A recent article in a local newspaper’s Business section featured a write-up on how a person’s occult business located in the middle of a popular downtown store where one would often head to to purchase computer peripherals had made close to $100,000 upon a couple of weeks of its opening. The shop featured tarot readings, and sold all paraphernalia pertaining to witchcraft and occult, from haunted dolls, curses, spells, and love potions. While the occult movements in Singapore had been mostly covert operations set in dingy and dodgy corridors of fairly non-descript shopping malls in the peripheries of Orchard Road, Chinatown, and Bukit Timah, this article feature highlighted a change in modus operandi. Instead of hiding and being disguised behind other legitimate shopfronts, the dark arts was now marketed in a manner which seemed fashionable, cute, bright and cheery, neon-light lit, and seductive to the every day person. This was a trend that previously was only found in places like the United States of America and Australia, where New Age shopfronts selling things like esoteric meditation bowls designed to open your charkras, to worry and voodoo dolls were openly peddling their wares in the streets. Yet this problem can be found in places as diverse as Hongdae in Korea, where many shopfronts offer the telling of one’s fortune, to the different Chinatowns, and Little Indias around the world, where palmistry, astrology, and face-reading services are offered aplenty.
The popularity of such occult practices and the manner to which it is marketed specially to appeal to the young and impressionable, is a serpentine creature lurking and waiting to pounce dangerously. As it is, access to occult material is easily obtainable. There are legitimate bookshops with whole sections dedicated to the New Age, where one could easily purchase a deck of tarot cards or an ouija board.
The Church teaching is succinct with regard to the practice of the occult, superstition, divination, magic, and idolatory:
“YOU SHALL HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME”
2110 The first commandment forbids honoring gods other than the one Lord who has revealed himself to his people. It proscribes superstition and irreligion. Superstition in some sense represents a perverse excess of religion; irreligion is the vice contrary by defect to the virtue of religion.
2111 Superstition is the deviation of religious feeling and of the practices this feeling imposes. It can even affect the worship we offer the true God, e.g., when one attributes an importance in some way magical to certain practices otherwise lawful or necessary. To attribute the efficacy of prayers or of sacramental signs to their mere external performance, apart from the interior dispositions that they demand, is to fall into superstition.
2112 The first commandment condemns polytheism. It requires man neither to believe in, nor to venerate, other divinities than the one true God. Scripture constantly recalls this rejection of “idols, [of] silver and gold, the work of men’s hands. They have mouths, but do not speak; eyes, but do not see.” These empty idols make their worshippers empty: “Those who make them are like them; so are all who trust in them.” God, however, is the “living God”43 who gives life and intervenes in history.
2113 Idolatry not only refers to false pagan worship. It remains a constant temptation to faith. Idolatry consists in divinizing what is not God. Man commits idolatry whenever he honors and reveres a creature in place of God, whether this be gods or demons (for example, satanism), power, pleasure, race, ancestors, the state, money, etc. Jesus says, “You cannot serve God and mammon.” Many martyrs died for not adoring “the Beast” refusing even to simulate such worship. Idolatry rejects the unique Lordship of God; it is therefore incompatible with communion with God.
2114 Human life finds its unity in the adoration of the one God. The commandment to worship the Lord alone integrates man and saves him from an endless disintegration. Idolatry is a perversion of man’s innate religious sense. An idolater is someone who “transfers his indestructible notion of God to anything other than God.”
Divination and magic
2115 God can reveal the future to his prophets or to other saints. Still, a sound Christian attitude consists in putting oneself confidently into the hands of Providence for whatever concerns the future, and giving up all unhealthy curiosity about it. Improvidence, however, can constitute a lack of responsibility.
2116 All forms of divination are to be rejected: recourse to Satan or demons, conjuring up the dead or other practices falsely supposed to “unveil” the future. Consulting horoscopes, astrology, palm reading, interpretation of omens and lots, the phenomena of clairvoyance, and recourse to mediums all conceal a desire for power over time, history, and, in the last analysis, other human beings, as well as a wish to conciliate hidden powers. They contradict the honor, respect, and loving fear that we owe to God alone.
2117 All practices of magic or sorcery, by which one attempts to tame occult powers, so as to place them at one’s service and have a supernatural power over others – even if this were for the sake of restoring their health – are gravely contrary to the virtue of religion. These practices are even more to be condemned when accompanied by the intention of harming someone, or when they have recourse to the intervention of demons. Wearing charms is also reprehensible. Spiritism often implies divination or magical practices; the Church for her part warns the faithful against it. Recourse to so-called traditional cures does not justify either the invocation of evil powers or the exploitation of another’s credulity.
The problem is the disguise of evil as good, or the purveyance of half-truths. Many Catholics while religious, and faithful on one hand, have fallen into the trap of accommodating such practices especially those of superstitious beliefs. Part of this issue is cultural. It is difficult to remove oneself from a particular practice if it has been a cultural practice that has been passed down from one generation to the next.
