an experiment in blogging as intellectual discipline and spiritual practice

Category: liturgy

prayer and magic: a preliminary distinction

i first stumbled into the problem of systematically differentiating prayer and magic on my last teaching trip to pakistan in the spring of 2013. i had some sense that this would be a valuable question to think through with the students, and some preliminary sense of an answer, but i had no idea it would provoke such an extensive conversation. and those conversations have been subsequently formative for my direction of study over the past two years.

i posed the question just so: “what is the difference between prayer and magic?” the students chimed in with fascinating anecdotes from their experience, not quite venturing to address the underlying theoretical question, but with the kind of interest that indicated to me i had struck an important nerve. the conversation went on three or four times as long as i anticipated, and i found ways to sneak the question into some of my other classes and conversations.

as a somewhat off-the-cuff hypothesis, i offered the following distinction —

Prayer is rooted in relationship, and has as its ultimate end growth in relationship with God. Magic attempts to manipulate the impersonal forces of the universe for the sake of advantaging its practitioner. Magic is accordingly forbidden in the Church because we believe that the universe is fundamentally relational — there are no impersonal forces, and in attempting to manipulate them, we easily fall pray to the evil spirits.

that works, anecdotally – i’m still reasonably satisfied with offering that as a practical solution to establish and maintain practical boundaries for ministry; particularly given how i was able to apply that distinction as a principle to practical cases. although the definition seems rather clear cut, there is significant room for ambiguous practices – for instance, if it becomes a fad to pray a particular pslam every day, and going around with it are promises of some kind of personal benefit. that can go either way given this preliminary distinction: if the intention is relational, it is fine; if it is an automatic assurance, it places the one who gives the prayer as the primary cause of any spiritual blessing, rather than the one to whom prayer is due — and this is problematic.

still, there are a number of problems with this preliminary definition which we can point out without even getting into the astute questions posed in the last couple of decades by scholars of late antiquity who have been wrestling with this issue of giving a technical definition to “magic.” [1]

  1. there are several Reformation issues simply not addressed by this paradigm. without completely vitiating it, an ex operate operato view of the sacraments would seem to be excluded, yet the intercession of angels and saints would not. additional clarity is needed here.
  2. rendered in this way, it is difficult to avoid the claim that “science” is actually a form of magic. there is some historical truth to this, and some aspects of “scientific” thought or “sciencism” can verge on the magical, but on the whole, a more neutral relationship with natural contemplation of the created order needs to be clarified.
  3. by this definition, much (if not most) “magic” could actually be understood as “prayer,” since a lot of magic relies upon the intermediary aid of angels, demons, spirits etc, and the rituals are not usually focused around their manipulation so much as the supplication of these beings. a relationship is in fact established and enacted in many magical practices.

we can add to this list the realization that words like “magic,” along with “superstition” and “syncretism” are often used to “lump and dump” particular tendencies and practices without giving them careful thought and a fair hearing. (no one would call their own practices “superstitious” or “syncretistic;” magic is at least partially emic, but it is usually appropriated (so far as i can tell from its modern practitioners) in a spirit of contrariness and rebellion.)

there is so much weight attached to these terms that if the label can be successfully applied, the conversation is over before it began. “magical” practices are simply beyond the pale for believing, practicing christians; so if i can convince you it’s magic (or superstitious, or syncretistic), i don’t need to spell out anything else. if you dabble in it, you are distancing yourself from the Church; and if you want to remain in the good graces of the Faith, steer clear. while we need those kinds of boundaries for the Church, and they can be quite pastorally useful, there is more to mine for scholarship – and deeper truths about the nature of the unseen to be discovered, particularly respecting the possibilities of knowing and relating with created spiritual beings naturally, without any theological framework. for such a task, greater precision and clarity is needed — as well as caution, for those who in the midst of this maintain the obedience of faith and the responsibility for its transmission.

