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Posts Tagged ‘superstition’

Catholic devotions are fantastic! Last night, after Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament and Night Prayer, we processed to the lobby by the front door of the seminary to bless the Epiphany Chalk. Then the Rector took the Holy Chalk, stood on the Holy Step-Ladder, and wrote on the Holy Lintel of the Holy Front Door.

Here is a door from Bamberg marked in the year 2007

OK, I’m getting carried away with the step-ladder, and I know how easily this could all sound a bit mad, or superstitious. But when you realise that it is about faith – that blessings and chalk and inscriptions above doorways can be an outward expression of faith in Christ, and in his power to work in this world and to work through the intercession of his saints – then it makes eminent sense.

Chalk, in itself, doesn’t have any power; but blessed chalk, through our faith in Christ, and in the blessing he gives through his ministers, can be a means for our hearts to be more open to him and our homes to be kept under his protection.

Here is the explanation we were given last night:

The Solemnity of the Lord’s Epiphany is associated with many traditions of popular piety. One such is the blessing of homes, through the intercession of the three wise men, using blessed chalk.

An inscription is made above the front door to entrust the home to God’s protection for the new year and ensure all who enter or leave may enjoy God’s blessing. It looks like this:

20 + C + M + B + 12

The number designates the new year, while the ‘CMB’ stands for the traditional names of the wise men – Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar – and also the prayer Christus mansionem benedicat which means ‘May Christ bless this dwelling’.

This blessing is common especially in Central Europe and is often accompanied by processions of children and their parents.

[Cf. Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy, 118]

Often broken pieces of chalk are blessed at the end of the Epiphany Mass, using the traditional formula found in the Rituale:

O Lord God, bless this chalk that it may be used for the salvation of the human race.

Through the invocation of Thy most Holy Name, grant that whoever shall take of this chalk and write with it upon the doors of his house the names of Thy saints, Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar, may through their merits and intercession receive health of body and protection of soul. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

The problem, when I got to my own room and made the inscription, was that the door-frame and the walls are all white. Oh well, it’s there for the angels to see.

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I gave a talk at the weekend about providence. Is it true that God has a plan for us? Is it true that he guides all that happens within creation, and all that happens within our own individual lives? I wasn’t so much looking at the theology or philosophy of how God ‘acts’ in the world, but rather at the instinctive ways we tend to view things when we are struggling to make sense of events.

I think there are three ‘default’ positions about providence, all incorrect; and we usually fall into one of them even without realising it.

First, there is the idea that God is simply not involved in the ordinary events of life. Everything is random. There is consequently no meaning or purpose in anything that happens. There is no plan. This is an atheist, materialist position; but it’s subconsciously held by many Christians – at least at the level of their psychological reactions to things. It’s pretty bleak.

Second, there is the implicit assumption that as a rule things are random and meaningless and out of God’s control, even though he’s there, in the background. He leaves things to unfold in their own way; and every now and then he steps in to ‘intervene’. I don’t mean through miracles (although they could fit in here); I mean the idea that God only acts on special occasions, when he takes a special interest in something; and that he is fairly detached and indifferent the rest of the time.

I think this view is quite common in the Christian life. We battle on with life as if we are in a Godless world – the structure of our life is to all extents pagan. Every now and then we pray for something specific; every now and then we have an ‘experience’ of God helping us, or doing something particularly important or unexpected, and we are grateful for that and our ‘faith’ is deepened. But in a strange way this gratitude reinforces the hidden assumption that God is actually not present and not actively concerned for us all the rest of the time.

The third faulty view of providence goes to the other extreme. In this case we believe that God is indeed in control of all history and all events. We believe that everything has huge meaning, that everything reflects God’s loving and providential purposes – which it does. But for this reason we want to over-interpret the significance of every single event. Why is the train three minutes late? Why is the car in front of me green and not blue? What’s the significance of me spilling my coffee or waking before my alarm goes off or bumping into you in the street yesterday? This kind of reflection can become a form of superstition; a kind of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

It’s true that all these small events are part of God’s providential purposes; and it’s also true that sometimes these small events can have a huge significance for someone. Small and apparently ‘chance’ events lead someone to meet their husband or wife for the first time, or to discover their vocation, or to take a different direction in life.

But here is the theological/spiritual point: not all events are of equal significance; and we won’t necessarily know which event has a particular significancefor us at any moment, or what it’s significance is.

So this is the fourth way, and I think the correct one, of interpreting providence: Everything is in God’s loving hands. He is over all and in all and present to all. Everything does have a meaning, a place in his plan. But we can leave God to do the interpreting and understanding. We won’t always understand, but it makes a huge difference knowing that he understands, that he knows what he is doing. Our response is to trust and to hope; and actively to entrust all that we do and all that we experience to him.

Sometimes, for his reasons, we get a glimpse of why something matters and what it means in the broader picture; and this is very consoling. Sometimes, especially in moments of decision or crisis, we need to come to some clarity about whether something is important for us personally, or for the Church, or for society – and this is why discernment is so important in the Christian life. So trusting in providence does not mean becoming passive or indifferent or fatalistic, or ignoring the call to take responsibility or to work for radical change. It doesn’t mean God takes away our freedom. But our fundamental knowledge that God knows what he is doing and is doing everything for our good takes away the existential anxiety that afflicts the pagan heart, and the obsessive curiosity that afflicts the superstitious mind.

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