I’ve got a four-leaf clover
And it ain’t done me a single lick of good —
I’m still a drunk and I’m still a loser
Living in a lousy neighborhood…
— Old 97’s, “Four-Leaf Clover”
I wasn’t a religiously inclined child. I was really the opposite: a superstitious child. I had a whole slew of signs, portents, an imaginary zoo: Black squirrels were a sign of good luck. I could influence events by the number of times I tapped my foot against a chair, and fairies lived in the knotted tree-roots that cracked the neighborhood sidewalks.
This might sound like an enchanted world, full of wonder. But in many ways it was an ingrown, self-aggrandizing way of seeking control over an uncontrollable world, a way of proclaiming my own specialness and superiority. My superstitions were partly the result of a vivid imagination — but partly also the result of anxiety, and the self-centeredness of a privileged child.
Superstitions are a kind of paint-by-numbers religion: simplistic, superficial, with none of the wildness of religious belief. Although my superstitions separated me to some extent from other kids (I was “weird”), they didn’t require any sacrifice from me. In fact, the little luck rituals, and the belief that I had some kind of grand destiny, made me feel important and in control — a rare and appealing sensation for a child. There was a strong element of wishful-thinking in all my self-comforting half-beliefs.
I’m sure there are people for whom childhood fancies were spurs to wonder and gratitude for what is real. G. K. Chesterton, in Orthodoxy, writes about “elfland” this way: Fairies arrayed around a tree are astonishing, but so are roots arrayed around a tree. The whole fairyland business is one reason Orthodoxy might be the only Chesterton I’ve ever genuinely disliked: Why do the fairytales he describes lack the bloody-mindedness of the best tales, the cruelties of Grimm, or the sacrifices of Andersen and Wilde?
But really, I just never entered “fairyland” with the attitude Chesterton describes. He notes that in a fairy tale, an apple has a special meaning and purpose. And one of the strongest “movements” of my conversion was my acceptance that out here in real reality, an apple has a special meaning and purpose, granted it by the divine love Who shaped and sustains it. Superstitions, and allied attempts to make myself the pantheon of my own mythos, were very much the opposite of this understanding of the world and its inhabitants: My self, my uniqueness, my single specialness was poured out over the world like Wite-Out over a painting.
During times in my childhood when I felt especially unhappy and isolated, these superstitions strengthened their hold on me. I used scraps from various novels and dreams to build an alternative world, and retreated into that world. I was trapped in a shell made of funhouse mirrors, treating fantasy creatures as if they were more real than the actual existing people around me. I ended up acting in ways that were callous and hurtful, because I put my own imaginary adventures (themselves often expressions of unhappiness, not that this is an excuse) above other people’s needs and griefs.
A lot of people think of the Catholic faith as a form of superstition. For me the two could not seem more different. It’s easy to think, Oh, she was an imaginative, “artsy” girl, with a well-developed ability to make believe: to make herself believe her own stories. So now she’s found a very colorful story to believe in.
But being Catholic feels totally unlike those early superstitions and stories. Being Catholic means the world doesn’t revolve around me. Catholic life requires all kinds of things I don’t especially care for and wouldn’t have come up with on my own. It often requires humbling acceptance of helplessness and neediness, rather than anxious seizing of (illusory) control. Catholicism is unexpected. And it draws me outward, to focus on other people and most especially on Christ, rather than on myself.
Prayer is humility; magic and superstition are attempts to control. The difference is obvious if you’ve tried both.