Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Exorcist (Part 2 of 2): Occultists, Buddhists, and Other Non-Monotheists

Yesterday I posted about Father Lampert’s talk on exorcism in the Catholic Church. The talk was interesting and engaging, and he had many fascinating stories. But what came to light for me was the age-old problem I’ve had with the Church—it’s conception of things outside of the monotheistic purview, like pagan religions, Eastern religions, and occult practices.

First, there is the problem of the Church lumping everything that is “not monotheism” into one category. To the Church, spiritualists, table tappers, Satanists, and Buddhist monks all fall into the same category. They lump use of crystals or Tarot cards in with black magic and black masses. All of it is, of course, suspect, because it is not Catholicism. Father Lampert had quoted Deuteronomy 18. As I said earlier, this is dangerous, because Deuteronomy also advocates stoning wayward children to death (chapter 21), and suggests that any man with damage to his “manhood” cannot ever go to heaven (chapter 23). In short, I would not use an old law manual meant for nomadic Hebrews as your 21st century doctrine. At best, you’re going to look hypocritical because you follow some things and not others.

But that is not the most important consideration. It is the conception of occultists. To the Church, the occultist is someone who has turned their face away from God. They will cite rebellion, and in some cases, that may be true. But the rebellious teenager snubbing his parents’ religion is hardly the crux of the problem. I have met many occultists in my lifetime, and have practiced myself. Here is a scenario that illustrates a more accurate picture of one who “turns to the occult”:

Let’s assume a female subject. She is about 14, and a devout Catholic, goes to Catholic school. She has the kind of religious zeal that one has before they get interested in boys or horses. She wants to be a nun. Suddenly, one night, she has a startling vision—maybe not even entirely a vision, perhaps an experience. There is nothing suspect or evil about the experience—the result is overflowing joy and compassion. Yet there are elements of the experience that don’t quite match up to the Catholic worldview she’s been raised with. Catholic doctrine is a bit of a round hole to this square peg. She is not troubled by the vision, she is only troubled by the fact that it doesn’t line up precisely with what she’s been taught. She talks the matter over with her parish priest or school chaplain. She gets one of two possible responses:

“I don’t know what that is, so it’s probably of the devil, and just don’t pay attention to that. Read the Bible.”

“Are you having trouble at home? What’s the real problem you’re having?”

Both of these responses are irresponsible and inadequate for two reasons. One, it seeks to squelch a transformative experience for a budding soul. Two, it shows no respect to the girl—how could it be possible for her to have some kind of saintly experience? If anything, she must be “dabbling in the occult”, or doing something wrong. The first response will leave the girl in a state of anxiety, because now she feels she can’t trust her own spiritual experiences. The second diminishes her as a spiritual person—real people don’t have “spiritual visions”--only those that the priest thinks are truly “spiritual”. Coincidentally, these are usually the same people who give big collection plate offerings and run all their programs. (Sorry to be cynical, but this happens much more often than it should).

I will liken the girl’s vision to falling in love at first sight. The object of affection is the Divine, or God. She is appealing to the proper authorities, as she wants this relationship with God. And the authorities have told her she’s not suitable. So—she does what every storybook lover does, and she runs away to find her beloved in secret.

And that’s where the occult comes in. Contrary to popular belief, occult practices are designed to bring one into union with God, if you prefer that term. Only a small portion of magical practices center around Goetic evocation (i.e., summoning demons or devils). Usually in such cases mentioned above, demonic evocation would be the last thing they think of doing.

There could be many problems with this. Confronting the Divine means confronting the Collective Unconscious, and that’s a dangerous journey to make without a guide. In fact, with no guide, you’re likely to go crazy. Even if you find a guide, you need to be sure that guide has your best interests at heart, and is not foisting an agenda onto you. It can happen in any spiritual practice. Nonetheless, the pursuit of Divine bliss is enough to make people take the risk. If they weary of the journey, they may decide to return to the safety of organized religion. Many do not. Once you’ve dropped the mediator, there’s no need to ask them to come back. Mediators with the Divine (e.g., priests) can have agendas, too.

