“Then Moses and Aaron went to Pharaoh and did as the Lord had commanded. Aaron threw his staff down before Pharaoh and his servants, and it was changed into a snake. Pharaoh, in turn, summoned wise men and sorcerers, and they also, the magicians of Egypt, did likewise by their magic arts. Each one threw down his staff, and it was changed into a snake. But Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs” (Exodus 7:10-12).
Angelo Stagnaro — Catholic magician, mentalist, author and journalist — isn’t impressed with Pharaoh’s magicians. “Mercifully,” he says, “as Catholics, we’re not required to believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible.” To his mind, “the author was trying to make a point about how God is the true source of all life, of all love, of all energy in the universe — and no one else is in charge of anything. I’ve been in magic for three decades, and I’ve never seen anything that even approximated real magic.”
The notion that some magicians — say, fortune-tellers — claim otherwise bothers Stagnaro, to the point where he is currently working on a book aimed at exposing such people as frauds and charlatans.
“Ethics are just too important to dismiss,” he explains, “especially with something like magic, something that’s so emotionally powerful. I can make people jump from their seats.”
But, he stresses, it’s all an act: “Jean Eugene Robert-Houdin, the father of modern stage magic, said it best: ‘A magician is an actor playing the part of a magician.’”
Still, it’s not as if Stagnaro relishes the role of mythbuster, forever explaining to a curious world what magic isn’t. He is, first and foremost, a magician himself, and a great devotee of what magic is, at its best: entertainment that is visceral and, in the literal sense, wonderful.
“Every magician will tell you they love to hear people say, ‘How did you do that?’ It’s that shock, that mystery,” he explains. “Once, I was teaching a 10-year-old boy in Italy, and it was as if he became dizzy, as if he wasn’t getting enough oxygen. Good magic will leave the spectator stunned and without an answer, just like any other good art.”
Stagnaro, who writes for the Register from time to time, recalls a performance he gave at an Opus Dei Christmas party — Aaron the priest and Pharaoh’s magicians, meeting again on friendlier terms. It was an elaborate variation on the “Pick a card, any card” routine, only with a stunner for a finish: making the selected card rise from the deck, some 20 feet away. “They wrote e-mails to me,” he recalls, “for weeks.”
St. Bosco’s Bequeathal
Their befuddlement is understandable. Opus Dei, however mysterious it may seem to some, is relatively poor in the magician department — at least when compared to, say, the Salesians or the Jesuits.
The latter order boasts St. Nicholas Owen, the great architect of England’s “priest holes,” concealed compartments designed to hide priests from the English authorities during the Penal Times. (Owen also managed to help two Jesuits escape from the Tower of London before his eventual capture and execution.)
The former has as its founder St. John Bosco, himself a great believer in the use of magic to teach religious concepts to children.
For his part, Stagnaro has designed religious medals honoring both men, and recalls his delighted astonishment on discovering that magicians had their own patron saint.
Stagnaro was thrilled to find a magician-priest; others might have been less so. Magic relies on deception. It conceals the truth, directing the eye away from what’s really happening. Religion purports to do exactly the opposite, revealing the truth behind appearances, enlightening the mind of the believer. A seeming contradiction. Happily, Stagnaro was able to find some common ground in the realm of mystery and wonder, and in the service of education.
“How I can use trickery to teach truth?” says Stagnaro. “The sense of wonder that I can produce is minimal, microscopic, compared to the mystery one would experience in the sacrament of the Eucharist. Still, magic stuns people; it makes them remember.
“If I make a black handkerchief magically turn white in front of someone, that’s really useful in describing the sacrament of reconciliation to someone preparing for the sacrament,” he adds. “They’ll remember the visual much longer than they’ll remember the theological explanation.”
It’s that sense of wonder, and its usefulness in conveying an idea, that has led Stagnaro to write The Catechist’s Magic Kit: 80 Tricks for Teaching Catholicism to Kids (due out from Crossroad in early 2009).
“This will be the first book on Catholic Gospel magic ever” — and probably the first book of magic tricks ever to receive a “nihil obstat.”
“I took the entire Catechism, and created a trick for each article,” says Stagnaro. “I’m hoping that a catechist will take, say, five tricks, and do one a month. They’re very simple, and I put little mini-homilies to go with each of the tricks, because what makes it Gospel magic is the patter.”
The trick for matrimony, for example, has the catechist continually discarding cards from his hand, yet somehow always having more cards. “When you love someone,” the catechist explains, “it doesn’t matter how much you give to the person, you will always have enough. Love can’t be depleted. It can’t run out. The more you give, the more you have. Again and again. Love overflows.”
The endless cards produce wonder, and wonder has a way of making a soul receptive, of opening an attentive ear. Stagnaro traces his own love of magic to his first experience of that wonder “the first time an adult pulled a coin out of my ear. Now, I can use that to describe grace — ‘No matter how much you’ve done in your life that’s maybe not so good, God’s grace is everywhere, just like something out of your ear.’ You can imagine that sticking with a kid, or even an adult.”
Matthew Lickona is the author of Swimming With Scapulars:
True Confessions of a Young Catholic (Loyola Press, 2005).