Magical Sacraments in Elfland

Aug 16th, 2009 | By | Category: Blog Posts

Someone recently remarked that sacramentalism was a medieval corruption of authentic Christianity. Perhaps the early Christians were cold rationalists, unswayed by superstitious notions that God had created a magical world. God’s world acted strictly according to scientific laws He had put in place and to suggest otherwise amounted the high treason of believing in magic.

Along these lines, magic seems to be distinguished from miracle in this way: that if a mortal man is able, or thinks he is able, to invoke a higher power (even God’s) by a rite or incantation, then he is guilty of magic. It is dissimilar from prayer because prayer is a request and it might be rejected, but magic is a demand, a mechanical operation with certain effects. This cannot be admitted.

But what if God has promised to do x if we do y? That is exactly what the sacraments are. Is it magic? I don’t know. Peter Pan has to think happy thoughts in order to fly. Sure, fairy dust is involved but the flying doesn’t happen unless he thinks happy thoughts.   In fact, maybe fairy dust is just an “outward sign” of the “inward reality” of a happy thought.  I don’t think it sounds any more magical to say that a man can think happy thoughts and go to Neverland than to say that he can believe in Christ and go to heaven. It is no more superstitious to say that “baptism saves you”1 than it is to say that faith does.


The “enlightened” medieval peasant may mock the Catholic mass and its silly “hocus pocus” non sense. But the words he mocks aren’t the words of the Church; they are the words of Christ.2 And he will object saying that ‘it isn’t the words I object to, but the meaning falsely ascribed to them’. But in the end he only has the words themselves to use in his mockery. He objects not so much that we use the words, but that we have fallen into the trap of believing them.

Well I, for one, believe them, and I have to confess that I also believe in magic. Chesterton wrote a masterful chapter in his book “Orthodoxy” called “The Ethics of Elfland” which proves all this, in my mind, beyond any reasonable doubt. I also admit that, while I thought the premise was clever at my first exposure to it, as a Calvinist I didn’t like it. Now I think I know why. This whole fairyland business rubbed my skeptic fur the wrong way. Now I would never have called myself a skeptic, but I’ve come to understand skepticism by this simple definition: “the art of disbelieving in magic.”

It is, in fact, the skeptic, the rationalist, the materialist who is “soaked up and swept away” by mere associations. He is the true sentimentalist that thinks that there is some real connection between flying and laying eggs. Or that because God has always been observed to precede event B with event A, that there must be a necessary causal connection between them. We take it for granted that in space, large objects attract small objects when in fact, it makes just as much sense to think that they might repel them or that small objects would attract larger ones. The world, as it is, ought always remind us of the fact that it might easily have been otherwise.

Children are nature’s greatest proof of this. For a child of seven, Chesterton tells us, is excited by fairy tales. And a child of three is excited by tales. A seven year old is excited to hear that Tommy opened the door and saw a dragon, but a three year old is excited to hear that Tommy opened a door. In fairy tales, rivers run with wine only to remind us for one wild moment that they run with water. The rationalist, that is, the enlightened medieval peasant, thinks that trees produce fruit because God wound up the clock of the universe and set it in motion with autonomous natural laws that cannot be challenged. But the old Catholic mystic knows, as Chesterton does, that the tree produces fruit because it is a magic tree and that water flows downhill because it is bewitched.

We Catholics have believed in magic ever since Jesus walked on water, and maybe even before that. But we don’t believe that the walking was magic. On the contrary, the extraordinary thing was that on that momentous night, a Man was shown to be more powerful than the magic of nature itself. Nature’s spell had no authority over Him. If the sea had opened up and swallowed Him whole, that would have been magic. A miracle (sign) is that incomprehensible display of power when the Enchanter shows His authority over that which He had enchanted.

So when the Triune God steps into the world of men at the pinnacle of the sacred liturgy which He Himself instituted, and when the priest, by a sacramental formula, repeats the very words first spoken by the Master, “Hoc est enim corpus meum”, the ordinary spell which causes bread to continue being bread is broken, and some new and greater magic happens.

The rationalist lives in an cold, superstitious world that disbelieves in magic by calling it science. He thinks that if a spell is enduring, then it can’t be a spell at all. I am not frightened by the word “magic”, and charges of superstition coming from a sentimentalist “soaked up and swept away” by associations hold little weight.

Yes, I believe that God created a world every bit as magical and mysterious as our most bizarre fantasy. I don’t know of any stranger thing yet imagined by man than a chicken laying an egg. It is a boring rationalism that kills the natural wonder we are given at birth. The sad state of the skeptic is that he is living in a magical world and is so superstitious and caught up in materialism, that he has convinced himself that this magic is normal. I find it impossible to believe that the modern American dualist who thinks that the body is “only temporary” and that prayer is as naturally efficacious in a bar as in a Church is less superstitious than the Catholic who thinks that he has to touch the magical statue to get healed or that holy water is better than tap water for warding off demons.

