Halloween has had its run. Best to let go. Yet ghouls and goblins — ghosts from the past? — may still haunt the memories of those spooked by ugly graphic images, whether invoked, imposed or imagined. But remember, if beauty, as is often said, is only skin deep, so also is ugliness as much in the eyes of the beholder.

History — and schoolyard experience — will take note how many beautiful innocents were socially shunned and mocked by those who found their mere appearance offensive, as the story of “The Elephant Man” chronicles. Many people, deformed congenitally, or by the ravages of age or disease, have been deemed sinister or even evil. Because of “scary” looks, a reclusive temperament, even an association with a black cat, some poor souls were burned at the stake. Even today, bodily health obsession still judges smokers or overweight people adversely, shaming them with the idolatry of youth or something close to immortality.

While physical unsightliness repels, a morbid fascination with the macabre remains a staple for the entertainment industry. Circus tents once featured sideshows of physically deformed persons, labeling them freaks and curiosities, inspiring in children and adults alike a queasy blend of amusement and revulsion. The odd attraction of the bizarre and shocking, whether it provokes gasps or guffaws, has also generated curiosity about a nexus between the ugly and the wicked, as novelists such as Stephen King and J.K. Rowling have explored. With that, the lure of the occult and magical seems on the rise.

Black magic is back. In reality, it is a flirtation with evil, whereby sinister powers can be exploited for numerous purposes if one just learns how to harness them. How strange in a world where science has long been seen as a successor or antidote to religion. We now see a new and nefarious cult, a return to belief in the magical, the mysterious power of unknown, untamed, unmeasurable supernatural forces that at least some elite or elect — witches, mediums and other putative clerics of the occult orders — are deemed able to divine and channel. In my view, this is a logical by-product of an already nationally well-established religion of secularism, a world without God or where God is irrelevant — or rather, a world where God is every “me.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) could not be clearer about occult beliefs and practices. Our faith is based on divine truths, not human inventions or rituals. Any “power” attributed to some force or spell, image or symbol, if it is not of God or from God, is an idol, ersatz, lacking any validity.

To wit, #2177 of the CCC teaches us: “All practices of magicor sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others — even if this were for the sake of restoring their health — are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.”

This paragraph is packed with information. What is clear is the central role intentionality plays as a determinant of the power of evil and the occult. Indeed, evil spirits and the Evil One himself do exist, but none can harm us unless we engage them, in effect, give them permission to have power over us. Symbols, be they artifacts, sculptures, formulae or other media, no matter who invents, invokes or uses them, do not become idols or powerful talismans unless they are worshipped or believed to hold any more power than those who devised the symbol or device. Anyone can read idolatrous intent into a cultural symbol or icon, especially when it appears “foreign” or otherwise different, therefore disturbing, from one’s own cultural or personal sensibilities. Deeming or fearing such does not make it so.

All icons or images, be they traditional, indigenous or religious, derive from the human imagination, both individual and shared (i.e., assented to collectively). It is possible that spiritual forces influence the thoughts of both inventors and users, as well as their beliefs about the nature of what those images signify, that do not represent the whole truth about humanity. So, for example, certain images that reveal preoccupations with fertility will often feature exaggerated body parts and stages of the reproductive process. Some will display nonhuman features, taken from the animals or even baser life forms.

Artists from Greco-Roman and even Christian-influenced civilizations have rendered various images such as fauns, gargoyles, cherubs and other mixed species, some of them even bedecking churches. Every such rendition of the human imagination does not become an idol, a golden calf, as it were, without the intent to make it such. To believe otherwise, in fact, may well be to succumb oneself to a fear or even superstition over some inherent magical power that is in the object itself. To put it candidly, the most hideous demonic depiction imaginable, frightening though its sheer ugliness might be, has no more innate authority over human affairs than a lowly slug — unless one imputes to it some unearned, delegated power and then fears it. In which case, it is not so much different from being scared by one’s own shadow.

Many people of faith, including Catholics, are curious about the history of pagan practices such as witchcraft, necromancy and fortune-telling. My best advice would be, unless your interest is truly literary or historical, don’t waste your time or money. Like the ubiquitous world of internet pornography, “objective” interest in its “study” easily becomes entrapment in its addicting clutches. The temptation and desire to possess “hidden powers” that somehow give one control over God and others is a human folly found in the early chapters of Genesis and often repeated.

On a very serious note, I must warn that while none of these practices hold any authority or power in themselves — all who engage them are human beings like the rest of us, albeit often very skilled and seductive — it is possible that through them, and even through mere innocent curiosity, malevolent and destructive supernatural influences can find a path into the naïve and unwitting soul. This is not the space for a full exposé on demonic possession and obsession, but the writings and experience of Father Gabriele Amorth SSP, who was for more than half a century exorcist for the Diocese of Rome, should be enough to give anyone pause.

