Fr. Joseph K. Horn
St Barbara’s Parish
Santa Ana, California
Do you avoid walking under ladders? If so, is it because something might fall off the ladder and hurt you, or is it because you believe that walking under a ladder brings bad luck? Do you hold your breath when driving by a cemetery? Do you cross your fingers when making a wish? Would you feel better if the boat you’re traveling on was christened with a female name instead of a male name?
We like to think of ourselves as educated, as scientific, as intelligent, but the fact is clear that we are all stupidly superstitious. All of us. Yes, you too.
The Jews at Jesus’ time had an immensely complicated system of ritual washings before meals and even before prayers. Once there was a Jewish rabbi in prison who was using his meager ration of water to perform those elaborate washings and he wound up dehydrating almost to death. Since those washings are not in the revealed word of God anyplace, but are mere human traditions, it is clear to any thinking person that they are pure superstition, and in the case of that rabbi, almost became deadly superstitions.
You say you’re not superstitious? Okay, then answer me this: remember the last time you had a birthday with a cake with candles on it? Who blew out the candles? You did? Would you have let somebody else blow them out? And what did you do right before you blew out the candles? Did you make a wish? Did you secretly hope that you’d blow out all the candles with one breath, so that your wish would come true? Of course you did. We all do. And it’s utterly ridiculous, unscientific, silly, superstitious, and we all do it.
The problem of course is that such things are a direct violation of Commandment Number One: I am the Lord thy God, thou shalt not have strange gods before Me. Whenever we act like some silly thing or action has the supernatural power of giving us good or bad luck or granting us wishes or seeing into the future, then we’re worshipping a false god. Only God can see and change the future, and we must attribute that power to Him alone. Birthday cake candles? Give me a break! How inane. Yet we all are guilty of these little superstitions, of attributing God’s powers to things or actions. The Jews did it and it really peeved Jesus. And 2000 years later, and we’re all still doing it!
Here are some more popular superstitions. If you do any of these, make a mental note to try to stop, because we’re Christians, not pagans.
Drinking a toast to somebody who is in the same room is a delightful social gesture of goodwill. But drinking a toast to somebody who isn’t there, or to something or some event or some wish for the future, and believing that such a toast will actually do anything... that’s superstitious, that’s idol worship, and is a direct violation of the First Commandment.
Do you rejoice when you find a four-leaf clover? Do you feel that they bring good luck? Do you keep one someplace for good luck? That’s idolatry. How can a mutant plant (for that’s what four-leaf clovers are) have any effect on your luck?
Do you keep a rabbit’s foot for good luck? Consider this: it surely did not bring good luck to the rabbit. Do you keep a horseshoe (a real one or a pendant or a pin) to bring you good luck? It’s not only stupid, it’s idolatry. Get rid of it. We worship only one God. After you tell somebody your plans, do you knock on wood, hoping that doing so will increase your chances of your plans coming true? Do you cross your fingers for luck? Do you see how silly and un-Christian this is? We may live among pagans who do these things, but we should not do as they do.
When you get up on the wrong side of the bed do you fear bad luck? When you see that it’s Friday the 13th do you fear impending doom? Do you avoid the 13th of anything? Think about this. Avoiding walking under a ladder at least has a possible safety reason; a toolbox on the top of the ladder could fall and kill you, or a can of paint could fall on you and make a jolly mess, so it makes sense to avoid walking under ladders, but why on earth do we avoid the number 13? Attributing bad luck to the number 13 is 100% pure superstition and idolatry and it really bothers me that so many people do it but nobody ever confesses it. Some day somebody will come into confession and say “Bless me, Father, it has been one week since my last confession. I broke the 1st Commandment by being afraid of bad luck last Friday the 13th,” and you know, hearing that will make my day, because finally somebody had the guts to confess a sin that almost everybody commits. But so far, nobody has ever confessed it.
When a black cat crosses your path, do you change direction to avoid having bad luck? Do you believe that killing a ladybug will bring you bad luck? Do you never open an umbrella in the house because doing so brings bad luck? Do you never put a hat on a bed because that brings bad luck? Do you avoid wearing certain colors because they bring you bad luck? (I’m not referring to inner-city Los Angeles where you do have to worry about what color you’re wearing because if you wander into some gang-infested area wearing the wrong colors you might get shot. No, I mean the silly way actors and actresses avoid wearing green to auditions, and tennis players avoid wearing yellow. It’s so stupid.) If you stumble over a threshold, do you fear bad luck? Do you avoid stepping on the cracks in the sidewalk? Why? Why are you so quick to attribute such powers to such silly things? Go ahead and stomp on the cracks on that sidewalk; the only thing you’ll hurt is your foot.
Do you throw salt over your shoulder for good luck? That’s idolatry. Don’t attribute to salt the power that only God has. Do you wear a scapular in the belief that it’s your guarantee of getting into heaven? That’s idolatry. No physical object, including scapulars or any other sacred object, has any power to do anything whatsoever. Catholics used to know this because they studied sacramental theology as part of their catechism. But nowadays we have thousands of Catholics, maybe even millions, walking around feeling plum certain that they’re going to go to heaven because of some piece of cloth. For crying out loud, Jesus gave us the straight scoop on this 2000 years ago! How long will it take before his words sink in?
Never attribute to things or to actions the powers that only God has. To do so is to worship a false god, and breaks the 1st Commandment.
The so-called New Age Movement is exactly this sort of silliness carried to its extreme. It teaches that crystals have all kinds of powers. This is idiotic. Crystals do have the power to refract light, to be used as decorations and paperweights and weapons if need be, but that’s about all. Holding a crystal against a wound in the hope that it’ll heal the wound does nothing more than make you look like a moron. New Agers also attribute all kinds of mystical powers to pyramids. The whole thing would be funny if it weren’t sinful. Please remember this: it’s not just cute or innocent, nor is it even merely pathetically stupid: it’s superstitious, it’s idolatry, it’s wrong, it’s sinful. Especially now that we live in a rapidly shrinking world in which cultures interact so often, it’s vital that we stop these behaviors and learn to reach together for the truth of how the world really does work, and together we can come to know more and more about the One Who really designed it to be the beautiful, good place that it is.
May that same God bless us all.