Naturally, I don’t see any superstition at all in believing that the baptism for “forgiveness of sins”3 actually forgives sins. What I find superstitious is that mystical rite, common to many Presbyterians, always performed before any sacrament, explaining that there is no magic involved. I.e. that nothing is happening. That is mysticism. That is sentimentalism. That is superstition.

  1. 1 Peter 3:21 []
  2. ‘hoc est enim corpus meum’  is the origin of the phrase “hocus pocus” and is the Latin translation of Christ’s words in Matthew 26:26 []
  3. Mark 1:4 []
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  1. St. Matthew 13:58 “And he did not do many mighty works their, because of their unbelief.” Christ instituted ALL 7 sacraments, so if one does not believe what Christ taught us about the grace of those 7 sacraments, they could never understand sacramentalism. Sacramentalism is physical prayer.

    How do we distinguish sacramentalism from magic? Sacramentalism leads us to God and His graces while magic seeks selfish and earthly power. Sacramentalism is us doing His will; magic is us doing our will. Claiming that sacramentalism is magic is a way to draw the spiritually weak away from the Catholic Church. Seek God’s grace with all your heart, all your mind, all your soul, and all your BODY, and you will quickly see how superficial this comparison is.

  2. Slam Dunk.

    Who wants to live in world without magic.

    Yesterday while trying to fix the back door to our home I was caught thinking about the blood of the lamb on the doorposts of the Israelites and then again about how God comes to us in ways that are truly majestic.

    Think of the magic in the book of Exodus alone.

  3. CathAnon – what’s your source for the definition of magic? I don’t think our Protestant friends would accept it.

    Sean – exactly. If the rites of the Catholic Church set up are superstitious, much more so are the rites that God set up in the OT.

  4. One might add that the Protestant approach to the Sacred Scriptures tends to be quite “magical”…

    1. One who assents to Sola Scriptura may expect the Holy Spirit will give him or her a better interpretation of Scripture than all the Bishops, trained theologians, archaeologists, text/language experts, and Church Fathers combined. The reader, in a sense, is “channeling” the Holy Spirit in a way that protects him or her from error, endowing an infallibility that surpasses the infallibility claimed by the Pope.

    2. This is evident to me when persons boldly proclaim “this verse means X” or “that verse doesn’t mean Y” without the slightest reservation as to the possibility of being in error. If I remember correctly, the Magisterium has only done this about a dozen times in the past 2000 years, and it has always been a rather conservative negation in the form of “this verse doesn’t mean ridiculous thing Z”.

    3. This is especially evident to me when persons boldly rip a verse out of its context to give it a “spiritual” reading that couldn’t have possibly have been known to the human author of the text. (Usually to support Sola Scriptura, or some other Reformation slogan). I’ll let Jesus do that. I’ll let Paul do that. I’ll let the Magisterium do that. I’m extremely hesitant to let Joe Schismatic do that.

  5. >I’m extremely hesitant to let Joe Schismatic do that.

    How about Joe the Plumber?

  6. Wow, I really like this!

    Never thought about it like that be4…

  7. You were channeling G.K. Chesterton when you wrote this, Tim. Bravo!

  8. Amen to that!!!

  9. Channeling… that’s better than plagiarizing right?

    Renee, good to see you again.

    Jared – I highly recommend reading that book. It’s a classic.

  10. Thanks for the article, Tim. I’m also Tim, a Reformed Christian, seminary trained and licensed in the Bible Presbyterian Church. As a seminary student, I thought Chesterton was eye-opening and wonderful when I ran across him. I thought that particular chapter of Othrodoxy was one of the more impactful things I’d ever read. I can remember exactly where I was and what I was drinking when I read that chapter. I remember thinking that Chesterton and some smaller works by C.S. Lewis should be mandatory reading for Reformed seminaries. In any event, good post.

    I appreciate this statement specifically: “It is no more superstitious to say that “baptism saves you” than it is to say that faith does.” I argue something like that constantly. I also argue that, as a means of grace, the preaching of the Word is no less physical than is Baptism or the Supper and no less susceptable to superstition. I think many Protestants like “faith” in part because it’s intangible and nebulous, uncontrollable by human powers, and quite subjective. The reason historic Prots have held to faith is that the Bible teaches sola-fide justification so clearly. Historical Prot’ism oughn’t be confused with American Fundamentalism, which has reduced a great deal of the Reformers’ teaching into more manageable categories.