For example in the Chinese and Vietnamese cultural belief system, the animal zodiac signs feature very strongly in a person’s life. The Chinese and Vietnamese celebrations of the Lunar New Year feature strongly the ascendency of each zodiac animal in any given year, and vast fortunes are paid out to fortune tellers and feng shui geomancers to write out each animal’s zodiac predictions for the year. While the Indian cultural belief system is tied in every closely to the practice of astrology, where the stars are consulted for every thing – auspicious wedding dates, persons to hire and promote, new houses to purchase. Some martial arts for instance can be traced back to esoteric practices and beliefs. The Indian Kalaripayyatu for instance, while innocent enough as an ancient bodily practice designed to win victory in the battlefield, in some mythologies, is attributed to Lord Parasurama, the sixth incarnation of Lord Vishnu, after he supposedly reclaimed the land of Kerala from the Arabian Sea. Beyond that, the preparation for a Kalaripayyatu showcase often includes rituals of purification (the ankam) where the chekavans – practitioner would adorn himself in sacred ashes and sandal paste with the aims of obtaining the blessing of the kalari paradevata(family deity) (Kerala Tourism, n.d.)
Of controversy is the practice of yoga. While the movements are in themselves neutral bearing no good or bad, as moving the body into certain positions does not necessarily engage a person in any magical or spiritual activity, the practice of yoga becomes problematic when yoga is seen and practised as a path of spiritual enlightenment. In 1989, then Cardinal, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, wrote extensively about the practice of Christian Meditation, to which we can borrow some aspects to discuss more in depth about yoga. “Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and of warmth” (28) The problem arises when the physiological effects of yoga postures become mistakenly misconstrued as spiritual effects: “To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations” (Ratzinger, 1989, 28).
These physical sensations which may in themselves be pleasant and seratonin inducing, must and should not be confused with the deep and profound spiritual ecstasies reported and documented in the Saints. To head doggedly down this path, is not only foolish, it is downright dangerous.
Some contentious points of yoga:
- Monism – an ideology that states that all which exists are one. Monism believes that any distinction between God and humanity is an illusion and it is possible for Man to become “one” and the “the same” with the Divine. With yoga, there is a danger of the “personal self or the nature of a creature being dissolved or disappearing into the sea of the Absolute” (Ratzinger, 1989, 15) to borrow a similar discussion surrounding Christian meditation. This can be seen in the chants often used to accompany yoga – “So’ham” (pronounced so-hum). This mantra “means ‘I am He,’ that is, ‘I am the universal Self,’” which practitioners recommend you repeat in time to your breathing—so on the inhale, ham on the exhale (Feuerstein and Payne, 2014, p. 317). When we participate in such ritual chants, even as part of an exercise regime like yoga, we may be actually harming ourselves by expressing a teaching that is contrary to our own Faith.
- Gnosticism – yoga as a spiritual practice emphasizes a by and large detachment from the material and an entering into the esoteric. This echoes the heresy of Gnosticism which states that freedom is found in the renouncing of the material and that salvation through the discovery and fostering of secret, inner knowledge.
- Idolatry/Polytheism – some branches of yoga directly pay homage to certain deities of the Hindu pantheon. In these yogic branches, certain poses directly depict the Hindu deities. The Hanumanasana is a representative pose of the monkey god Hanuman; the Natarajasana represents the dancing Shiva; the Virabhadrasana is a pose that is said to come directly from a lock of the god Shiva’s hair; the Vasisthasana recalls one of the seven great Rishis; the Matsyendrasana pose represents an incarnation of Avalokiteshvara, a boddhisatva, and is known as the fish god; while the Astavakrasana pays homage to a vedic sage. (cf. Kremer, 2013)
The inclination to certain esoteric rituals is not a new fascination. In the 19th century, various movements of spiritualism had become popular, and some Anglo-clergy of that Victorian age, found themselves enticed by the lure of seances and the occult. The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, established in 1887, was devoted to the Western esoteric tradition, and practised various forms of initiatory ritual magic, the Golden Dawn recruited heavily from the clergy, especially that of the Anglican order. Revd William Alexander Ayton was one such British Anglican clergyman, was the Vicar of Chacombe from 1873-1894, but he had an interest in alchemy, and soon found himself involved with the activities of the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Campbell, 2001; Worrad, 2020).
In the 21st century, this fascination has found its way into popular culture. Recess Games played by children, and made popular through social media apps like Tik Tok, have also entered into this murky realm. A popular game, Ask Charlie, places a spinning pen in the centre and asks “Charlie” for answers, recalling ouija boards and seances, while movies and popular culture create representations of the occult in a positive light, while animations like Devil Survivor 2, and The Summoning are cartoons presenting with rites of satanism and that which teach children how to summon demons.
The words of 1 Peter 5: 8-11 resound as a warning ever more loudly today:
Catechism of the Catholic Church. (n.d.) Lev Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Campbell, M. (2001). Strange World of the Brontes. Sigma Leisure.
Feuerstein G. & Payne, L. (2014). Yoga for Dummies. (3rd edition). For Dummies.
Kerala Tourism. (n.d.) Kalaripayyatu. Department of Tourism. Governement of Kerala. Retrieved July 8, 2021 from, https://www.keralatourism.org/kalaripayattu/origin/introduction
Kremer, W. (2013, November 21). Does doing Yoga make you a Hindu? BBC News. Retrieved July 8, 2021, from, https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-25006926
Ratzinger, J. (1989, October 15). Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on some aspects of Christian Meditation. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Lev Libreria Editrice Vaticana.
Worrad, T. (2020). A Cure for Disenchantment: Smaragdum Thalasses Temple, Havelock North, New Zealand. Preternature: Critical and Historical Studies on the Preternatural, 9(2), 267-298. doi:10.5325/preternature.9.2.0267