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Wand Envy

The magician made a modest request. Could he and his friends from the local chapter of the Society of American Magicians perform the “broken wand ceremony” at my grandfather’s open-casket, Catholic funeral?  

My resistance, bordering on physical revulsion, to the casual syncretism of wand and crucifix is difficult to explain and makes me sound like a cultural bully, but I think Joseph Campbell can help me out here. Throughout the history of the Christian cult,” he wrote in Creative Mythology, “the liability of its historicized symbols to reinterpretation in some general mythological sense has been a constant danger.”

Or, put another way, keep your wand in your pocket. We do our own magic here. Indeed, we have our own magic wand. According to my treasured Dictionary of Symbols (a Penguin reference), the Bishop’s staff or “crosier” has the same approximate function as a magic wand, both of which confer hieratic status upon the owner. “Like the staff, the wand is the symbol of authority and of second sight.”

And yet, the symbols appear to be in competition rather than mutually reinforcing, evoking from me a swift rejection to the Magician’s plea. And what was he asking for? Nothing more than the radical inclusivity one might expect of a mythologist. And yet, Campbell, whose unum mundum philosophy underlies every important work of his oeuvre, recognized the limits of interfaith exchange.

“For, as every serious study of intercultural exchange has shown, it is simply a fact—a basic law of history, applicable to every department of life—that materials carried from any time past to a time present, or from one culture to another, shed their values at the culture portal and thereafter become mere curiosities or undergo a sea change through a process of creative misunderstanding” (Masks of God, Volume 4: Creative Mythology, 137).

In short, the pairing of your Wal-Mart magic wand with our bishop’s sacred crosier does credit to neither, bringing the dime-store novelty a step closer to a status it frankly should never have and simultaneously taking the fun out of it. Or, worse, from the Catholic’s point of view, the puissance of cross and crosier are reduced, their mystic voltage diminished, the spiritual charge sputtering from the association to a cheap contender in the field. 

It is a sad fact of life that men cannot help comparing their wands. When Harry Potter shows up in the Little Hangleton graveyard in a duel with Lord Voldemort, their respective wands, both composed of a phoenix-feather core, refuse to attack one another. They are “brother wands.” 

The officiating priest at my grandfather’s funeral would probably balk at recognizing any “brother wand” equivalences at play in the Requiem Mass underway in the Sanctuary. More typical is the wand contest of the book of Exodus, where Aaron throws down his staff and it becomes a snake. Not to be outdone, Egyptian magicians do the same. Aaron and Moses watch as their predatory wand literally swallows the wands of the opposing tribe, the Egyptians. 

Catholic magic, it could be argued, is on the order of miracle, never a “trick.” It is a miracle going by the tongue twister transubstantiation in which ordinary bread is transformed into the body and blood of Christ. 

The distinction between miracle and trick is not always obvious. When a professional illusionist is about the do the big reveal where the broken egg emerges from the hat as a full grown rabbit, he might (in simpler times) be heard to say “Hocus Pocus Dominocus,” a medieval corruption [many scholars agree] of the words “Hoc Est Corpus meum” (This is my body) said by the priest to announce the completion of the mystic conversion of flour to flesh. 

So, on that level, the magician could be forgiven for thinking he is among friends. And what about that water into wine business? And those loaves and fishes? How is the magician asking you to pick a card, a different species from the Savior telling the women to roll back the stone? Are they not at least on the spectrum of the same archetypal figure? If so, why do I find the idea of a magic wand in church so provocative?

Campbell had a similar reaction to a third-century panel of graven images which once adorned the ceiling of Rome’s Domitilla catacomb. “In the center of the panel, where a symbol of Christ might have been expected, the legendary founder of the Orphic mysteries appears, the pagan poet Orpheus, soothing animals of the wilderness with the magic of his lyre and song” (14). It’s not just an anachronism. It ignores the ocean of philosophic difference separating the Orphic mysteries and the early Church and, maybe worse, ruins the aesthetic. It doesn’t belong. It’s the wrong kind of magic.  

The magician’s request to place his magic wand in the open casket of the late Jack Steck, my beloved grandfather, was not a crime, nor a sin. It was just presumptuous. Catholics are no longer a miracle-dependent faith community. We’re more like this:

I never saw him calm the sea

Nor change the water to wine

But he has calmed the rage in me

And changed my heart and my mind

I never saw him multiply the loaves and fishes one day

But he has multiplied my love which

grows more when given away.

I wrote this song to remind the audience or congregation that the best miracles do not require the suspension of the laws of physics.  So, nothing personal, Magic Man. I know you loved my grandfather who, himself, was a card-carrying member of your society. But it’s no longer about magic. We’ve moved on.

The magicians ignored me. When they got to the coffin, they encircled it, spoke their words of commendation, snapped the wand in half, and placed it somewhere on the body of my grandfather. It was inappropriate, ill-considered, contrary to rubrics of the one true faith, and absolutely adorable.


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