The Resurrection, now that is a good news story. OSV News photo/Debbie Hill

Opening our hearts to God's magical world

  • April 25, 2024

the delusions of their magic art lay humbled.

Wisdom of Solomon: 17:7

The words ‘magic’ and ‘magicians’ are mentioned just over 20 times in the Bible and generally describe an act of illusion for purposes of deception rather than entertainment, or an act of sorcery. In our day, however, magic is understood to be a largely joyful piece of foolery, meant to entertain by sleight of hand or some sort of misdirection. Another phrase that I knew of, but largely in a negative context, was the concept of sympathetic magic.

In psychological studies, sympathetic magic is often understood as the way the qualities of one thing (often repulsive) transfer to something proximate. You might be reluctant to shake a person’s hand if you see it emerge from a container filled with garbage. In that context, the disgust that is attributed to the first object, is transferred, as if by magic, to the other. Scientists have speculated that this is an example of evolutionary self-protection, where our mind encodes potentially contagious objects with the feeling of disgust, so that we stay clear, and therefore free, of contamination.

Recently, I thought of a far more positive form of sympathetic magic that reminds us of the extraordinary potential we have for good. I mean the way empathy and care might be transferred to another by the example of one kind soul. I thought of this while working in a refuge once, and the example came to mind when I heard the term again more recently. In this case, a wounded, desperately pained homeless person stumbled into the soup kitchen I was working at.

I watched from behind the counter as people, even fellow street citizens, steered clear of the individual. The woman struggled toward a table, and then, out of nowhere, one of the young people who volunteered at the shelter with my team, rushed over to help. She grasped the woman’s arm and led her to the table, knelt and asked her if she wanted food. Then, quick as a flash, she went to fetch a bowl of soup. When she returned the lady hugged her and they shared a laugh. Someone nearby then offered some bread to the lady, while another ran to get her a coffee. Before I knew it, the table was full, and everyone was sharing their stories. Sympathetic magic.

We often focus on the negative when we consider the world we live in. Certainly the news is replete with images of horror, and the day’s headlines invariably focus on how we wound each other, one violent act spawning a retaliatory gesture. There is no doubt that this is true in our violence-ravaged planet. I wonder, though, if we need to be more intentional about reminding ourselves of the great good that happens daily — not because I want us to mindlessly celebrate a Pollyanna escapism but because good does indeed beget good. And if we are persistently blind to the work we do each and every day to make the world a better place, we may eventually get to the point where we believe it’s impossible to do so. Just as negativity feeds negativity, so it is that grace uplifts. So why are we reluctant, or incapable, of seeing it?

For the media, the answer is obvious. Dramatic negativity generates viewership, and higher ratings drives profits. So the good news is usually reserved for a quick, feel-good sign-off story — invariably a fluffy animal tale. Positivity in the news cycle itself, ironically, is often dismissed as insincere or pernicious. When is the last time that one political party praised a positive initiative of a rival party? When a good news story is aired it is often attacked as exaggerated escapism or tone-deaf insensitivity. ‘Why are you so happy when so many are miserable?’

We do need to be vigilant about inequality and social unrest. We need to call out bad actors. It’s also important that we celebrate the dynamic goodness, the sheer heart-warming care that our communities generate daily. That’s not being Pollyanna. It’s a recognition that grace begets grace. Without hope, many cease to believe.

There is a powerful model we could draw on to illustrate this principle, and Easter is its testament. Imagine if we only focused on the grief of the Crucifixion? That would only tell part of the story. The complete picture, however, is the Resurrection. And that’s a good news story if ever there was one.

(Turcotte is President and Vice-Chancellor at St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi College, University of British Columbia.)

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