Saturday, March 13, 2010

Where is the Borderline...

of superstition?

I have a good friend, a dear woman, now a nun, who once buried an icon of St. Andrew on some property she hoped her parish could acquire. She had heard that St. Andrew was a good one to help in matters of real estate. (In all fairness, that was before her parish was canonical, before she was canonically chrismated.) And now I find a Catholic website on which three people, so far, have said that when no one is looking, they hide miraculous medals or holy cards or sprinkle "Blessed Salt" in people's homes and places of work.

It just makes me wonder, and I do not know the answer: are such acts superstitious? What is superstition, and how do we identify beliefs and practices that are superstitious?


Chris Jones said...

I looked up the word "superstition" on and one of the comments there said "An ambiguous word, it probably cannot be used except subjectively." I think that is right: one man's religion is another man's superstition.

Nevertheless, I think we can evaluate whether something is superstitious from a Christian perspective. Healthy piety is that which is consistent with the Church's teaching and is based on her authentic liturgical tradition. In that context, we venerate the saints and we venerate their icons because they manifest the grace and mercy of God and point us to Jesus Christ. As the fathers at Nicaea II said, the honour paid to the prototype passes to the antitype; and the antitype of the saints, ultimately, is Jesus Christ, because they are fully conformed to His image.

The sort of acts you are speaking of are not acts of veneration. They are attempts to use the holy objects as a means to manipulate events. What is at the heart of these practices is the desired outcome, rather than the honour of the saints and the glory of Jesus Christ. So in my opinion they are indeed superstitious.

elizabeth said...

This (what is superstition/what is tradition) can be a hard call; I think it will depend on the person, where they are from and what they see as important ... myself I tend to respect these things unless it is clearly wrong (i.e. there are some things you do not mess with at all, like Holy Communion)... but I do respect many of the small t traditions that come from local areas of Orthodoxy; like putting a table of candles lit during Lent for the departed with jars of honey on them (symbolizing the sweetness of the Kingdom) or the family pouring wine on the grave of their loved one when the priest comes to bless the grave... many of these traditions are intrinsic to the Orthodox Christian culture... they seem strange to North Americans because, frankly, there is not a lot of Christian culture left so it looks utterly foreign to them... I appreciate why Mothers put icon cards in their young children’s backpacks; I myself love St. George very much and have a small icon card in the purses that I use most often… in my wallets, etc. The cross is often put with the words ‘save and protect’ and this is for a reason! To wear a cross is much more than just a symbol, just as crossing one’s self is a real act of prayer and blessing on one’s self and protects…

Now should others put things in other people’s homes – this really seems to be part of the issue of what you are asking about. This I am not so sure of; I personally have been counselled to not give icons to unbelievers who would not understand them or respect them… (and I follow this instruction and do not give icons in this manner). Yet I have heard stories of people who are given an icon and in time become Orthodox and find that the Saint in the icon has been there for them all along…

One of the things I greatly appreciate about Orthodoxy is that we are instructed to never push another person in anyway, including converting to Orthodoxy! Yet if I am holding one of my protestant friend’s child who has a Saints name (i.e. Peter or John etc) I certainly pray for to this Saint while holding the child! We are always called to bless but never to invade.

Anam Cara said...

Very good question and one I wonder about. And I think Chris Jones has given an excellent answer. I wish I'd thought of it.

There is an act of manipulation that I know of prevalent in this area, even among non-Christians. It is said that if you bury a statue of St. Joseph in your yard, your house will sell. And I have had friends who tried this and got a contract within hours for a house that was in the market in the "wrong season," wasn't a better buy than other houses in the neighborhood, etc. I work in a Christian bookstore and have lots of people coming in asking for St. Joseph statues. (We don't sell them.) Coincidence? Superstition? Demonic forces at work?

On the other hand, I have talked with Orthodox from Russia and they seem to view the world in a much more spiritual way than we Americans do. Things that made me wary and think, "delusion!" or "superstition!" are so natural to them. Which of us lives in the REAL world?

Thank you, Anastasia, for putting for putting forth the question. And thank you, Chris Jones, for good guidelines to follow when trying to discern!

margaret said...

I think it was Fr Seraphim Rose who, while still a layman but under the spiritual direction of St John (Maximovitch) hung an icon above the door of his bookstore so that everyone who walked in received a blessing.

I personally believe that only an icon (or to a lesser extent something else blessed by an Orthodox priest) has any spiritual presence (to use a term loosely) and, obviously, would not leave those things in profane places. Yet I suspect the Catholic I have come across online who admits to leaving holy cards in houses believes they have some charism of their own, that some little intercession of Our Lady or whomever is obtained for the householder by this act. I would call it pious like grannies making the sign of the 'eye' on you, any good that comes of it comes of the prayer in their minds as they do it, not the thing itself. I don't see it as manipulative. I think Elizabeth is right about our post-Christian culture, we've lost touch with symbolism and the more organic, folksy elements of faith yet without them we risk retreating into the cerebralism of Calvinism, where human hearts and souls are concerned there will always be little irrationalities like this.

elizabeth said...

thank you Margaret - yes, this is exactly what I am concerned about in North America - the cerebralism - it is a danger. The ones (and I am NOT saying that A. or the other commenters are doing this) who scoff at the 'country folk' and their traditions and in danger of losing a lot of what can help in obtaining their salvation. Many of the Saints were well educated (esp. the Church fathers, wow!) but many Saints are also those who were poor, rural folk who lived very pious lives that inspired them to become Saints. Fr. Roman Braga writes about how one of the most damaging things communists did in Romania was to move people into the cities... (Not that I do not live in one myself)...

