Thursday, 17 October 2013

Understanding Magic and Prayer

"If you pray for aught, your prayer comes to naught.
If you pray for naught, you pray as you ought."
(Meister Eckhart)


Prayer is a fascinating phenomenon, the true nature of which seems to escape most people, religious goons and atheist fools alike. This phenomenon requires of us excursions not only into the realm of psychology; philosophical and ethnological investigations are as necessary. In dealing with a commonplace cultural phenomenon, the rationale of which is not apparent, etymology can render us some service. The word prayer is derived from the Latin verb precari ("to implore" or "to beg"). Prayer is an act implying a power relation; the one who prays assumes a submissive posture vis-à-vis the force to which he prays. Upon making this discovery, we will have to determine if this designation of prayer as a submissive act of imploration is universally applicable to the different religious traditions of mankind, and it will not take us long to realise that this is not at all the case. There are religious traditions of the world where one does not communicate with the supernatural forces by means of genuflections and implorations, but rather with recourse to confident coercion. The power relation remains in the latter case, but the roles have been reversed: this time it is man who is ruler rather than the ruled. He commands and nature obeys. Such a man is known as a magician. Again etymology is of interest to us: the word magic is derived from the Old Persian root magh- ("to be able to" or "to have power").

In our cultural context the concepts of magic and prayer are understood, whether consciously or subconsciously, as being to antithetical to one another: a magician is a scam artist who pulls rabbits out of his hat or he is the evil genius to be encountered in fairytales. Whereas magic has been discredited as a failed art, prayer does not meet with the same derision. Prayer is a necessary corollary to religiosity and even those of us who are atheists have come to accept it as a social fact.

My investigations of the phenomena known as magic and prayer have led me to conclude that the dichotomisation of the two is wholly unjustified. Consider for instance the Holy Mass of the Catholics: the priest does not bow down and beg his Lord that the wine and host be transformed into the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ, lest he make a public fool of himself. Far from it: in the manner of a true magician, the priest mechanically recites certain formulae, and with their recital the wine and the host are transformed into the blood and flesh of Jesus Christ as a matter of necessity.

The medieval mind was far more conscious of the magical properties of the Holy Mass than is the present age. The Holy Mass qua magical ceremony came to be both ridiculed - as testified by the formula hocus pocus, which is a parody of the eucharistic formula hoc es corpus - and reinterpreted. The most interesting reinterpretation of the Holy Mass is the Mass of Saint Secaire, still celebrated by bored elites in some parts of the world. The objective of the Mass of St Secaire is to kill a foe by supernatural means. The mass must be celebrated in abandoned churches only, all the eucharistic formulae are to be recited backwards, and the celebrant is to make the sign of the cross with his left foot. With the conclusion of the Mass of St Secaire your foe shall be as dead as a dodo.

Magic and prayer are neither essentially different nor antithetical phenomena; rather they represent two phases to the intellectual evolution of mankind (more on which in due course). Furthermore, as the example of the Holy Mass shows, magical techniques are utilised by those who claim to be the most fervent opponents of all forms of magic. Indeed, the dichotomisation of magic and prayer is a concoction of the Church and it stems from those times when the stiffest resistance to the incursions of the Christian missionaries was offered by the shaman chieftains of the pagan tribes. The shaman was intellectually superior to the Christian priest, because unlike the latter, who had acquired his knowledge of things spiritual in the seminary, the former had acquired his knowledge amidst all the contradictions that the human existence brings with it. In this regard, the following words of a famous anthropologist are worth pondering:

"The shaman learned a physiological control of his body functions normally considered automatic. Like a youthful Yogi, he was shown ways to produce states of inspiration through controlled-breathing exercises. Whirling dances and repetition of phrases combined to change temperature levels [of the body] and to produce trance. In our eagerness to know everything about the physical world from apes to atoms, we have neglected one aspect of science which requires no laboratory and no instruments, only the human body. Primitive men [or shamans], lacking laboratories and instruments, studied it exhaustively."

