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Asking the clergy: How should the faithful view the occult?

The silhouette of a witch figurine is seen

The silhouette of a witch figurine is seen across the street from a church at dusk, at a private residence decorated with dozens of figurines depicting monsters, ghouls, witches and pirates to celebrate Halloween in Alexandria, Virginia on Thursday, Oct. 29, 2015. Credit: EPA / Michael Reynolds

Halloween draws out an annual parade of witches, goblins and vampires to costume parties and trick-or-treat events. However, this secular holiday, which falls on a Christian holy day known as All Hallow's Eve, also draws out detractors who claim it has a sinister connection to an ancient pagan ritual. This week's clergy discuss where the line is drawn between lighthearted fun dressing up as Harry Potter or Count Dracula for a day, and an actual embrace of witchcraft and sorcery.

The Rev. Msgr. Francis J. Maniscalco, pastor, Saint Thomas the Apostle R.C. Church, West Hempstead:

God is the creator of all things, visible and invisible, and he guides the destiny of all creation. If "occult" refers to the serious practice of magic, then it is harmful because it mistakenly attributes to words and actions, such as charms and spells, powers that belong only to God. Such practices are unreal and a distraction from the truth about reality. If "occult" refers to invoking invisible powers opposed to God, such as Satanists do, then the harm is magnified by the conscious embrace of evil contrary to the goodness of God. If "occult" refers to enjoyment of fantasy worlds created by imaginative authors or filmmakers or professional magicians, then it is only harmful to those who cannot distinguish between fact and fiction. The same is true of popular superstitious practices such as reading horoscopes. Taken seriously, they can distort a person's sense of reality. Taken lightheartedly, they are generally harmless.

The Rev. Chris McMahon, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of the Great South Bay, Sayville:

The word "occult" is a loaded word. Many people associate it with dark and evil practices. If, however, the use of the word "occult" refers to its Latin background, occult is "knowledge of the hidden" and "knowledge of the paranormal." To be sure, it is not appropriate for people of faith to associate with practices that involve or encourage violence or perpetrate acts that are harmful to self, other people, animals or the environment. If, however, the occult practices that are followed are harmless to self and others then tolerance seems in order. In some cases, practices that seem to have characteristics of the occult, and are harmless, may also take on a religious significance, therefore, they should be respected as one would respect the beliefs and practices of other religions. In general, Unitarian Universalists cherish reason, rationalism and science. Therefore, Unitarian Universalists would generally find practices of the occult to be irrational, illogical and unreasonable. That said, an open mind and a willingness to at least consider paranormal practices that do no harm may, indeed, be in order, if for no other reason, than to confirm one's faith.

Rabbi Motti Grossbaum, Chabad at Stony Brook:

Under the general command to "Be holy" (Leviticus 19:2), the Torah instructs us not to engage in sorcery, superstition and other related activities which were practiced by the heathen nations of old. Jews are told to be sincere and wholehearted with God, and when in doubt, to consult the recognized spiritual leaders and Torah authorities of the day. Sorcery, dabbling in the occult and "crossing over" are serious infractions to be strenuously avoided. By all means we should all deepen our spirituality. Study the esoteric side of the Bible with reliable, trustworthy teachers to gain an appreciation into Jewish mysticism. But be wholesome with God. Don't dabble in forbidden fields. Be holy -- in the way God tells us to be. If I may add, on a lighter note, when I think of black magic I'm reminded of when my 6-year-old daughter came to me and showed me some arts and crafts projects she had made. "Look at this one," she said. "It's black magic. First I colored with all different color crayons creating a beautiful picture, then I colored it all over with black crayon." I said, "Nice, but how is that magical?" She answered, "Well isn't it just so cool that you can just scrape away the black, and discover the beautiful picture hiding underneath?" What a profound message. When you feel overcome by the gloominess of your situation, when all you can see is the blackness of self-centeredness of someone around you, take my 6-year-old's advice. Scrape away the black topping, and you'll discover something beautiful hiding underneath. Now how magical is that!


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