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February 28, 2011

What Is Occultism? An Orthodox Christian Response

By Valery Dukhanin

Let us begin with a short but true story. A child comes home from school and sees that the floor is sprinkled all over with rice. "Mama, what happened?" he says. "I am expelling bad energy from the house," she answers her son, explaining the practice of some Eastern mystic or other, where you sprinkle the "charmed" rice all over the floor. Who would have supposed that in the twenty-first century, alongside electronics, high technology and other scientific advances, the same old superstitious attraction to occultism would hang on. Everyone knows that many modern singers and actors are into Kabbalah. For example, Madonna personally founded a center for the study of Kabbalah in London, and others have followed her example — Elizabeth Taylor, Mick Jagger, Paris Hilton, Courtney Love, Phillip Kirikorov, Lolita Milyavskaya, to name only a few. The Norwegian Princess Martha Louise in 2010 announced her dedication to esoteric teachings and spiritualism. Businessmen attentively watch the astrology forecasts, and some politicians and athletes even go to psychics and other sorcerers before serious undertakings.

Occultism (from the Latin occultus, meaning secret, hidden) is the mysterious teachings and cults that express a longing to penetrate the spiritual world, learn about the powers there, and possess them. This seems to be just as mysterious as the creaking of an old door in an abandoned barn, when children peek in with a mixture of fear and curiosity. Occultism considers that in man, nature, and the cosmos there are mysterious, supernatural powers, which can be revealed and discovered. Occultism calls people to take possession of these powers and use them to reach a more perfect life on earth. But isn't that what religion also calls man to do? In religion (by which we mean firstly Christianity, as true religion), knowledge of the spiritual world comes after constant communion with God. In occultism, man attempts to break through to spiritual powers, bypassing God.

"When I started dabbling in occultism" — the author of these lines is a former sorcerer who possessed psychic abilities — "I was amazed at the effect and possibilities that magic opened to me. Those who came to me for advice or help were clearly convinced about the invisible power that worked for them through my practice." Occultism views the spiritual world itself as an instrument for personal gain — egoism is the fundamental motivating force of the occultist. The motto of the successful occultist is: "I am not like the others; I can get what is off limits to other people." Occultism is most obviously expressed in magic. Magic is the attempt to possess supernatural and natural powers through spells, rituals, and special mystical actions.

When did occultism appear?

There is an ancient monument, the Akkadian[1] seal, dated to the second millennium B.C. In the center of this cylinder is a depiction of a tree with seven branches and two fruits. On either side of the tree are two figures with outstretched arms — judging by the headdress, a man and a woman. Behind the woman rises a snake. This is an ancient depiction of the sin of our forefathers. The seduction of occultism is directly connected with man's first fall into sin. The devil tempted our forefather and foremother by telling them that if they taste of the forbidden fruit, they will receive secret knowledge that will make them powerful, like gods: "In the day you eat of it (the forbidden fruit) your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil" (Gen. 3:5).

What could that tempter have offered the first humans? After all, from the very beginning, man was called to be like God, and God had given the first-created man and woman authority over the earthly world: "Then God blessed them, and God said to them, 'Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it; have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth'" (Gen. 1:28). True, retaining that authority and royal dignity was only possible on the path of union with God, and required that man force himself and work on himself accordingly. It seems that Satan suggested a simpler, easier method. He suggested that the fruits themselves supposedly possessed some magical power that would make man equal to God. The woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise (Gen. 3:6). At the snake's suggestion, Eve tasted the forbidden fruit because she wanted to receive that special knowledge, which was supposedly hidden in the fruit. The mistake made by the first man and woman was that they regarded the tree in paradise as some sort of mysterious talisman, which they could take by force and instantly become independent rulers of the whole world.

