What’s luck got to do with it?

by Fr. John Touloumes

What makes a rabbit’s foot so “lucky?” Why is finding a four-leaf clover a good thing? Why will good ‘fortune’ be with you if you get the largest half of the wishbone? To put it simply, all these ideas have survived from pre-Christian times because people choose to believe in them. Though they are no more legitimate or powerful than the idols the Lord condemned in ancient Israel, many people — including Christians — continue to invest their hope in chance, fortune, and luck.

Many otherwise faithful Christians probably do not see their lottery tickets, knocking on wood or fear of “the evil eye” as a denial of Faith. They often think denying the Faith means an outright verbal rejection of Christ — something most Christians would hopefully refuse to do. If we, as believers, were a bit more sensitive about our the effects of our daily conversations, actions, and attitudes, however, we might find there are various subtle ways in which we still manage to cross that line of pure Faith. Although we wouldn’t dream of wishing someone leaving on a journey, “May Jupiter go with you!,” as did the ancient Romans, it is not unusual to hear an expression like, “Good luck on your trip!” While we should certainly accept the good wishes of friends interested in our well-being, the question we should ask ourselves is, “What’s luck got to do with it?” Does ‘fate’ or ‘luck’ determine the outcome of my trip, or is it the God of heaven and earth, to Whom we proclaim, “You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety” (Psalm 4:8)? Why not send someone off with the prayer, “May God be with you,” or, “May God grant you safe travels!” instead?

In most cases, expressions and practices regarding the idea of luck are not intended as dogmatic confessions, but rather habits we have come to use in everyday life or social and cultural beliefs which surround us. Why do these things persist in a Christian world and an intellectual age?

According to one researcher, “Today, there seems to be no logical reason why a wishbone symbolizes good luck while a broken mirror foretells the opposite, but in earlier times every superstition had a purposeful origin, a cultural background, and a practical explanation. We make the ordinary extraordinary. In fact, there’s scarcely a thing in our environment around which some culture has not woven a superstitious claim: mistletoe, garlic, apples, horseshoes, umbrellas, hiccups, stumbling, crossed fingers.”

In what is, perhaps, the newest and most wide-spread of such practices, the Internet has taken the old superstition of the “chain letter” and spawned a whole new breed of “electronic chain letters” and other such foreign practices.

In order to get a good handle on how to deal with these issues as Orthodox Christians, there are three areas we can consult: the Holy Scriptures, the writings of the holy Fathers, and the services of our Church.

The Bible has quite a bit to say about practices, which divert us from a complete and unswerving faith in the divine authority and ever-presence of our God. In the Book of Ezekiel, God reveals His disgust at the unfaithful practices of His people and even His priests, after which Ezekiel returns to the people proclaiming, “Woe to the women who sew magic bands upon all wrists, and make veils for the heads of persons of every stature.” The ungodly beliefs found in these practices were denounced. Later, though even in the New Testament era — after the death, Resurrection, and Ascension of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ — some Christians still persisted in superstitions and alternate beliefs. St. Paul warned Timothy of this by saying, “Have nothing to do with godless and silly myths. Train yourself in godliness.” (1 Timothy 4:7)

The Fathers are not silent on these matters, either. In Homily VII on the Letter to the Colossians, St. John Chrysostom challenges these practices using the scenario of a mother dealing with a sick child. Under no circumstances, he says, should she turn to magic, charms, or any form of foreign belief: “Are you one of the faithful? Make the sign the Cross! Say, ‘This I have for my only weapon; this for my remedy; and [of] others I know none.’”

“Tell me,” he continues, “if a physician should come to you, and, neglecting the remedies belonging to his art, should use incantation, should we call that man a physician? By no means, for here we do not see the medicines of the healing art.” Neither, he concludes, do we see the healing power of the Christian faith when other beliefs are employed.

St. Basil, in his Homily Concerning Envy relegates the idea of “the evil eye” to its proper place by saying, “Some think that envious persons bring bad luck merely by a glance, so that healthy persons in the full flower and vigor of their prime are made to pine away under their spell… . For my part, I reject these tales as popular fancies and old wives’ gossip.” Also, in the same saint’s Homily on Psalm 45, he chastens those Christians who, in times of illness, run to enchanters or use supposedly magical symbols because of their divided witness: “In every need you contradict yourself — in word you name God as your refuge; but in act you draw on aid from useless and vain things. God is the true aid for the righteous man.” Chapter 2 of the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles states, “You shall not practice magic. You shall not practice sorcery.” And in his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Ignatius of Antioch places all other powers in proper perspective when he proclaims, “All magic was dissolved, every bond of malice disappeared, ignorance was destroyed, the ancient kingdom was ruined, when God appeared in the form of man to give us newness of eternal life.”

In the priest’s Service Book, various prayers can be found which place all such adverse powers in their proper prospective: under the dominion of the Lord God. In the baptismal service, the priest makes the sign of the Cross in the water and proclaims, “Let all adverse powers be crushed beneath the making of the sign of Your most precious Cross.” The Church has even maintained a prayer against “the evil eye,” which prays over the person:

O, Lord, Who loves mankind, stretch out Your mighty hand and watch over him [her], and send him [her] an angel of peace, a might guardian of soul and body, who will rebuke and banish from him [her] every wicked intention.

Some would ask, “Why does such a prayer exist if such adverse influences have been defeated?” The answer lies in the compassion the Church has for those who are weakened in their out of fear of such oppression.

Putting this all into perspective, Metropolitan Anthony Khrapovitsky poses this question in his book, On Confession: “If you are inclined to distrust Christ and the Apostles, why do trust the various fables? And so lift up your gaze to heaven, do not neglect thinking of your Redeemer, do not live estranged from Him, do not give yourself over to superstitions and ‘old wives’ tales.” When we are strengthened in Christ to believe, live, and pray with the attitude that He alone is indeed our life, our hope and our salvation, there will indeed be no need for luck, fortune, fate or any other power. This is what the scripture, the fathers and our services affirm. It is only then that we will be able to truly practice the command of St. Paul, “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:2)

Thanks to Rev.Fr. John Touloumes, proistamenos of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Pittsburgh, Pa., for this wonderful article! 

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