Because the Christian missionaries had met with a superior foe, they were at pains to carry out a character assassination of this proto-philosopher. Those of us who have read centuries-old reports written by the dumbfounded missionaries, cannot help noticing the genuine dread felt by these representatives of the Church. The Holy Mass virtually always left the pagans unimpressed, whereas the shaman's show of force was very real indeed. Here was an intellectually brilliant man who could be as ruthless a politician as a Cesar Borgia, and in addition to his resourcefulness in regard to human interaction, he had also learnt certain secrets about the human organism, such as the ability to arrest some of one's bodily functions. With this humiliating encounter of the Church with primitive shamanism begins the assault on magic, which henceforth would come to be viewed as something demonic emanating from the very pit of hell. But as we have already seen, the Church has never been averse to employing magical techniques herself.

The preceding reflections should enable us to offer an adequate appraisal of the phenomena known as magic and prayer:

(i) Magic is no laughing matter: Those who ridicule magic tend to forget that modern science is an outgrowth of magic. Magic is the study of causality, not merely of causes perceivable, but also an attempt at coming to terms with objects understood as exercising causality from a distance. "Wherever", according to another anthropologist, "magic occurs in its pure unadulterated form, it assumes that in nature one event follows another necessarily [...]. Thus its fundamental conception is identical with that of modern science [.] The fatal flaw of magic lies not in its general assumption of a sequence of events determined by law, but in its total misconception of the particular laws which govern that sequence." In some primitive societies, many human acts are preceded by the strangest rituals, e.g., a hunter will move his body in a manner akin to the animal at which he aims his spear, so as to align his efforts with the cosmic forces with a view to attaining his objective. Similarly, the ancient science of alchemy was primarily a magical endeavour, but as a secondary outcome to the intentions of the practitioners of the this art, mankind also made discoveries in the field of chemistry. Likewise, astrology may have been a failed science, but it must also be credited for its discoveries in the field of astronomy.

(ii) Prayer as magical defeatism: Although we are indebted to the primitive magician for his discoveries relevant to modern science, there was one field in which the magician failed miserably: he had no solution to the problem of death, the most primordial of all human fears. Instead of commanding the cosmic forces, man now resorted to begging and kneeling.

(iii) Praying as Meister Eckhart: As it turned out, prayer was as futile an undertaking as magic. The gods would not listen; perhaps they did not even exist? Prayer finally became an end in itself. Indeed, it was no longer prayer, but rather contemplation. In the case of Buddha, this contemplation was devoid of any object, whereas in the case of Meister Eckhart, a brilliant man constrained by the dictates of the Church, one prayed for naught. The aim of this contemplation was not to commune with the gods, but to make discoveries about oneself, much in the same way as the primitive shamans had done. Those who have experienced states of deep contemplation, in which one has been able to shut out the world, will testify to a heightened sensibility: one smells, hears, and feels with a degree of intensity heretofore deemed impossible. In such a state of heightened sensibility, the feeble-minded amongst us - women in particular - are strongly susceptible to hallucinations. The strong-minded amongst us, on the other hand, engage in an activity primarily of an intellectual nature, viz., ordering one's train of thought and tracing one's thoughts to their root causes all the while one's sense of duration, or time, is at a standstill. Such an activity may not seem worth the effort for the uneducated, but to those who value intellectual activity, contemplation is a boon one simply cannot afford to reject. Furthermore, the knowledge acquired in the state of contemplation could be of such a nature that it admits of being acquired by no other means. And if Kant was right in suggesting that time is merely a prerequisite to man's ability to know, and that time as such does not exist, then, to the contemplative, who is able to suspend duration, the past, the present, and the future are as one. Precisely the ability to break free from the shackles of time and to know the past, the present, and the future has been the prerogative of the great contemplatives throughout the ages.