Thoughts and Prayers

The declarations against magic are abundant in the Bible. Sure, there are very problematic aspects to this condemnation, which we will be discussing. To begin with, we can appreciate why this anti-magic stance within the Bible is problematic by envisioning a debate between a Christian and a Mage while an atheist watches. From the perspective of the atheist, it appears silly to condemn what is in fact intrinsic to any belief in a supernatural  reality. To the atheist, Christianity is just as magical and consequentially nonsensical as Voodoo, just with a different set of specific answers to its origin and rules.

Similarly, you have to demarcate the difference between a miracle on one hand, and magic on the other. We see that the witch of Endor summons Samuel’s shade and is condemned, whereas Elisha can curse children in the name of God, and apparently summon bears to maul them (the bears arrive in the next sentence after the curse, as if to suggest they were connected occurrences). The difference between the two isn’t easy to parse. To illustrate this fine line of difference, we have recourse to Moses and Aaron’s confrontation with the Egyptian magicians. The magicians could turn their staffs into serpents just as Aaron could. The story goes that Aaron’s serpent consumed the magicians’ serpents, but they are capable of performing similar feats – hence the difficulty in distinguishing between the two -, and if we were to say that Aaron’s  performance reflects his authority and allegiance to the true god – thus miracle as opposed to magic – there is no real reason not to suppose that, on the contrary, he was just a more powerful magician.

To the Egyptian, it would have perhaps meant precisely this; magic is the result of an intersection between the mundane sphere and the supermundance sphere, where the super-mundane, being pre-eminent and superior, exercises influence over the mundane.  The super mundane is populated by various denizens, with a hierarchy; be it different gods, or one god with angels and over against them one devil with a hierarchy of demons. To the Egyptian, this argument would not be different than the belief in magic; it is still the influence of power originating from a supernatural plane, which is magic par excellence.

Moreover, the difference between a miracle and magic, if it be its source that determines it – miracles are from God and good, magic is from the devil and evil – corresponds in form and relations to the popularly known distinction between white magic and black magic. At this point, we reach an appropriate axiom of magic, that words and thoughts have some kind of influence. This is reflected in the expression ‘say the magic word’, ‘abracadabra’ etc., and it is worth pointing out that in the Hebrew creation scheme, the world was uttered into being, making the distinction between magic and miracle again difficult.

Of course, people can get defensive and immediately turn off consideration when they are being told that their own belief system is magic, since it carries this pejorative connotation. Even though it is obvious that magic is just as intrinsic to the Abrahamaic faith as any other, and it would be wise to admit this and move on, many would rather quibble, equivocate, and come up with excuses than concede, as if something vital was at stake. And so they will call ‘magic’ and ‘sorcery’ evil – which in some sense it may be, just as black magic is evil – and distinguish the supernatural phenomena of God as ‘miracle’ instead. But this is just magic all over again, in this case the manipulation of words to impose one’s own belief and affect the perception of others.

The reality is that the skeleton argument of ‘miracle’ over ‘sorcery’ or ‘magic’ is just the same as saying there is good and bad magic; what constitutes the difference is one of logical relations and structure, and it is this that gives the words their meaning. Substitution to win an argument is quite superficial. And so we see why our words affect very little, in that they rarely have anything of substance underneath them. Sure, we can agree with Carl Sagan that literature has allowed ourselves to transcend the limits of time to some extent, and is some kind of magic; and we acknowledge that the ability to influence the minds of others as no small thing. But the physical efficacy of thoughts and words is another matter.

Or is it? Everyone is familiar with the phrase ‘thoughts and prayers’, even ‘sending thoughts and prayers’. The efficacy of thoughts and prayers has been called into question in the wake of its alleged inadequacy as a response to catastrophe, and depending on who you ask, your mileage may vary. What is true, however, is that this very common exercise practiced by millions of people who condemn magic is nothing less than a species of magic; in this case, the belief that the individual soul can influence its environment supernaturally! Anyone who has any self-honesty would admit this, but again, magic is a pejorative and carries a negative connotation, and so the stark truth cannot be honestly admitted. Just as a lazy person will go to great lengths to cheat on a test rather than study, many people who believe in magic – whether they call it that or not – practice it regularly and would go to inconceivable lengths to deny it.

Since the soul belongs to the super-mundane sphere, even as it tarries through the mundane world, its specific activity and exercise is native to its origin, i.e. the super-mundane. This brings up the question of how the soul exercises influence and control over the body. It may in fact be the very same alleged influence and power it is capable of exercising over things beyond the body; it is as if the soul is a wireless remote-control that enables it to interface itself with a wireless receiver connecting it to the body. But then, how would the soul be able to communicate itself to things beyond the body?