    In any event, I’ll be hanging around the blog. Seems very interesting. I’ve been looking for some erudite Roman Catholic conversation recently. I’m specifically interested in post-Tridentine theological writing critical of Reformed theology. Bellarmine is on the top of my list, but where to start with him, or even if he’s the best place to start. Any ideas?

  11. David C., your commented thusly:

    One who assents to Sola Scriptura may expect the Holy Spirit will give him or her a better interpretation of Scripture than all the Bishops, trained theologians, archaeologists, text/language experts, and Church Fathers combined. The reader, in a sense, is “channeling” the Holy Spirit in a way that protects him or her from error, endowing an infallibility that surpasses the infallibility claimed by the Pope.

    This comment has little, if anything, to do with sola scriptura. Further, it zeros in on a significant aberration of Protestantism, not a confessional position. In other words, I argue from a sola-scriptura basis against this don’t-need-no-one-but-the-Spirit-t’read-m’Bible error all day long. I tell people that God’s given his church pastors and teachers (Eph 4:11) because we need pastors and teachers! Every Christian needs to be pastor’d and learn’d. Each Christian needs the body – historical Protestantism has always held that. Individualistic American Christianity forgot that a long time ago to it’s great hurt.

  12. Glad to have you around Tim. I went to Christian school in a Bible Presbyterian Church when I was in elementary. I do not have much in the way of high level interaction of modern Catholic theologians with Reformed thought. Perhaps Bouyer would be a good start.

  13. This is a fantastic article that I just got around to reading. Very well done!

    In reviewing Chesterton’s “The Ethics of Elfland,” I was struck by what seems to be an unexpected appropriation of something like Hume’s causal skepticism:

    But we cannot say why an egg can turn into a chicken any more than we can say why a bear could turn into a fairy prince. As IDEAS, the egg and the chicken are further off from each other than the bear and the prince; for no egg in itself suggests a chicken, whereas some princes do suggest bears. Granted, then, that certain transformations do happen, it is essential that we should regard them in the philosophic manner of fairy tales, not in the unphilosophic manner of science and the “Laws of Nature.” When we are asked why eggs turn to birds or fruits fall in autumn, we must answer exactly as the fairy godmother would answer if Cinderella asked her why mice turned to horses or her clothes fell from her at twelve o’clock. We must answer that it is MAGIC. It is not a “law,” for we do not understand its general formula. It is not a necessity, for though we can count on it happening practically, we have no right to say that it must always happen. It is no argument for unalterable law (as Huxley fancied) that we count on the ordinary course of things. We do not count on it; we bet on it. We risk the remote possibility of a miracle as we do that of a poisoned pancake or a world-destroying comet. We leave it out of account, not because it is a miracle, and therefore an impossibility, but because it is a miracle, and therefore an exception.

    While I tend to agree with Chesterton’s ultimate conclusion, I probably wouldn’t invoke Hume’s skepticism as support. Instead, I would re-evaluate the relation between nature and miracles:

    Definition #1: “A miracle is a violation of natural laws performed to gain human attention and to show God’s power.”

    This common definition has a form of “addition-then-subtraction” — God positively creates natural order, then on rare occasions, negates or opposes that law to serve a purpose. This perspective rightly credits God with creation of the naturally expected order of things, but draws the observer’s focus away from the hum-drum natural order to the more colorful occasions of departure.

    Definition #2:

    [Athanasius’] approach to the Miracles is badly needed today, for it is the final answer to those who object to them as “arbitrary and meaningless violations of the laws of Nature.” They are here shown to be rather the re-telling in capital letters of the same message which Nature writes in her crabbed cursive hand; the very operations one would expect of Him who was so full of life that when He wished to die He had to “borrow death from others.” — C.S. Lewis, Introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation

    This second definition has a form of “addition-then-ADDITION,” of “creation-then-CREATION.” Like Definition #1, this perspective entails that the observer will pay special attention to the miracle. But, this view makes the observer acknowlege natural order, not as a set of laws opposed to the miracles, but as miracles themselves that he has neglected due to familiarity. The fact that Jesus walked on water is indeed a MIRACLE, but it is also a miracle that we normally swim in water, or that water exists at all, or that anything exists at all.

    Does Lewis’ approach to nature and miracles permit Chesterton’s ultimate view without borrowing from Hume?

  14. Mark Shea (somewhere – I think I read it on his blog, but might have been in a book) makes the interesting comment that the Sacraments almost seem like the opposite of magic:

    – in magic, spiritual means are used to achieve physical ends (you invoke demons, say, to kill the neighbour’s cow)

    – in the Sacraments, physical means are used to achieve spiritual – or Spiritual – ends (you use water to bring about the new birth in the Spirit).

    I just thought it was interesting!


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