The last few years of my graduate studies were (as I suppose you can tell if you are a long time reader of this blog) seemingly nothing but an extended sequence of personal crises forced upon me by economic exigencies and interpersonal pressures. One of the unexpected outcomes of this period was that I was gradually pushed into a much more supernatural understanding of the Christian faith, and of religion generally, as a source of human hope. Previously, Christianity had been a rather agnostic matter of culture and ethics; by the summer of my doctoral fieldwork, it had become a question of passionate love and hopes for real supernatural efficacy. (This post, in which I am outraged that a blogger has termed supernaturally-efficacious religion “illusory religion” and renunciation/Stoicism “true religion,” is a pretty clear indication of the change).
This change meant that my interest in Catholic folk magic moved from being something entirely academic, an adjunct of doctoral research on inculturation, to a concrete practical interest I thought might have some positive impact of my life. You can see my usual agnostic approach to Catholic folk magic in ethnographic summaries of work I contracted with various practitioners archived on this blog. Despite the fact that a Tarot reading about colleagues I renamed Jansen and Joses was spot-on about both characters, I speculated on the non-supernatural mechanisms which could have made the reading successful. Similar skepticism surfaces in my account of Catholic inculturation/fortune-telling at a Hispanica botanica. I don’t think the younger version of myself who wrote these accounts could have anticipated a time when I became naively convinced of the supernatural efficacy of these practices.
Due to a sequence of disasters after my doctoral defense, I’ve been regularly performing an improvised folk magical ritual I jokingly term “Newman Puja,” directed at transforming a negative situation through appealing to Blessed John Henry Newman as intercessor. This practice has generated a sequence of minor miracles, for which I am thankful, but it has also provided for a significant and regular exchange of interpersonal love between myself and the saints and benefactors I call upon in the ritual, deepening devotion.
Though it isn’t technically one of the “three miracles of Newman” I wish to narrate but rather the culmination of them, I’d like to narrate a minor supernatural happening which occurred after I fell peacefully asleep after Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve. I didn’t realize what was happening within the dream itself, which makes me feel the dream was less a product of my own subconscious mind than a supernatural communication, but the interpretation was obvious enough upon waking.
I found myself in a place I recognized upon awakening was Newman’s Birmingham Oratory, and I was not myself, but apparently Ambrose St. John. Newman, who loves me as his sort of Beloved Disciple, called upon me to prepare a sort of positio for the Vatican on the liceity and efficacy of Catholic folk magic, which of course I was eager with all love and devotion to fulfill, even though I was so pressured and overworked it was driving me into a sort of nervous breakdown. Of course I am able to do it; it is in the end rather easy to do, and the results look something like a composite between my doctoral dissertation and a narrative of the three miracles of Newman I will ultimately relate. At some point in the dream, I rave dangerously, but Newman holds me with patience and undisguised love. Everything that is painful soothes into peace and contentment and a sense of blessing. I wake up, near my little Newman shrine where I do my puja, and see a framed 19th C. photograph of Newman staring down at me, along with the prayer card a mentor once gave me which reads “heart speaks to heart.” And of course everything is right with the world. Clearly, this dream and blessing are the saint’s Christmas gift to someone who has loved him all year.
Perhaps the dream is meant to be interpreted as a call to submit any further miraculous occurrences, or the three miracles of Newman themselves, to the postulator of Newman’s cause for canonization. Pursuit of canonization is the normal function of a positio, and the dream positio hinged centrally on proving that miraculous occurrences brought about through borderline magical practicees such as “Newman Puja” are proper and licit for Christians in just the way I would expect a real postulator to be required to defend such practices as orthodox for them to called upon in support of Newman’s canonization.