29 September 2009

How do you know me?

Feast of the Archangels: Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Holy Rosary Priory, Houston

Back in the Bad Old Days before I came into the Church, I had friends who dabbled in angel worship, or more specially, angelic magic. Using books they had purchased from Borders, these friends constructed elaborate angelic altars and performed rituals designed to summon and command God's heavenly messengers. As a nascent neo-pagan myself, I found their obsession with angels to be both intriguing and weird. Despite being intrigued and weirded out, I found the whole enterprise exhausting. Worshiping angels is hard work. You needed the right colors for specific angels; the right kind of incense, and candles made with the right ingredients. You had to worship certain angels only on certain days and only at certain times of the day. You had to translate your prayers and spells from plain old pedestrian English to the curly abstracted glyphs of the Angel Alphabet. And on and on. It was all so detailed and tedious. It didn't take me long to figure out that my friends—all living chaotic lives on the edges of unemployment and various substance addictions—weren't really interested in offering praise and thanksgiving to angels. They were grasping for control of their lives by attempting to control something much bigger and more powerful than themselves. The idea seemed to be: since I have no self-control, maybe if I figure out all these tedious rules and ritual requirements, maybe, just maybe, I can actually find some stability and peace in my life. What eluded them—and me!—at the time was that it was our failed attempts at control that had lead to our chaotic lives in the first place. For a soul made foolish in disobedience, there's not much to like about surrendering to God's grace.

We can easily imagine Nathanael's surprise when Jesus announces: “Here is a true child of Israel. There is no duplicity in him.” Why would Jesus say this to a man he had never met? Remember: Philip finds Nathanael in Bethesda and tells him about Christ. Nathanael is skeptical. Philip, being ever practical, encourages him, “Come and see.” When Jesus calls him “a true child of Israel,” Nathanael, probably a bit unnerved, asks, “How do you know me?” How indeed? We know the answer, of course, but Nathanael's confusion is perfectly understandable. Jesus answers him, “Before Philip called you, I saw you under the fig tree.” Nathanael came and he saw. And because he came to see, he believed: “Rabbi, you are the Son of God...”

For us, Nathanael exemplifies one form of surrender that control-freaks cannot quite manage: he believes the improbable on the evidence of his experience alone. He doesn't try to manage his encounter with Christ. He doesn't ask for a miracle or empirical evidence. He doesn't test Jesus' knowledge of prophecy or question him about his lineage. He came. He saw. He believed. Contrast this with Jesus' many confrontations with the Pharisees and scribes. Always clamoring for signs and wonders, these control-freaks needed proof, evidence to overwhelm their fear and doubt. They too came. They saw. But they did not believe. Saddled with the ancient weight of tedious laws and rituals, they could not surrender to the presence of Christ among them. They refused to allow the seed of the Word to be planted. And so, for them, nothing bloomed, nothing came to fruit. No fruit, no harvest. Their spiritual ground lay fallow.

My friends grasped at occult control of their lives because they could not come to Christ and see him as he is. That requires surrender. Surrender of sin to grace. For their politics, their relationships, their daily lives, the implications of surrendering to God were overwhelming. For them, it was easier to try and control angels than it was to give control to God. Perhaps we should let Christ ask us, “How do you know me?”


  1. oooooooooooo very very goood!!

    one of you best recent homilies methinks.

  2. Scott W.7:50 AM

    In my brief flirtation with the occult in my youth with things like Tarot and the Necronomicon, I recall it being similar to what you describe: excessively elaborate. As if the more elaborate something was, the truer it was. Now one might retort that Church doctrine is elaborate, but I don't think it is the same. It's more like the chess. It's relatively straight forward rule-wise, but 2000 years of chess has created many chess questions and problems, some silly, but plenty deserving of responses. (I think the chess reference is Chesterton, but I could be wrong.)

  3. Great insights, Father.

    I too dabbled in the occult early in high school. It's exactly what you say: trying to control something bigger and more powerful than yourself. You get a thrill from it. Which is why I firmly reject the idea that the pagan gods and goddesses don't exist. Perhaps not as the worshipper envisions, but there are real forces out there waiting for every opportunity to enter into your life and destroy souls.

    A commenter on your Wicca post yesterday said that the occult reinforces lust and pride. I couldn't put it better myself. When I was dabbling with it, it was at a time when I was very insecure with my sexuality and suffering from depression. Could there be anything worse for a young person like myself?

    If you know anybody, especially a young person, "experimenting" with the occult, please reach out to them and help them see the danger they are in. It may "just be a phase" or an act of rebellion against their parents, but it's very dangerous and they deserve to be warned. The only real freedom they can ever experience comes from Jesus Christ - the God of Love.

  4. Scott W.3:21 PM

    I'd be interested in how absolute the Wiccan Rede "Harm no others and do what you will" is. I ask because I tend to think (unoriginally) that New Age is progressivism with a thin veneer of mysticism painted over it. And progressivism is the Almighty Immediate Needs of the Genitalia with a thin veneer of political ideology painted over it. All of it essentially amounting to consequentialism. Meaning yeah, do no harm, but if push comes to shove...In other words, I have a hard time believing there are many deontological occultists out there.

  5. To a point that Scott W made:

    As a former Wiccan myself, I think something that Wiccans often forget with the Rede is that "An it harm none, do what thou wilt" also includes themselves. So in other words, they don't take into account that "Do what thou wilt" might just be self-destructive, and therefore harmful. So it doesn't make sense. The statement doesn't stand up to true scrutiny.

    Anyway, Valiente, who coined the Wiccan Rede in 1964 (paraphrasing Gardner), was merely taking a statement from Aleister Crowley "Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law." Crowley wasn't Wiccan, he was into ceremonial magick and all kinds of stuff, although not a formal Satanist as far as I know. Given the life he led, he might as well have been.

    Father, excellent homily. I think you really hit on what drives people towards the occult. Learning to give up control to God is a hard lesson, but the rewards are great.

  6. Maria, Scott:

    The Rede (or Reede, or Reed, ad nau) didn't stop every single Wiccans I knew from being pro-abortion. Not one. There may be pro-life Wiccans out there...I dunno.