1. there’s a good rundown of the scholarship i’ve been working with in David Aune’s article “‘Magic’ in Early Christianity and Its Ancient Mediterranean Context : A Survey of Some Recent Scholarship.” Annali Di Storia Dell’ Esegesi 24, no. 2 (2007): 229–94.

adapting collects

one of the core liturgical principles in the Anglican tradition has been the economy of language.  there has been an attempt in the liturgical language, and indeed, in the larger liturgical ethos, to strip things down to their bear bones, to distill every liturgical action to its most basic possible expression.

this is obviously a problem in any kind of liturgical interface between eastern and western traditions.  thus far, in adapting eastern liturgical material for western use, i have tended to proceed by drastically abridging the prayers; reducing numbers of repetitions, removing excess clauses — i have tried to maintain the poetry and the theological ethos, but condense the form.

and yet, the same kind of adaptation process could happen in reverse: expanding and elaborating the sparse Anglican prayers to be more flowery, more image driven, more concerned with broader poetic form.  this would be another kind of adaptation.

i think we have moved past the age of enlightenment reductionism that bawlks at repetition and linguistic excess on principle.  at least, i can testify to that shift in myself, noting that that kind of repetition is part of what makes the eastern liturgies so poignant.

let’s try it out, shall we?  here is this week’s collect:

Grant to us, Lord, we beseech thee, the spirit to think and do always such things as are right, that we, who cannot exist without thee, may by thee be enabled to live according to thy will; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

a terse 58 words, and almost a third of them are devoted to the doxology, leaving 37 to express the core idea of the prayer, which is a plea for a spirit of thought and action that enables us to live in accordance with God’s will insomuch as we have already been created in accordance with his desires.

for an expanded version, we might pray something like:

O Lord our God, who by thy power didst forge the immovable heavens, by thy goodness didst found and establish the earth, and by thine ineffible condescension didst save us as a peculiar people for thine own possession: pour out upon us as thy people, we beseech thee, a second share share of thy Spirit; grant us, though we already owe thee all things, that extra measure of thy grace, that we may be directed by thee who directest all things, and that by thy direction we may think and do all things that are right, all things that are good, all things that are in accordance with thy will, O Master, and enable us always to give glory to thee, O God, who art always and everywhere worthy of praise, O Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and ever and unto the ages of ages, Amen.

communicating the same core idea and clocking in at a more leisurely 147 words.

somewhat interesting as a devotional exercise … not sure that it would be edifying for circumstances of public worship.  certainly the easiest thing to do for adaptation is to simply use propers as they are in a way that accords with their original purpose.  adaptation takes a lot of work.

prayer and presence

they’ve had to call on the reserve of the reserve to run services in the chapel of St. Silvinus this week; with the “A” team off for the summer, and the “B” team out for the week, it’s been us “C” team benchwarmers up to the liturgical plate.  which has meant, for me, spending a lot of extra time this week out in chapel — and by “a lot” i also mean “as little as possible,” but one can only be so efficient in doing all the little tasks that need to be done.

yet i’ve observed some things accidentally in this time as well.  profoundly, just a slight change in my attitudes, my preparations before prayer can yield huge dividends in terms of my presence in prayer and the perceived effectiveness of prayer.

this is immensely humbling.  as a person who, with a modest liturgical formation, suddenly feels qualified to issue citations for liturgical faux pas to every clergyman i come across.  if i myself am so variable in my devotion, why should i expect absolute consistency from anyone else?  far better for me to redouble my own commitment to prayer, and guide myself into a more pious and appropriate practice, than worry about umpteen external circumstances that are far beyond my control.



so i’m finally sitting down to work my way through Wainwright’s Doxology.  having spent a good amount of time slogging through David Fagerberg’s seminal What is Liturgical Theology? i feel as though i have already read it.  thanks to Fagerberg’s learned tutelage, i have certainly been acquainted with the broad outlines of his thought and the shape of his conclusions.

but of course, it changes things to have a personal relationship with the tome.  Wainwright gives a good many theological interpretations to liturgical practices which of course cannot be communicated in a broad sweep of his thought.  and even though what he ultimately engages in is theology of worship, rather than  liturgical theology, his insights are nevertheless valuable.

there are many aspects of the book, however, that are needlessly dense and needlessly dated.  it’s like owning a very nice house that still has hideous shag carpeting from the 1970s.  it is soundly built, and overall, there’s a lot of potential, but the throwback details are a little embarrassing.  i will need put in a little elbow grease before i feel like i can have anyone over for tea.

