I grew up in an Italian-American ghetto in northeastern Pennsylvania. My section of town had its own parish church; its own bars and “corpse houses”; its own grocer. Most families were just a generation removed from the old country; and though we spoke English in our house, I often heard the Sicilian dialect around the neighborhood, especially in the grocery store and especially when the old folks stood complaining together.
Sometimes we kids would hear the old ladies mention the malocchio — the evil eye. The idea was that people who looked on you with envy could somehow cause you harm — perhaps by cursing you and wishing evil upon you. I never heard the consequences spelled out very clearly. But Satan and the other evil spirits were always prowling around anyway, seeking the ruin of your soul; surely they’d be happy to lend a cloven hoof to aid your enemies in the neighborhood.
Thus, to ward off envy, the old widows often warned us not to praise people too excessively. If someone got lavish in praising the beauty of a baby, for example, an old woman might stop the flatterer short and invoke God’s protection. Such praise only invited envy.
We kids found the whole matter amusing. We laughed across the generation gap at the peasant superstitions of the neighborhood grandmothers.
Now, however, the Church Fathers have come to the defense of the old nonne. In 1995 Dumbarton Oaks, Harvard’s institute of Byzantine studies, published a collection of essays on Byzantine Magic. The first one in the book is “The Fathers of the Church and the Evil Eye,” by Matthew W. Dickie. It’s not that the Fathers were practicing the evil eye, but it seems that some people in their congregations were, and it was often a matter for grave admonition from the pulpit.
Good Christians today are often scandalized to hear that their forebears in faith kept up such superstitious practices. But they did. And we shouldn’t be surprised, really. Each day, my email box nearly bursts with spam messages that offer me all manner of bodily marvels, if I’ll only shell out a pittance for prescription drugs or herbal creams and potions. And there are probably as many storefront fortune-tellers in the nearby town of Heidelberg, Pa., as there were in an ordinary village of Ancient Syria. If these spam and scam artists had been alive in the Byzantine Empire, I’m sure they’d be practicing magic and cursing upon payment in full.
It’s quite easy to impose an allegorical reading on the practice and on belief in the evil eye. What we should fear is the effect of envy — right? — not only on oneself, but also on others. It’s a “curse” on the individual soul and society.
Yet that’s not at all what the Fathers believed about the evil eye. Indeed, Professor Dickie marshals an impressive array of ancient preachers who believed that the evil eye could very well effect what it signified (with help from the devil, of course). There they are: Chrysostom, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, Jerome, Eusebius, and Tertullian.
It does make a modern Christian uneasy, and I (for one) don’t want to think much about it. But no less an authority than Rome’s chief exorcist, Father Gabriele Amorth, recently told the London Telegraph: “It is very difficult to perform a curse. You need to be a priest of Satan to do it properly. Of course, just as you can hire a killer if you need one, you can hire a male witch to utter a curse on your behalf. Most witches are frauds, but I am afraid some authentic ones do exist.” Father Amorth adds that such curses are sometimes the precipitating cause of demonic possession.
God permits all this for the testing of our love and for His greater glory. It’s a frightful mystery. The Fathers sometimes bring up the subject when they’re discussing the biblical Book of Job. Job was tormented by the devil, but he never lost sight of the sure knowledge that his redeemer lives. Job persevered through the trial, and he was vindicated.
Job’s redeemer is our redeemer, too. That’s something I can ponder for hours with gratitude, and I do, when the shadow of evil even faintly falls my way. “I fear no evil; for Thou art with me” (Ps 23:4).
And yet the old Sicilian ladies knew something that we too often forget: “Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same experience of suffering is required of your brotherhood throughout the world. And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to His eternal glory in Christ, will Himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” (1 Pt 5:8-10).
One hard thing about growing out of adolescence: It’s hard to smirk with intellectual smugness at the old immigrant ladies when they have an intellectual and spiritual giant like Gregory of Nyssa standing on their side.
Hat tip on the essay collection: PhDiva.