Thus, the first-created man's fall into sin was the initial source of occult practice, the basis of magic and the search for secret knowledge. If before sin man and woman abided in a very close inner communion with God, and their well-being depended upon this, then in their fall, God ceased to be the dearest, inmost good that hallowed life from within. Now, the forbidden fruit — that external yet alluring object — became a "golden key" for man, by which he thought to achieve independent happiness and become a self-sufficient ruler of his own existence. If the first-created man's authority over the world could only be realized in the presence of his personal harmony with God, now man was trying to reach perfection "through the back door." From that time on, we have people who want to possess mystical powers and abilities, and come up with various magic rituals or verbal formulas in order to influence the world — to become "like gods" without God. People acquire mystical knowledge, are proud of it, and then, like our fore-parents, lose absolutely everything.

In the office of a psychic you will find a particularly mesmerizing atmosphere — mysterious semi-darkness, candles in candlesticks, a crystal ball; the visitor is also given a special relaxing tea. In this lulling atmosphere, a person lets down his guard, and his initial mistrust of the psychic is dulled. Then the psychic makes some motions to get the visitor to concentrate, focus his attention, and interact with him. The psychic then makes a visible display of his authority and capability. The patient feels completely dependent upon the "miracle-worker" and quickly agrees to every recommendation that the "specialist" convincingly makes. This is how the psychic gradually casts his spell over the visitor, just as the snake cast his spell over first-created Eve.

Just what practices are related to occultism are set forth quite clearly in the Church's rite of renouncing occult practices. After a thorough confession of occult practices, before the prayer of absolution is read, the priest asks questions which the penitent answers using the proscribed phrases. In the rite, we read:

Question: Do you admit that the practice of the various forms of occultism, such as psychics, bioenergetics, contactless massage, hypnosis, folk healing, non-traditional medicine, coding, removal of hexes, sorcery, magic charms, fortunetelling, contact with spirits, invoking poltergeists, spiritualism, astrology, contacting the "higher reason," UFOs, tapping into "cosmic energies," parapsychology, telepathy, "deep psychology," yoga and other Eastern cults, meditation, and other forms of occultism lead to a deepened association with fallen spirits?

Answer: I admit it, and repent of those practices.

Thus, all psychics, folk healers, psychotherapists using hypnotic suggestion, bioenergetics therapists who work on people through their "biofield", sorcerers, witch doctors, psychic healers, ufologists, astrologers, fortunetellers, and the like are all occultists.

Psychics themselves insist that they heal people using special powers they possess, which they call biological current, bioenergetics, accumulated cosmic energy, and so on. Many of them regard themselves as possessing a power given them by God Himself. In fact, occultism is essentially a connection with the world of evil spirits that is forbidden by God; as is stated in the rite, occult knowledge "leads to a deepened association with fallen spirits."

So, is occultism an authentic way of knowing the spiritual world?

If we want to see what is in a picture gallery, we can go through the entrance accessible to all, providing we have fulfilled all the necessary conditions and paid the fees, and then we will see authentic masterpieces. We could also go there at night, after hours, sneak through the window of a back corridor and follow where it leads. No unlawful method has ever led to a true vision of art, because a completely adequate review requires an appropriately lofty emotional disposition, and not the curiosity of a thief, who might see the exhibit of true art from afar but not comprehend its depth, or perhaps limit himself to a vision of mortars and pestles, brooms, and cheap horseshoes over the doors of the outbuildings. Occultism has never lifted people to true spiritual heights; it has only limited their participation to spheres, which, although non-material, are still very far from holy. The inhabitants of that world are just as fallen as man himself is.

Occultism is foreign to Divine Revelation. If it uses the Bible, it uses it only as one of the mysterious books over which occultists might even tell fortunes, but which they do not consider to be the irrefutable word of God. The famous occult theorist and practitioner Rudolf Steiner wrote: "When the occultist speaks, he does not give dogmas; he gives his living experiences. He tells what he has seen on the astral and spiritual planes, or what was revealed to him by his teachers who he has recognized as such."[2] For example, the authoritative sorcerer Aleister Crowley wrote his Book of the Law in a trance-like state, at the dictation of an unseen spirit. The famous [Russian] psychic Allan Chumak writes in his book, For Those Who Believe in Miracles, that he was taught in a special way by voices speaking in his head, "working in turns to give dictation." He summarized the "revelation" and used it as a guide to his healing practice. Furthermore, as Chumak insists, the voices only taught him to use his own methods to heal people and supposedly never cause them any harm; they also told him about how the world is ordered.