Jesus himself cast out demons. Documentation of demonic possession and obsession exists that have been determined to be inexplicable by any known science. Playing around with a Ouija board or astral (out-of-body) projection — even yoga (Hindu spirituality), beyond the mere physical postures and breathing techniques — have been known to “open the door” toward  grave emotional and spiritual harm. Look before you leap.

The core fallacy of all occult and esoteric beliefs, practices and traditions is that they attribute the status of God to an object that is not God and, therefore, does not exist outside of the self. Every projection of “God” into a not-God is ultimately a form of self-worship, self-divinization. Perhaps that is why the pervasive religion of secular materialism that surrounds us and, in varying degrees, lives in our minds, “opens the door” toward such interests and practices that only a few decades ago would have been roundly laughed off as unscientific, superstitious or just plain silly.

By secular “religion” I mean mind-set, often a lifestyle, whose main focus is “me:” what I think, how I feel and what I believe in is life for me. Today, a radical individualism is increasingly taking hold, and which cannot really serve as a sound basis for civilization. The individual is far too fragile and vulnerable to face the world alone. Increasingly, experiencing this vulnerability in a godless world of disconnected relationships, oxygen is sought in the myth of collective identity. I am, therefore, the class or group or tribe with which I identify. My all-knowing ego is projected into the ideals and beliefs and values of that class. Whoever is not of that class is not entitled even to be heard. This is a source of great social tension. We see this on many campuses, but it also affects much public discourse: the fear of saying anything without the risk of offending someone else and being excluded from the community. This fear even affects those within the “club” who fear being cast out from the safe circle of the collective cocoon. This also renders many vulnerable to seek security in magical thinking, which is the root of occult beliefs and practices.

We see how this spirit-stifling, fear-induced, thought-censoring form of living, or partly living, can easily lead to various kinds of magical thinking, the mere critique of which would induce opprobrium and social ostracism. It is not surprising to witness the proliferation of various food, dress and religious cults associated with the particular class. At the same time, the spiritual emptiness within hungers to be filled with something other than itself, so seeking a source of power that is at once “other” but can still be controlled — and used to control others — “opens the door” to an occult world, a pseudo-reality which promises this.

“Letting go and letting God” frees the heart from the need to control, conform and submit to either the tyranny of one’s ego or its group projection into the repressive ritual of ideological group-think. The One and True God does not enslave but frees us. Not being God, we do not control others but neither do they control us through any earthly power. God, willing good for all his creatures and, most uniquely, humanity, the crown of all creation, places us as stewards over it all and endows us gifts of freedom, creativity and cooperation.

No, spells, curses, incantations and other ritual forms aimed at limiting our freedom, controlling our actions or even harming us have no power at all. We are free to enjoy, even admire, art forms and cultural symbols of others, treating them with interest and respect for their historical or aesthetical, social or religious significance to those who value them. We do not appropriate them as our own, however, for magical purposes.

Someone might say, but hasn’t the Church for centuries appropriated cultural symbols into its own rituals — the sacramental use of oils and incense, the exchange of wedding rings, even the Roman cross itself? None of these products or artifacts are objects of worship, even if another culture might sacralize them. None of them is given power if they are employed as tools or aids to serve the true worship of the Sacred. All of them serve one purpose: to give glory and praise to God!

May a symbol or ritual of pagan invention be co-opted into and used in a Christian religious rite? Yes, but care must be taken neither to sacralize nor deny its original intent and to make clear its newly intended meaning. Even the Christmas festival itself was relocated to its present season to counteract the materialistic pagan winter bacchanal of Januarius with a new God-centered meaning. Today “the holidays” are showing signs of a reversion to their pagan origins. Rudolph and Frosty the Snowman themselves have been depicted or parodied by some as anti-religious, even demonic. Again, it is the intended use of such fables that is determinative, not any intrinsic magical, talismanic quality. Astrologists have read magic into the stars, divining their own truths. So also did Magi follow one to the One Truth.

The reflections I have offered above are my own applications, based upon the clear teachings of our Faith. My purpose is at once to caution about attributing “special powers” to people, practices and things that are not divine or of divine origin. Do not believe them, fear them or indulge them. At the same time, that there exist personal Evil and evil spirits is also a tenet of our faith, not to be questioned or toyed with. For all its fascination to the curious mind, the occult should be avoided with a resolve as decisive as the command of Jesus to the Devil: “Begone Satan!”

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