Someone who believes in God is inevitably faced with a choice: either to follow the narrow path of true faith which leads to life; or to go down the wide, easy, well-trodden road of superstition. It is impossible to have no faith at all. This would go against our nature, for though we can see relatively little we can feel a lot. Our feelings and intuition are able to penetrate to where the ordinary eye remains blind. This is why faith, faith in something, is indispensable. It expands the frontiers of life, enabling us to interpret the past and cautioning us about the future. Faith is, as it were, an inner defining anthropological feature, in the same way that walking upright is an external, visible one. But true faith is hard, just as the life of Abraham was hard. As a result, many people tend to shun the dazzling light of true faith in Jesus Christ in favour of the cozy twilight of magic and superstition.
Magic and superstition work with “good material”—with the sense, for example, that all things are interconnected. You burn a stick of incense and whisper some incantation or other here, and over there boy meets girl or, on the contrary, they break up. This is a striking everyday confirmation of faith in the essential unity of the whole world and the interdependency of all moral actions.
When someone’s future is told just by looking at their photo, this is to link the image with its prototype. In fact, it is a caricature—no more, no less—of the teaching on icons of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. To take another example, when for the sake of magical rituals a practitioner demands a lock of hair, or a drop of saliva or blood, this too constitutes an attempt to influence the whole through a part and accordingly demonstrates faith in the fact that the whole and its parts are connected and interdependent.
All of this provides an excellent theme and an extensive field for all kinds of research, whether for popular pamphlets or even theses. There are enough people who like this kind of thing. For our part, we are simply giving examples to confirm what has already been said: magic and superstitions work with “good material”; that is to say, with man’s inborn religiosity and mystical intuitions, which are frequently correct.
Magic cannot be criticised simply on the basis that “it doesn’t work” and is the domain of charlatans. It is true that a charlatan can easily profit from this twilight of consciousness. But magic is even more frightening when it does work than when it is simply a case of its practitioners swindling gullible people, coaxing money out of them.
As for superstition, it is disturbing in that it opts for a questionable, shadowy form of religiosity and rejects enlightened, true piety. Without this background of true piety it seems natural and necessary. Necessary, for example, to protect one’s livestock from the evil eye and one’s dwelling from evil spirits. And so, it is necessary to sew a “protective” thread into one’s clothing and to wear a lucky charm around one’s neck. Necessary to link the ploughing of the first furrow with some kind of ritual, a ritual that promises—given the obvious connection between the fertility of the earth in particular and fertility in general—to be somewhat lecherous.
We inevitably end up in a masquerade, a world of ritualistic mysticism. On the whole, this is something that is difficult to fight against, for to do so one must change human nature. And nowadays the fight has become even more complicated. In the Soviet era they did strive to change people—but negatively, by means of abolition and prohibition. What became of this experiment is well known! Natural religiosity remained ineradicable and so caused a return of paganism, complemented by an enthusiasm for “the revival of traditions” and ethnic self-consciousness. We see the same thing today when, with an air of cleverness, sun worshippers perform their circle dance or jump over a bonfire.
Magic is a relatively easy affair, requiring no ascetic endeavours. It demands nothing but promises a lot. It promises health and success, which is quite flattering for your modern egoist. It promises a feeling of wholeness and of belonging to a family and a tradition, something that also panders to the modern egoist, for he is weary of inner loneliness, fear, and the sense of his own uselessness. To that extent, magic and superstition are welcome guests which, if they did not exist, would need to be invented.
We mentioned Abraham earlier, and this was not by chance. Abraham is the literal father, the ancestor in the flesh, of all Arabs and Jews; spiritually, however, he is the father of all who believe in the true God. He was a pagan and the son of a pagan, but God saw in him that depth that was necessary in a man to make room for something greater than natural religion—the religion proclaimed and revealed by God Himself.
Abraham was chosen, but this did not bring him worldly success or lots of pleasure. On the contrary, it brought suffering and a cross. On more than one occasion, he was tested in the fire of what for an ordinary person would be unimaginable suffering. God’s promises seemed to be something he could only dream of, and that lay far ahead like mirages; his daily life was one of internal suffering and external wandering. All this was done not for his sake but for the sake of all mankind. It was done so that a chosen people might emerge, that in the midst of this people there might be educated the best representatives of humanity, and so that, in the end, there might appear the Virgin who was to give birth to Christ.
By entering into contact with the Saviour we enter into spiritual kinship with Abraham, which is why it is said that “many shall come from the east and the west, and shall sit down with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, in the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 8.11). By accepting the faith of salvation, we accept not only the promise of good things to come but also the cross of our daily responsibilities. We too become wanderers and nomads, searching for the unshakeable kingdom to come. We too feel in our bosom the bitterness of the discrepancy between these wonderful promises and the drabness of our daily routine. By an inner sense, we begin to understand Abraham and other people who were marked by their close relationship with God. Such feelings are characteristic of true piety—not exhaustively so, but they are necessary nevertheless.
Enlightened religiousness is hard; it is not natural, it is above and beyond nature. It does not work on the basis of instant or short-term results but requires faith and patience, like that of a farmer. It demands a lot from a person for it comes from God, who created that person. It does not adjust itself to human carnality or caprice. From all that has been said, one simple fact stands out: there are always more people who believe in magic and superstition than those who carry their faith on their shoulders like a cross. We do not have precise statistics about this but, were it possible to assemble the data objectively in the form of numbers and columns, the figures would be genuinely revealing.
Since the time of the baptism of our nation and its grafting onto the tree of the Church, our life has depended on those who pray and preach; in other words, on the clergy, the educators, the catechists.
At the Last Judgement all things, including all that was dark, will suddenly be illuminated; and, trembling, our consciousness will be wakened from its deep sleep. However, even before that Day the thunder and lightning of a sermon can enlighten a person’s life and expose the things that prefer to be hidden and are afraid of direct light. The judgement provoked by a word or a sermon is a sure way to dissipate that gloom, replacing cosy superstitions and old wives’ tales by a healthy faith as fresh and invigorating as a blast of crisp winter air.
Christ is the Light that came into the world. Simeon the God-receiver calls him “a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2.32). Without this light, people are condemned to dwell, if not in complete darkness, then in the usual twilight of folk religiosity. Sad to say, although more than a thousand years have passed since the Baptism of Russia, we are still facing the same problem. That being said, we can be consoled by the fact that “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Pet 3.8).