Occultism is largely a distorted spirituality in which a person strives to affirm himself with the help of "hidden" powers, instead of by communion with God and by strengthening himself through God's grace. Therefore, occultism always appears in those places where there is little or no knowledge of true spiritual life. In Russia in the 1990's, occultism came in as a replacement for materialism and flooded the length and breadth of our native land like a burst sewer pipe. [This replacement of materialism happened several decades earlier in the West, while the occultists Steiner and Crowley whom the author mentions lived at the turn of the twentieth century. —Ed.] Surges of occultism can always be observed during periods of crisis and social upheaval, when people want to solve their plight through some kind of invisible help, know the future, avert disaster through simple magic, and other people take advantage of the situation for their own easy gain. Although the acute phase of this attraction to "secret knowledge" has passed, the attraction has remained in its chronic form. It comes up in everyday life as spells and talismans, superstitious signs and astrological forecasts, and as all possible methods of expanded consciousness and discovery of inner, hidden abilities.

Occultism has its own technology: do this or that, and you will definitely get what you are after. Unfortunately, this is often transferred to religion, when Church rites and prayers are viewed as preventative rituals, which by themselves provide a person with every possible benefit. The first child of Adam and Eve, Cain, already regarded religion as a magical protection against earthly problems. Having lost God's blessing, he said, "Now, anyone who finds me will kill me: (Gen. 4:14). That is, if I had not come under Your wrath I would not have lost the special protection, and my earthly life would be immune from any danger. He regarded religion itself as nothing more than a means of obtaining earthly well-being, like a certain magical key that opens the lock on earthly happiness.

People who have a magical consciousness at the expense of religion think to obtain earthly comfort, while God Himself is superfluous to them. Christ said of such people, "You seek Me … because you ate of the loaves and were filled" (Jn. 6:26). A person with a magical consciousness would like to receive that golden key, the magic wand, and use it to obtain various benefits. For example a modern Kabbalah adept (or of any kind of magic) can be recognized by the red woolen yarn on his wrist. They consider that a person who loves you should tie seven knots into a piece of yarn and pronounce a special incantation that is supposed to protect you from jealousy, evil eye, and other negative charms. It all boils down to a particular ritual or verbal formula as a kind of tool or instrument that helps you to turn your life's switch from sickness to health, or from suffering to well-being.

Christian spiritual life, on the other hand, is founded upon completely different principles. The most precious thing a man has is his eternal soul, and therefore spiritual well-being comes before fleshly well-being. Heavenly treasure has more meaning than earthly treasure. Man is created in the image of God, and therefore he can only be truly happy with God. Living converse with God with a penitential renunciation of sin is the stabilizing core of spiritual life. Keeping God's commandments with sincere, warm prayer, and confession with participation in the Church services gives the soul a freedom and joy which nothing in this world can give. If occultism lures by flattery into powerfulness but then enslaves the soul to merciless demons, Christianity makes a person who fulfills God's will truly strong, for when one is with God, he lacks nothing—the inner treasure fills the outer lack. Of course, there is no breathtaking mystical flight here, as when the soul caught up in occultism thinks that it is fluttering upwards, while it is in fact plummeting into an abyss. True spiritual life comes about peacefully, naturally, simply — gradually transforming the soul and inspiring it towards a pure, clear, and sensible life. It is the path of ascent upon which we regain that paradisal harmony and union with the Lord, once lost through the flattering seduction of occultism.

[1] Sumeria and Mesopotamia.
[2] Priest Pavel Khondzinsky, Against Steiner: about the Waldorf schools (Moscow, 2001), 17.