Priests and witches

Rob Howard is a writer and guest psychology lecturer at Chico State University

In Ann Rice’s The Witching Hour, the occult, the paranormal, ambition and rape and incest are weeds wrapped up in a bouquet of Southern manners, tradition and duplicity. It could make for a sensual escapist read if it did not so accurately reflect reality.

I think the fascination humans have for the supernatural is driven by two fears: of mystery, and of making decisions that call for great courage and hope. How conventional religion contrasts itself with witchcraft is often suspect. Praying for gratification seems as occult as casting a spell. Each seeks a magical solution that is neither timely nor appropriate.

It is easy to see Rice’s witches as grandiose whores seduced by their power and the enormous emerald a ghost bestows on them. But as Rice crafts the rich history of these witches, I see them tugged by the light as well as the dark. Her witches are never totally evil, no more than a priest is totally holy. It is this reality on which religious concepts like sin and redemption depend.

This brings me to the Catholic Church’s “sex scandal,” a euphemism for institutionalized rape. Men raped children under the guise of God. Other men covered up the rapes, evoking the good the Church does in God’s name. Men, forced finally, not by integrity and true sorrow, but by harsh media lights, meet in bishop’s councils to decide what to do. Just like Rice’s witches, it seems tough for some of these men to give up the glittering emerald of incestuous power and simply serve.

How many collared men have preached against witchcraft while hiding rape? Where are the women who might have brewed up a different response had they not been pushed onto the fringes of the church, left to dance in the shadows, where it is easy to ignore or misconstrue them? Who are the real practitioners of black magic, standing at the pulpit as if it were their cauldron, using sermons to smother sobs?

Men and women are both driven by impulse and blindness to misuse power. Both can be redeemed, not by magical tricks, but by owning up and then pledging themselves to safeguard one another’s innocence and promise. Whether I’m in a coven or a congregation, the thread binding me to the other is that we fear being alone in making sense of our lives. Prayers and spells both speak to our shared faith that something larger than us seeks to assist us, as Albus Dumbledore teaches Harry Potter.

Perhaps if priest and witch could kneel down together, men and women would become re-enchanted with each other rather than damaged by each other’s deceptions.

Perhaps books and movies seek to teach us that we don’t have to abandon mystery to become antidotes to the shadows we all bear. For this, I thank my version of God.