Out-of-body experiences, while uncommon, are not usually given consideration in connection to this. We read that Paul knew someone who was caught up to the third heaven, and is unsure whether or not this was in the body or out of the body. This means that it is possible it was out of the body. Then we see in Plato’s Phaedo that philosophy is nothing less than the separation of the soul from the body, as is effected in death, and Porphyry remarks upon this passage a two-fold sense of death; one in which the body separates from the soul and is the common death, and the other peculiar to philosophers where the soul separates from the body, then he stipulates that one does not entirely follow the other. The Alchemists may have been aware of this, at least Sendivogius states the following in his New Light of Alchemy:

“If you will but rightly consider it, you yourself are an image of God, and a little picture of the great world…In the microcosm of man’s nature the soul is the deputy or Viceroy of the Creator. It governs the mind, and the mind governs the body: the mind is conscious of all that is conceived in the soul, and all the members understand the mind, obey it, and wait eagerly to carry out its behests. The body knows nothing of itself; all its motions and desires are caused by the mind; it is to the mind what the tool is to the craftsman. But though the rational soul operates in the body, a more important part of its activity is exerted on things outside the body: it rules absolutely outside the body, and therein differs from the vital spirits of brute beasts.”

This may be taken to mean it activity – the soul – is chiefly concerned with using the body to exercise itself on things outside the body. But we read just a little further on:

“In the same way, the Creator of the world partly acts in and through things belonging to this world, and is thereby, in a sense, included in this world. But He absolutely transcends this world by that infinite part of His activity which lies beyond the bounds of the universe, and which is too high and glorious for the body of the world…The great difference between the soul’s extracorporal, and God’s extramundane, activity, is that man’s rational activity is purely imaginative and mental, whereas God’s thoughts are immediately translated into real existences. I might be mentally in the streets of Rome, but my journey would be purely imaginative; God’s conceptions are at once objective essences. God, then, is included in the world, only as the soul is enclosed in the body, while it has power to do things which far transcend the capacity of the body.”

We see a limit on the mind’s extra-corporal activity in comparison to God’s in Sendivogius’ scheme. But he is certainly in the realm of common magical thinking; namely, the correspondence between macrocosm – the larger world – and the microcosm – the little world, usually the human person. These correspondences are evinced in the following:

“If you will but rightly consider it, you yourself are an image of God, and a little picture of the great worldFor a firmament you have the quintessence of the four elements attracted to the formative womb out of the chaos of seed, and bounded by your skin; your blood is fire in which lives your soul, the king of your little universe, acting through the medium of the vital spirit; your heart is the earth, where the Central Fire is always at work; our mouth is your Arctic, and your stomach your Antarctic Pole, and all your members correspond to some part of the greater world…”

Such correspondences and analogies between the world and the person allow for the influence of events by way of them. This is done through an exercise of ritual. Not only are such analogies between the cosmos and the human person prevalent in the Upanishads, the translator Patrick Olivelle makes the following remarks:

” …the Upanisads seek to explain the hidden meanings and connections of ritual actions and words. Their authors were masters of the ritual and assumed a similar knowledge in their listener…the vedic ritual had developed into a highly complex and very expensive set of sacrifices requiring the services of an array of ritual specialists. Rites achieve their results by their own autonomous power and according to a ritual law of cause and effect… 

 

In the preceding survey we noted three areas of concern for the vedic thinkers: the ritual, the cosmic realities, and the human body/person. The central concern of all vedic thinkers, including the authors of the Upanisads, is to discover the connections that bind elements of these three spheres to each other. The assumption then is that the universe constitutes a web of relations, that things that appear to stand alone and apart are, in fact, connected to other things. A further assumption is that these real cosmic connections are usually hidden from the view of ordinary people; discovering them constitutes knowledge, knowledge that is secret and is contained in the Upanisads. 

While in the earlier vedic texts the focus is on the connections between the ritual and cosmic spheres, the concern of the Upanisadic thinkers shifts to the human person; the connections sought after are between parts of the human organism and cosmic realities. the Upanisadic connections are hierarchically arranged, and the quest is to discover the reality that stands at the summit of this hierarchically inter- connected universe.”

Far from modern thinking as this may be, it is worth noting the ritual basis of behavior in daily life. Ritual orients our daily lives, even as we deny their supernatural efficacy. Then, one is left to speculate on the purported effect of rites such as the Lord’s Supper,  the ritual motions during mass, or the difference between water before and after it is blessed. All of a sudden, one looks at the garbs of the Pope or a Cardinal and begins to see just how magical it really is. Even an atheist reconsiders wearing a jacket when they are informed it belonged to a notorious serial killer, and even might cross their fingers when something crucial is at stake.

I am not here to tell you I have the answers, or that I am suggesting correct lines-of-thinking. I am not here to ridicule your beliefs one way or the other; only soberly consider them. I realize that I have opened doors without fully examining their contents before going on to the the next room, and that I am often standing at the threshold of two spaces at once, and not definitely committed to one or the other. But that is how I understand magic, its secret lies in the in-between, the grey-maybe of possibility.

I do not profess to have a sophisticated reason why I am interested in these things; to me, it is as natural as breathing, and comes with less effort than tending to my daily inconveniences. I am only interested in systematizing the thought-processes involved in magical systems and seeing what they entail. Sir William Crookes is the best example of my intention, which is to seriously analyze the phenomena, and then to proceed forward with possible applications and experimentations of the pattern that emerges. Magical thinking is conceivably intrinsic to our attitude to the world around us, and is reflected in various ways; ‘jinxing’, crossing your fingers, and prayer.

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