the sacrament of touch

Bulgakov provocatively describes “apostolic succession” as including a kind of “lay ordination,” viz., wherein sacramental grace was imparted to people outside of any kind of identifiable hierarchical structure for the purpose of their serving as a part of Christ’s priesthood and extension of his ministry through the Church.

this is a fascinating concept, and i think one that could be developed expansively and systematically as a “sacrament(ology) of touch.”  this would entail looking at how ministers of various types and orders touch people and what those touches communicate, as well as how ministers teach Christians to touch one another as extensions of their ministries of touch, ultimately rooted, of course, in the touch of Christ as the source of all sacraments and sacramentality.

this would be a fascinating lens through which to analyze both Christian sacramentality, and one with profound Scriptural precedent.  and i think one that would be quite powerful and compelling in an age when a strong theology of the body / theology of creatureliness is so desperately needed.

John Mason Neale

praise God for the luminous witness of our father among the saints, John Mason Neale, whom we commemorate this day on the Anglican calender.

Neale led the poetic arm of the Oxford Movement: a prolific hymnographer and translator, he made the piety of the ancient church accessible to the contemporary english-speaking world, translating hundreds of ancient hymns, many of which are still in use today.  his scholarly acumen did not end there: he was also a leading contributor to the rising Anglican awareness of the eastern Church, penning several studies on Orthodoxy and serving as a leader in the Anglican and Eastern Churches association.

yet Neale’s contribution to the life of the Church was not constrained to his scholarly contributions.  he founded and supervised religious order for women, the Society of St. Margret, and consequent to his commitment to the anglo-Catholic vision, he suffered as a confessor of the Faith, being persecuted during the swell of anti-Catholic  sentiment that followed John Henry Newman’s move to the Roman Church.

perhaps no higher honor could be given this saint than to implore and to praise our God in words that he gave us.

O Unity of threefold light,
Send out Thy loveliest ray,
Add scatter our transgressions’ night,
And turn it into day;
Make us those temples pure and fair
Thy glory loveth well,
The spotless tabernacles, where
Thou may’st vouchsafe to dwell.

The glorious hosts of peerless might,
That ever see Thy face,
Thou mak’st the mirrors of Thy light,
The vessels of Thy grace.
Thou, when their wondrous strains they weave,
Hast pleasure in the lay:
Deign thus our praises to receive,
Albeit from lips of clay.

And yet Thyself they cannot know,
Nor pierce the veil of light
That hides Thee from the thrones below,
As in profoundest night.
How then can mortal accents frame
Due tribute to their King?
Thou, only, while we praise Thy Name,
Forgive us as we sing.

i have had for some time a special affinity to John Mason Neale, and i am glad by this small tribute to make some small commemoration of his enriching and God-honoring life and witness.  moreover, to his patronage, i entrust the whole of this most humble and inadequate project, to which, i suspect, his sympathies would have been much aligned.

Blessed John Mason Neale, pray for us.

foundational quotations on worship

Worship is a royal waste of time, but indeed it is royal, for it immerses us in the regal splendor of the King of the cosmos.  The churches’ worship provides opportunites for us to enjoy God’s presence in corporate ways that take us out of time and into the eternal purpose of God’s kingdom.  As a result, we shall be changed — but not because of anything we do.  God, on whom we are centered and to whom we submit, will transform us by his Revelation of himself.

To understand worship as a royal waste of time is good for us because that frees us to enter into the poverty of Christ.  WE worship a triune God who chose to rescue the world he created by means of the way of humility.  God sent his son into the world to empty himself in the obedience of a slave, humbling himself to suffer throughout his entire life and to die the worst of deaths on our behalf.  He did not come to be solving the world’s problems in any sense that the world could understand.  Worship of such a God immerses us in such a way of life, empowered by a Spirit who does not equip us with means of power or control, accomplishment or success, but with the ability and humility to waste time in love of the neighbor.

— Marva Dawn, A Royal Waste of Time

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.

— Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk



impartation v. communication

Christian evangelistic and apologetic methods often seem to operate as though the key difficulty in religious conversion is changing an opinion. 

i have changed a lot of opinions in my lifetime.  i am person who has had the opportunity to spend a lot of time in reading and reflection, i have had ample opportunity to converse with interesting people from a wide variety of perspectives and backgrounds, i have been around the world in travels and traveled through time in reading.  in the course of those journeys, i have grown much and changed many opinions. 

as a Christian, meanwhile, i have a certain inward intuition about the nature and structure of conversion, of being rapt into God, of being committed and rooted in holy faith and fear.  and the two are not by any means alike.

opinions proceed by logical process and argumentation.  it is the accumulation of data; the evolution ideas to serve as framework for all we encounter as real and all we value as good.

conversion, meanwhile, is a naked response to the manifest power of God.  it is Abraham, receiving three angelic guests, Moses, turning aside to see the wonder of a bush burning but not consumed; Isaiah, crying out before the seraphic vision.   it is Peter, falling down at the feet of the Lord; Paul, being thrown from his horse, John, falling down before the angel.

the two are not entirely unrelated, certainly—i have a number of opinions that help me understand my conversion and its implications—but they are not identical.  and never by means of opinions, and techniques of manipulating opinions, can a man be brought to conversion.

what we don’t get here is the difference between impartation and communication.  faith is imparted as the transforming ray of new life; mysteriously and in abundance.  it seems, for some reason, that we are invited to be a part of that impartation – there is a certain amount of obedience for us here – but we are never the cause or the source of that new life.  in the same way, God remains the source of life even though there is an obvious biological contribution on the part of father and mother.

communication, on the other hand, is something much more observable and understandable.  it happens through those opinion mechanisms.  to extend the biological analogy, communication is like eating.  it sustains body and soul, but it does not by itself impart life.

so, once we have received that new life by impartation, we maintain and expand it by communicating with its source. this distinction lies behind the sacramental difference between baptism and eucharist.  and this is why the Church restricts communion to baptized Christians.

modern churches have a problem of attempting to communicate with contemporary culture, rather than recognizing that what is needed is the miracle of imparted grace.  it is scary to realize how little we can contribute to that latter task, and so recourse to the former is only necessary.  but until we turn and pray and weep and seek God and his assistance, we will get nowhere in our such vain attempts.

eucharist and symposium

evidently, the new orthodoxy in liturgical scholarship is that the eucharist had its origin, not so much in a Jewish source, but in the greco-roman tradition of the symposium; a kind of ancient, philosophical “supper club.”  indeed, the new scholarship suggests that both Jewish table liturgies and their Christian counterparts need to be understood alongside this cultural background.  so Pastor Senn tells us, and such is the view of Johnson and Bradshaw in their new work on eucharistic liturgies.  

this is not a new idea, but new research and new conversation has moved it to the ascendancy.  indeed, contemporary accounts that start from the symposia make this point of view seem totally self-evident.  one wonders if it wasn’t the post-war sympathy for Judaism that kept the more Judiasing interpretation of the eucharist in ascendancy for so long.

not that my opinion matters, but i have mixed feeling about this thesis.  symposium-oriented scholarship in historical approach to the eucharist seems to me that it will correspond to a immenant emphasis in present practice, whereas my liturgical intution emphasizes the transcendant and the ritual.  of course, emphasizing the Jewish precedent hasn’t done much to slow down the liturgical terrorism of the past half-century.

perhaps the corrective would be historical research on the impact of temple worship, the book of revelation, the rise of mystagogy … these dimensions of the formation of the eucharist must not be ignored or sidelined in the face of this .  and perhaps this is not the case.  i will have to spend more time with Johnson and Bradshaw.

of course, another dimension to this question is maintaining the balance between sacramental theology and liturgical history.  absent that balance (viz., an overemphasis on the historical) liturgical scholarship becomes just downright boring — a lot of conjecture and beancounting.  but the historical is intersting to everyone, regardless of their sacramental theology, so there is a risk in departing from that conversation.  but it is a fruitful risk.  i think Dix has demonstrated this, and thank God for Schmemman’s contribution.  in terms of contemporary contributions, i don’t think anyone maintains this balance better than Fr. Taft.  perhaps his position as an eastern catholic helps him to get in the mind of a lot of traditions simultanously.