Witches and Sorcerers
1 Samuel 28:3-25
In our story from Samuel today, King Saul is desperate for help. He has turned from God. Instead of following what God told him to do, he decided he knew better and went his own way. Now, his world is falling apart. The Philistines are closing in on him and he doesn’t know what to do. His mentor, the Prophet Samuel is dead. But he needs his advice. So he goes to a medium and asks her to conjure up Samuel’s ghost.
Now Saul had made a campaign of exterminating the mediums, psychics and witches in the land. Now he needs what he tried to destroy. Our witch of Endor is understandably suspicious.
One of the points of this story is to show how far Saul has fallen. He no longer relies on God and resorts to a medium to find his way out. And it turns out that he isn’t given a way out: the ghost of Samuel tells him that in the morning he will die. And indeed he does … on the battlefield, by his own hand.
But today given that it is Halloween and it’s a fun day when we let our imaginations roam over all sorts of mythological creatures and heroes, I want to look closer not at Saul but at the witch of Endor.
Mediums, witches, sorcerers, and psychics have been with us from time immemorial. The ancients oscillated between soliciting their help and hunting them down. They were almost universally feared for their apparent ability to communicate with the spirit world, work magic and to see into the future.
Today, these folks are still with us. We generally don’t take them very seriously and most of us would see them as frauds … or at least plague by frauds among them. Sometimes we hear reports of amazing insight and feats that seem somehow creditable, but we remain suspicious. Some scientists have actually tried to pin down if there really are psychic abilities. But they’ve never been able to come to any conclusive proof.
Yet there seems to be an attraction by us of these stories and so-called powers. So I’m going to suggest a spiritual outlook on our witch of Endor … in tribute to today’s holiday.
I believe that the spiritual world is all about us. We invoke God in our prayers … that’s one of our primary spiritual activities. If we take seriously our Sacrament of Communion, that is a very spiritual experiece too of recognizing the presence of the Holy Spirit among us at the table as the host of the meal.
But there are more mundane experiences that touch on the spiritual. I suspect most of you have had the experience of walking in the dark apparently alone and sensing that there’s someone walking behind you. We’ve also heard stories of mothers who know their children are in trouble, right now, even though their children our miles away out of sight. I even had something of a similar experience some years ago when I was going to visit a patient. As I was driving, it came to me that she had just died. And sure enough when I arrived she had just passed. Maybe it was a random thought, but I like to think that we are spiritually connected and sometimes that connection manifests itself in a clear thought.
We do have a sixth sense that connects us to other humans … and to God … in some manner that defies the other senses. This is also the sense that we use to “feel” spiritual in nature. How many thousands of poems have been written about the sunset and the dawn? They are written because many people experience something very special that they would call spiritual, but for which they have no objective words. We can feel this spiritual connection in the early morning sunlight filtering through Fall leaves on a tree. We can sense a spiritual power at dusk when the world seems more mythological and fairy-like, when nature seems softer, less sharply delineated and full of myth.
We can tune up this sense if we intentionally use it. For example, we can look at an old tree and see only deterioration. Or we can see life renewing:
Old apple tree
you are awakening in the Spring
leaves leafing and
pretty pink buds appearing
promising blooms and fruits ...
Just to be uncared for
and grow and never ripen
to be wormy and drop off
and rot on the ground –
a messy, smelly nuisance
But the worms and bugs
— and soil –
they partake of your unvalued fruit
rejoicing in you, your beauty, and your promise –
as old and gnarled as you are
Old apple tree
sleeping in the Winter gray
quiet as death
alive as the womb
I suggest that a distinction can be made between the spiritual world that I have described and the spirit world in which I do not believe.
Mediums, so-called witches, and psychics descend from the notion of a spirit world. This is an invisible world populated by ghosts of the deceased, vampires and demons. These are sometimes fun and scary Halloween stories, but the spirit world is often a world out to get us … and with which we are at war. Our Puritan ancestors most certainly believed in this world. That’s why they were so frightened of witches: witches were fallen humans, typically women (of course!) who had been seduced by Satan into being agents of the spirit world. The spirit world was out to corrupt us and take us from the righteous life.
This notion has mellowed out over the decades. There are advocates to reclaim and restore the “true” spirit world as not evil and wrongfully portrayed as such by the Church. Nonetheless it is a world that people want to manipulate into giving them what they want. You invoke a ghost to answer a question or even do something for you… not a prayer, because the ghost has an obligation to do what you want … or at least you hope that that is the case.
