now, man is not wrong when he regards himself as superior to bodily concerns, and as more than a speck of nature or a nameless constituent of the city of man. For by his interior qualities he outstrips the whole sum of mere things. He plunges into the depths of reality whenever he enters into his own heart; God, Who probes the heart,(7) awaits him there; there he discerns his proper destiny beneath the eyes of God. Thus, when he recognizes in himself a spiritual and immortal soul, he is not being mocked by a fantasy born only of physical or social influences, but is rather laying hold of the proper truth of the matter (GS 14)
Finally, here is what Pope Paul VI believed about the Eucharist, as expressed in his Credo of the People of God.
We believe that the Mass, celebrated by the priest representing the person of Christ by virtue of the power received through the Sacrament of Orders, and offered by him in the name of Christ and the members of His Mystical Body, is the sacrifice of Calvary rendered sacramentally present on our altars. We believe that as the bread and wine consecrated by the Lord at the Last Supper were changed into His body and His blood which were to be offered for us on the cross, likewise the bread and wine consecrated by the priest are changed into the body and blood of Christ enthroned gloriously in heaven, and we believe that the mysterious presence of the Lord, under what continues to appear to our senses as before, is a true, real and substantial presence.35

Christ cannot be thus present in this sacrament except by the change into His body of the reality itself of the bread and the change into His blood of the reality itself of the wine, leaving unchanged only the properties of the bread and wine which our senses perceive. This mysterious change is very appropriately called by the Church transubstantiation. Every theological explanation which seeks some understanding of this mystery must, in order to be in accord with Catholic faith, maintain that in the reality itself, independently of our mind, the bread and wine have ceased to exist after the Consecration, so that it is the adorable body and blood of the Lord Jesus that from then on are really before us under the sacramental species of bread and wine,36 as the Lord willed it, in order to give Himself to us as food and to associate us with the unity of His Mystical Body.37

The unique and indivisible existence of the Lord glorious in heaven is not multiplied, but is rendered present by the sacrament in the many places on earth where Mass is celebrated. And this existence remains present, after the sacrifice, in the Blessed Sacrament which is, in the tabernacle, the living heart of each of our churches. And it is our very sweet duty to honor and adore in the blessed Host which our eyes see, the Incarnate Word whom they cannot see, and who, without leaving heaven, is made present before us.
This is the belief of the Church, to which I whole-heartedly subscribe.

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