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

It's a difficult borderline between religion and superstition sometimes.

Anastasia, did the parish eventually acquire the property on which the nun buried the icon of St Andrew ? I am curious !

I am sure that it is the prayers and heart of the person concerned that would have been acceptable to God rather more than the "pious act", though that is in no way to denigrate or criticise someone who acts out of piety and love.

I would not ever "hide" icons or holy cards or anything of that sort in the home of someone without their full knowledge and consent. What if they were to later find them and treat them disprespectfully/destroy them ? I would then bear the responsibility.

I would have no problem with fervently but silently praying for someone when entering their home,or speaking to them, whether they were believers or not.

Dixie said...

I don't know--this one is a tough one for me because I am striving to regain a healthy respect for and use of holy things--instead of thinking they are ineffective. I use Holy Water quite a the water reservoir on our coffee maker that I share with my husband (and I don't necessarily tell him about that) and in my daily drinking water. And then there is the annointing oil on swabs we get at Holy Unction to use throughout the year. Are not both of these things, holy water and holy oil, used as a hope to manipulate events? Bring blessing, health, etc.?

I was recently told to touch a copy of an icon card I had one the original icon so that it would be blessed. I did that and believe it is blessed and am giving it to someone for this very reason.

On the other hand...years ago, long before I was Orthodox we buried a statue of St. Joseph in our yard to help sell our house. Now we were told to bury it upside down by the "For Sale" sign. "Upside down" seemed Satanic to me so I nixed that right away. And while burying the statue "right side up" in the dirt of St. Joseph holding the child Jesus in his arms still made me squeamish...we did it anyway. Today, with the Orthodox understanding of images, I wouldn't do that at all.

I am not so quick to think hiding holy cards or medals in someone's home unbeknownst to them is ineffective...but as Elizabeth bigger concern with such practice is if they are found and mistreated.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Thanks for the thoughtful and insightful remarks from all you amazing people.

I suspect Chris is onto something with his distinction between honoring and using. But that can't be the whole answer, because some things, such as holy water, are given us precisely to use. So I'm still pondering all this.

I definitely share the concern about what people who do not believe or understand may do with or to holy things.

Even if they treated these things without any egregious disrespect, they might feel confirmed in their belief that whoever left them was superstitious.

Or some unappreciative housewife, lifing the sofa cushion and finding a miraculous medal there, might realize who had left it. "Maria is the only Catholic I've had in my house for a year." So then the homeowner might ask Maria, who then has to 'fess up or lie, opening another whole can of worms.

It just seems to me that in general - with some exceptions - it's probably better to be aboveboard. Something distasteful about sneaking around.

I don't know... but thanks again for all the good points to ponder.

123 said...

I suspect Chris is onto something with his distinction between honoring and using. But that can't be the whole answer, because some things, such as holy water, are given us precisely to use.

I agree with Chris, but I think you missed his point. It isn't that some things can be used, it's that they are used to achieve a specific end, to manipulate God, the spirits, etc. It's a form of magical incantation and force to effect a specific end. This is very different than the Christian prayer for blessing, mercy, etc.

As an example, the Sacrament of Unction is for the healing of soul and body, but it doesn't mean we will be healed or brought back to life, physically. Yet, we are 'healed' in some way. We are given what we need, not necessarily what we ask for. We are blessed and illumined as a perhaps unlikely corner of the Kingdom, in our primordial state, or in the state we were meant to have lived, perhaps even becoming an image of our invisible spiritual state (much like icons show what 'really', spiritually happened rather than what was simply seen).

Superstition seeks to bypass this humility before God and to manipulate him into doing our will. "My will, not Thine be done."

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Thanks, Christopher. Yes, that's what I was missing, and that is the rest of the answer!

Thanks to you, too, Chris.

amy said...

What a thought-provoking post and discussion! Sorry I am late in discovering it. I have pondered on these things, too -

Margaret said:

"I think Elizabeth is right about our post-Christian culture, we've lost touch with symbolism and the more organic, folksy elements of faith yet without them we risk retreating into the cerebralism of Calvinism, where human hearts and souls are concerned there will always be little irrationalities like this."

I agree with this whole-heartedly... this, precisely, is what this American girl has treasured among the Celtic saints. Our American mind-set must struggle against rationalism daily as it is so ingrained in our way of seeing the world.

And, reading Chris Jones reply, I thought immediately of Fr. Herman of Alaska planting the icon of the Theotokos on the beach and holding a prayer service to prevent the tidal wave from devastating the island...

This was done to manipulate an act of nature and also to give praise and honor to the Theotokos ~

I don't know, I tend to think, for myself, that I have to constantly strive against rationalism because satan uses this as a means of keeping my mind in darkness, disbelieving in the miraculous.