As for Satanism, I think I can count on one hand the number of Satanists and/or black magicians I’ve met in my lifetime. It’s hardly a common path. I think it’s most popular among teenage boys who think it’s a joke. Perhaps that is an area of concern for the Church, but it’s hardly an epidemic. A lot of Satanic worship is outright rebellion against the Church. There is a hatred of the Church that suggests that there was once love—love that was probably crushed by a dismissive and authoritarian clergyman. With regard to black magicians—they’re usually shunned by other occultists. I’ve known of a few who have been banned from magical societies. Occult practices should serve the same function as religious ritual—they are designed to get rid of your unwanted spiritual baggage and bring you closer to the Divine. Religion is a tool, and not everyone needs the same tool. Of course, that goes against Catholic exclusivist doctrine, but I don’t see either logically or intuitively how anything else could be true. If you are too wedded to the system, then the system becomes your idol; you are more interested in preserving your system than in fulfilling its intended results.

Now, with regard to Reiki and yoga. I’ve already talked about the Reiki fiasco in the Church, otherwise known as the “someone on the Council of Bishops never learned how to use a library” fiasco. Reiki was banned as a Catholic practice based on false information and poor research. Lately yoga has been a target of both Catholic and Protestant groups, probably more the latter. But I mention the former, since Father Lampert mentioned it in his remarks at the Q&A.

First—Reiki is an energy therapy. It means “universal energy”. In the East, there isn’t anything that isn’t infused with the Divine, but this is perhaps the only spiritual connection to Reiki. You might be able to view it as a type of acupuncture done through touch. It redirects the body’s energies. One does usually say a prayer at the beginning, but that can be to whomever they like—if they want to invoke Jesus’ help, then that is fine. Reiki has been a blessing to people in excruciating pain, and it’s beyond shameful that bishops would take this away from Catholics. The assertion is that Catholics should use healing methods “within their own religion”. Father Lampert had described it as idolatry—relying on something other than God (as they understand it) for help. But that doesn’t really wash, because it validates those Christian groups that will watch their child die from a treatable disease, because “they should only rely on God’s help”. One will argue from that view that God created the medicines for them to use, or allowed them to be created. Then why wouldn’t God create Reiki?

The objections to yoga can only be partially sustained. The objections to the studios that practice hatha yoga cannot be sustained at all. People really are doing it for exercise. Hatha yoga, for an Eastern spiritual practitioner, is designed to ready the body for other kinds of yoga. If you’ve ever had an experience of kundalini shakti, you know that while it brings great bliss, peace, and compassion, it can also leave you feeling like you have the flu when it subsides, if your body is not prepared for this energy burst. Hatha yoga prepares the body for that Divine flow. But—it can be used in isolation. They are only stretches, and they can be used just as well to loosen up stiff muscles and relax the body. They are not inexorably wedded to Divine aspirations.

Other kinds of yoga SHOULD be avoided, unless they are undertaken with a Master or Guru. I would agree that there is a real risk of damage if you mess with those energy centers in a careless fashion. The damage has nothing to do with “demons” or “evil spirits” (though it might leave one too psychologically “open”) —it has to do with the impact of this energy flow on your mind. It has to be regulated safely and properly, according to what your body can handle. Since Catholics would find it anathema for a believer to work with an Eastern Master (at least under the current Pope), then it’s probably a practice they should avoid.

I find it interesting that the Church reiterates their objections to these practices on the grounds that they invoke “spirits other than God”. That’s just mind-bogglingly false. No spirits are invoked at all. It demonstrates a complete lack of understanding of Eastern religious thought. In the East, God is not a separate Being “out there”; God is everywhere, and in every person. Any form the Divine might take is just a convenience; as Joseph Campbell said, “Deities are the vehicle, not the Source”. Our mind has to have images, so we must have gods to relate to the Mystery. But they are not worshipping something different or separate from the Christian God, except in name. To them, there is no separation, except in the mind. So, all actions are necessarily spiritual. You can go to a Hindu Temple and see the pujaris wash the feet of the deity, offer food, flowers and a camphor flame. By the same token, you can visit a Hindu Indian household, and be greeted by having your feet washed, being garlanded with flowers, and having a camphor flame waved in front of you. You are as much a vehicle of God as the statue in the Temple. It’s a different view, and the practices have nothing to do with invoking spirits or entities in the way it’s thought of in Western monotheism.

So—to conclude this very long post—if the Church is concerned about people “turning away from the path”—their path—to the occult, they’d better start taking a different approach. There is plenty in their theology that could support people who have these “mystical” experiences, but they choose to treat it dismissively, and to maintain willful ignorance and a closed mind to these alternate approaches and their effects. It shows a lack of respect for the person, and for the world at large to be so dismissive. They would keep more of their flock if they took it seriously and respectfully.

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