I claim there really isn’t any such world. It’s fun to tell stories, particularly scary stories at this time of year. But that’s all they are. But often the mystery of the spiritual life is confused as being the spirit world. The spirit world is fundamentally a child of our pessimism. In this view, the world is full of evil – full of demons. The psychics can help us survive in this dark world. So are spiritual sense is turned to a defense against evil.
Rather I believe in the spiritual life that I have described. I believe it is God’s divine spirit moving among us. It is not a world populated by strange creatures. Rather it is the very world we live in: the spiritual and the physical are intimately intertwined. The spiritual is God moving in our lives and in the world. It is not a child of our pessimism. It is a promise of optimism.
It is a world we cannot prove or even describe scientifically. We need metaphors to describe it. Sometimes we can find metaphors in the old stories we tell. I use the metaphor of a “fairy” and the “green man” to describe God’s spirit moving through nature found in our gardens, our fields, our landscaping and so forth. But I don’t believe fairies are an independent race … just a poetic way of invoking the beauty and the mystery of God’s wonderful, beautiful and ever-giving spirit in nature.
The spiritual cries out for optimism, hope and vision. Whereas manipulating a mythic spirit world is an attempt to deal with being pessimistic, being spiritual and living spiritual calls for us to be optimist. God’s spirit is a free spirit and offers us hope and vision even in the darkest of times. The mythic spirit world is about me. The spiritual is about us.
So what about our witch of Endor? Was she for real or was she a fraud?
Well, we can’t be sure. For that matter we can’t be sure what being “real” is in the circumstances of our story. Maybe being “real” is that she had some ability to anticipate the future of current events or the ability to relate to famous people and express their likely thoughts.
From the story, we can ascertain that she was frightened. She knew that Saul was exterminating “her kind”. So she didn’t really want to help this strange man who came visiting with important looking people. When the stranger asks her to “bring up Samuel” and she is successful at conjuring up the dead Samuel, she realizes that the stranger is King Saul himself. Now she asks herself, can she trust his promise that she would not be harmed? She was savvy enough to bind his trust to her, by serving him a meal. By his acceptance of the meal, by ancient custom, he bound himself to her and could not renege.
But more to the point she appears as amazed at herself at having conjured up Samuel into her house. Was she attempting a fraudulent act on her part and was amazed that the real McCoy showed up? Or was she simply overwhelmed by the power of Samuel’s ghost and the realization that the very dangerous Saul was in her house?
Which ever it was, she had no real control over the result of her magic. The spirit was going to do what the spirit wants. God had a mission to finally settle affairs with Saul. Our witch’s spiritual sense and abilities were merely instruments of God’s spirit in the guise of Samuel. Unlike the spirit world, the spiritual cannot be manipulated into doing what we need. The Spirit of God will go where it will go … but not to corrupt us or scorn us, but to care for us.
Oh, yes, what about Simon the Sorcerer? Well, he’s a good example that our spiritual sense can be used for greedy purposes. It seems almost anything can be used for greed. Simon, until the apostle Philip came along, had quite a following. In some manner he wrought “magic” and folks thought him a messenger of God. But when folks turned to Philip, so did Simon. But it turns out if we read further in the book of Acts, that Simon wanted to pay the apostles to give him the power of the Holy Spirit. For him our 6th sense was just another way to make a buck. But the disciples, never ones to practice magic or psychic abilities, condemned his offer. They, according to the Book of Acts, had this ability so that they could pass to people their change of heart and soul wrought by their love of Jesus. And Simon wanted it too and thought it was for sell. But Simon at last realizes that money deforms and twists the spirit. The spirit is freely given and needs to be freely accepted.
Of all of the things and services in the world, the spiritual … the sense that we are interconnected with people, nature, God and all of time … is freely given to us without cost or conditions. It is for us, in exercising our free will, to use it wisely and compassionately… and not for profit. The spiritual calls us into a life of hope and promise of a bright day.
Both the witch of Endor and Simon Magus were using their spiritual powers to manipulate the spiritual in the guise of the mythical spirit world to gain profit or influence. But the spiritual is unruly and we cannot control it or demand that it perform for us. God’s spirit is not an instrument. Rather the spirit is free and is our link to the divine hope and vision.
And we are to live our life in the embrace of God’s spirit and holy presence among us.
Think about it.
God’s grace and love be with you …