The Magic and Spirituality of St. John Bosco
Don Bosco was deeply imbued with God's love and inspired by His mysteries
Da mihi animas caetera tolle (Give me souls, disregard the rest.) — St. Don Bosco
There are different kinds of spiritual gifts, but the same Spirit gives them. There are different ways of serving, but the same Lord is served. There are different abilities to perform service, but the same God gives ability to all for their particular service. —1 Corinthians 12:4-6
During the latter half of the 19th century, as Europe's poor were suffering from the effects of industrialization, St. John Bosco saw how most of the children in his village remained uneducated and without faith in God. John grew up poor, but whenever he had an extra penny, he would go to the many circuses and fairs that visited his region of Italy. He watched in rapt attention when magicians performed the impossible. Being a precocious child, he reasoned some tricks out. Sometimes he would beg magicians to teach him. With this knowledge, he put on free magic shows for the village children. Being devout, he would take the opportunity to repeat the homily he heard at church on the previous Sunday to his audience.
As Don Bosco (“Don” is an Italian honorific equivalent to “Sir” or “Mister”) grew up, he chose to became a priest. He was ordained in 1841 and dedicated his priesthood ministry to teaching and working exclusively with the poor children and youth in the city of Turin. He served as chaplain for a hospice for wayward girls and feeding and clothing the poor was his main concerns. Once accomplished, he turned his attentions to their spiritual development. When Don Bosco became a priest, he dedicated himself to helping children. He needed a way to get kids to church, back in school and accepting the aid he offered. He remembered his early success with the children in his village and realized magic would best catch the kids' attention. He used to perform a trick where he turned three separate ropes into a single rope to illustrate the mystery of the Blessed Trinity. He also would pull coins from ears and change pebbles into candy, delighting the children in his care. It's not a great stretch of the imagination to understand why magicians consider Don Bosco their patron saint.
Don Bosco's efforts at teaching spiritual values with magic tricks was the beginning of the birth of what magicians refer to as “Gospel Magic” — the tailoring of a magic performance so that it can be used to teach catechism. Magic is an excellent means by which to get across a point, including religious ones.
Don Bosco wasn’t merely a magic dilettante who did a card trick here and there. He was Master Magician who invented many tricks, several of which very few professionals still understand.
In his diary, he described performing the classic tricks like the Cups-and-Balls. He vanished coins, read minds and knew the exact amount of money in a volunteer’s pocket. He was able to fool volunteers into mistaking black for white. He would multiply balls and eggs, change water into wine, and kill and chop up a rooster before bringing it back to life again so that it crowed better than before.
Don Bosco's spirituality centered around an educational system of joyful hope. To him, education was a means to direct oneself toward God. He begged his children to be joyful and to exult in the Lord. In many ways, his spirituality of joy is reminiscent of his fellow countryman, St. Francis of Assisi. Both taught the giving over oneself to the unmitigated happiness of experiencing God. Don Bosco was the antithesis of a Jansenist schoolmarm. He wanted Christians to delight in the Lord and to take to heart Christ's admonition that we should all become “as small children.” (Matthew 18:1-4)
As we read Scriptures, wherever Christ was, those around Him were joyous:
- The Magi who visited Him when He was an infant. (Matthew 2:9)
- The angel that announced His birth prophesized that it would bring great joy to the world. (Luke 2:10)
- The Apostles visiting His tomb were similarly joyous when they found it empty. (Matthew 28:8)
- It is the Spirit that produces this in our hearts. (Romans 14:17, 15:13, Galatians 5:22)
- Similarly, Christ describes the Kingdom of Heaven as a man who finds a great treasure in a field who sells all that he has to purchase the field (Matthew 13:44)
- Or a shepherd who delights at locating a lost sheep (Luke 15:3-7)
- Or a woman who spends nine silver coins and an evening's worth of lamp oil to throw a coin finding party. (Luke 15:8)
- It is the same joy that awaits us in heaven. (Luke 6:23, 1 Peter 1:8, 4:13, Hebrews 12:2, Revelation 14:13, 19:9, 22:14)
It's little wonder that Don Bosco would look upon a field of children playing and see God's promise played out before him. He believed children's entertainment was how they celebrate the life that God gave them. It was how children experience the joy of the moment; how they live fully in God. To become too serious about work or religion or even studies would not be appropriate. He sought balance in all things and certainly in the lives of the children in his care. It's not strange to think that he chose magic to reach kids.
Don Bosco was deeply imbued with God's love and inspired by His mysteries. When he considered the minds of the children around him, certainly Don Bosco saw how much more accepting of God's mysteries they were than adults. He must have often wished to be converted and become as the children in his care so that he too might enter into the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:3) It's not so strange to think that Don Bosco responded to God's mysteries with mysteries of his own.