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Simcha FisherMarch 27, 2024

Last week we celebrated the feast of St. Joseph, and I found myself thinking about all the little resin St. Josephs scattered across this country. The poor guys are just hanging around upside down with a faceful of dirt, saying hello to passing worms, waiting to be remembered and dug up.

They are part of “home selling kits” that consist of a crudely crafted St. Joseph statue and a card with a specific prayer. Burying the statue upside down, some Catholics believe, will help them buy or sell their house.

This practice is a superstition, and superstition is explicitly named as a sin by the Catholic Church. Yes, even if you do it gently and don’t scowl and shake a fist at the statue before you bury him, and even if you pray to God to get you a good deal on your home. You can pray to God through the intercession of St. Joseph for a speedy sale; just keep his statue on the mantel.

Superstitious practices are prohibited, in part, because they “attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand,” according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church.

The church today is rife with superstitious thinking. I didn’t grow up with the St. Joseph statue tradition, but I certainly read stories about great sinners who wore a brown scapular because they believed it would save them from hell no matter what they did.

I was at a baptism last Sunday. I heard only bits and pieces of the rite of baptism, but I was still suddenly gripped by a tremendous thrill, realizing I was present to witness a real, powerful, ineradicable change taking place in the soul of the little one whose tiny bald head I could barely see. I wanted to get up and cheer, but instead, I thanked God for doing what he does.

Then some sullen shadow passed a wing over my thoughts, and I recalled how many times I’ve heard the complaint that the “novus ordo” baptism just doesn’t have the same oomph as the extraordinary form. The older form has more references to exorcising the devil and sometimes involves blessed salt, and it is therefore allegedly more powerful.

How could it be more powerful than what just happened, I wondered? This little baby just went from death to life, from dark to light, from drowning to rescue, from burial to resurrection. I believe this. This is our faith. What more could there possibly be?

I want to return to that question, but not before I say two things.

One is that superstition is something more than overtly pagan practices like putting your faith in a lucky rabbit’s foot or doing some quasi-religious ceremony like burying a statue. And it’s more than treating a scapular like a magic charm. Superstition can happen even in outwardly liturgically sound sacramental practices like baptism. Asserting that one rite of baptism is more powerful than another is claiming that we can lure or manipulate God into doing things he wouldn’t otherwise do.

A few years ago, the Rev. Clinton Sensat, a pastor in the Diocese of Lafayette, wrote a post on Facebook making a similar point. He describes superstitious thinking as “a relationship with God based on manipulation. Either God is a manipulative abuser who will not bless us unless we do every ritual step exactly right, or our prayers can be used to force God to act.”

It is worth reading his whole post, but he concludes:

Superstition...depicts a God narrow-hearted, coldly committed to arcane rules, devoid of understanding or compassion, interested only in slavish obedience. If you don’t think that’s unfair to God, then I invite you to consider whether your notion of divinity matches the revelation of Jesus Christ.
Our God cares for us. Yes, there are real rules we must follow, but they are precepts of faith and virtue and health, not dictates of a tyrant. Right religion elevates; it does not shrivel. True religion expands the heart; it does not chain it with fear and punctilious performance. Revealed religion shows us a God of deep and boundless love. Superstition shows us a God small and mean, a god the exact same shape and size as our own anxieties.

Superstition is not confined to any one corner of the church. It is not a matter of “serious” versus “unserious” Catholics. It is easy to come up with examples of Catholics who consider themselves quite traditional and devout who constrain their faith by believing that their eternal fate depends on saying certain prayers exactly right. This sort of superstitious thinking assumes we can conjure up grace by going through certain rituals.

But another strain of superstition goes in the opposite direction: It leads a believer to behave as if one can completely block grace by displaying the wrong external signals. Imagine being in a strange town with only one Sunday Mass. Every car in the parking lot has a MAGA sticker. So I don’t go because that’s not my church.

Or something I did last week: I saw a house with an egregiously tacky flag, showing a muscular arm pulling aside an American flag to reveal a gaunt Christ, blue eyes rolled up in agony, with a patriotic slogan splashed across the bottom. My first thought: These are Christian nationalists, and can know nothing about the actual Jesus and might even be beyond redemption. And I would want nothing to do with them. Why? Because…look at that flag! That’s not Jesus! I know Jesus, and he would never…

And that’s where I stopped myself. Am I going to make rules about what Jesus would never do? Me?

Jesus would do all kinds of things. It is not up to me to say what God will and will not, can and cannot do in the hearts of his people. I can keep my distance and keep myself safe if I see red flags, but I cannot say I know what the Holy Spirit will and will not do based entirely on external appearances. I just can’t. If it is superstition to say, “I will hide this green scapular in someone’s bed, and that will make God save them,” then it is also superstition to say, “They hung up that flag, and that will keep God away.” As Father Sensat said: Thoughts like this reveal “a God small and mean, a God the exact same shape and size as our own anxieties.”

Who would want that?

Now I want to return to the idea that one rite of baptism could be more powerful than another. This is not entirely wrong.

A dignified, powerfully worded, spiritually stirring ritual can certainly affect people who witness it. That is what ritual is for. Our senses, our intellect, our emotions as well as our will are what make us more or less receptive to the grace that God brings. A baptismal rite with every glorious liturgical trapping can most certainly dispose us to be more open to whatever God is offering us.

But note: It has the potential to dispose us. It doesn’t dispose God. That is the key. We are the ones who need to be worked on, not God.

So let us remember how small we are. Let us remember that if anyone’s hanging around, immobile, watching the worms go by, it is not St. Joseph; it is us. Here we wait, buried in our mortality, our crudeness and our smallness, just hanging around with a snootful of dirt, somehow having good reason to expect that God will remember us, dig us up and take us from burial to resurrection—and then, for some reason I don’t understand, to make us like him.

This is our faith. This is what I believe, and it is so much better than believing that God is small enough to push around.

More: Saints / Prayer

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