Abracadabra Amen

Thursday, 18 March

Leonard and I had another sitting for the portrait yesterday afternoon. I am enjoying these sessions but the drawing process still feels quite unnatural and it can be difficult to bear at times. Leonard sits at an angle to me, constantly flicking his eyes sharply between me and the top of the drawing board that balances rather precariously on his lap. Occasionally he will stop drawing and thrust out his arm, close one eye and take a measurement using the end of his pencil - all he needs to do is stick his tongue out of the corner of his mouth and the caricature of the mad artist would be complete! The sessions are generally relaxed and our conversations are very animated at times, but once in a while he will fall abruptly silent, furrow his brow in deep concentration and there is a tense atmosphere in the workroom. I keep absolutely silent when he enters into this state of mind, fearing to interrupt him like a patient at the mercy of a surgeon with a sharp scalpel. Every so often he will stand out of his chair and walk over to me to adjust my clothing or take a measurement and, although Leonard’s measurements are rarely intrusive, some precise measurements never fail to make me uneasy. For instance, when he comes close to my face I continue to stare at the wall behind him as though I am sitting for an eye examination and try to ignore the fact that he is holding the tip of a very sharp pencil only a few millimetres from my eyeball. 

We have established a set routine from the moment that I arrive at the house: we begin with a brief chat before commencing work during which Leonard drinks a mug of herbal tea (or a small Armagnac if the weather is particularly cold outside) while I acclimatise myself to the temperature in the workroom, then I remove any additional clothing such as jumpers or cardigans (or head into the bathroom to change my entire outfit if necessary) while Leonard cleans his mug in the kitchen sink, feeds Hooter to keep him out of our way and returns to the workroom with a jug of water and his biscuit tin full of assorted lengths of charcoal, pastels and pencils. I will then (begrudgingly) leave the comfort of the armchair and take my place on the red plastic school chair in the centre of the room and Leonard will set about positioning me so that we can continue from our last point of reference. 

The ten minutes or so that we have before starting work permits only a polite discussion of the weather and popular news stories, but since our conversation in church a week or so ago I have been attempting to steer Leonard once again towards the subject of Jesus and magic. Writing about Elmfield House and our portraiture sessions is all very interesting, but I need far more juicier material to keep my reader entertained! Unfortunately Leonard has been avoiding this subject with an admirable degree of dexterity and so yesterday afternoon, fearing that he would not mention it again, I decided that a direct course of action was necessary. I asked Leonard about the exotic locations that he has visited during his photography trips and mentioned - quite blatantly and in a clearly contrived manner - that I had heard that some tribal communities have a fear of photography because they believe that a camera can magically capture the soul of a man in a photograph.

“Well, indeed, they may well have considered me to be a magician,” he replied, taking his mug and the last sip of his tea.

A guarded hesitancy crept into his words at that point and he stood to take his mug into the kitchen, thereby bringing our conversation to an abrupt end. I thought that he had masterfully avoided the subject once again and I had lost the opportunity to press him further on the matter, but then he came back into the room, placed the jug of water on the floor and said “I expect you want to know details, the reasons why his opponents branded him a magician, don’t you?”. I nodded my head and grinned in response, but rather than indulge me straight away he bent forward in his chair, prised open the biscuit tin at his feet, selected a pencil and started to scrape away at the pencil with his penknife. Taking my cue to begin work, I removed my cardigan and walked over to the red plastic chair in the centre of the room (which, for a punishingly-shaped school chair, is surprisingly comfortable). 

Leonard began by explaining that Jesus’ followers - both ancient and modern - defend Jesus from his opponents’ allegations of magic by highlighting the fact that the Gospel writers do not record any instances of Jesus engaging in elaborate magical rituals and, on the contrary, he most often performs his miracles using a simple spoken command. Although Leonard did not dispute this observation, he was quick to point out that an appeal to the spoken word is not an adequate defence against the practice of magic and, on the contrary, it may place Jesus under even greater suspicion of using magical techniques. 

He said that the ancients believed that both the written and spoken word contained a mystical energy that was capable of producing miraculous effects and this confidence in the miracle-working power of words is evident in both the Old and New Testament: the book of Genesis opens with God creating the world through a series of spoken pronouncements and the Gospel of John begins with ‘in the beginning was the word’. The early magicians considered words to be equally as powerful as, if not superior to, the physical techniques of ritual and the shape and sound of a word was credited with equal importance as its meaning, often to the extent that the success of a magical ritual was dependent upon the correct pronunciation of the words or sounds written within a magical text. It was therefore essential that the words contained within a magical text were preserved in the language in which they were first written and translating these words into other languages was resisted. Unfortunately, as Leonard pointed out, this tradition of resisting translation has led to the original meanings of many ancient magical words being lost over time and their magical significance is no longer recognised in the modern age, however he said that a small number of magical words still survive in their original form and they are still recognised as magical words to this day.

I listened intently as Leonard scratched away with his pencil on the surface of the paper. He didn’t look up once from his drawing board, which made me wonder whether he was sketching me or whether he was simply doodling, but then he paused, stared at the nib of his pencil, threw it back into the biscuit tin and selected another short stubby pencil.

“Let me give you an example of this," he said as he continued to draw, “tell me some magic words that you remember from your childhood…”

I searched my memory for something suitable and replied “Hocus pocus? Alla-kazam? Abracadabra?”

“What is the meaning of the word ‘Abracadabra’?” he asked.

“I have no idea.”

“And yet you consider it to be a magical word?”

“Well, maybe when I was a child, not so much these days…”

“Why not so much these days?” he pressed.

“It’s difficult to believe in the magical power of words as an adult…”

“Really?” he interrupted, “what about the word ‘Amen’? How many adults believe in the magical power of that word?”

I smiled. Point taken. 

Taking ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘Amen’ as examples, Leonard said that whether we truly believe in the magical power of words or not, we still recognise ‘Abracadabra’ and ‘Amen’ as magical words today and they have therefore successfully made the transition from ancient word of power to modern word of power. However he said that these are ‘the lucky survivors’ because most archaic words of power have become incomprehensible gobbledegook over time and we would not associate them with magical activity if we encountered them in either an ancient or modern text. 

Leonard then turned his attention to the Gospel stories and he explained that Jesus may have used several words when performing healings that were widely recognised by his contemporaries as magical terms, but unless he said ‘abracadabra’ or another word that is still considered to be a magical word today, his terminology would not strike the modern-day reader as suggestive of magical activity.  At that point I asked outright whether Leonard was implying that Jesus used magical words when performing his miracles, to which he paused and sat back in his chair, then reached up to a nearby shelf and fetched down a bible. It was the largest bible that I had ever seen; a huge, dusty King James Version that would stop a lorry in its tracks (Leonard will only use the KJV for his bible study because he says that modern versions ‘water down the translation into an unidentifiable and shameful mess of apologetic, pseudo-cool and political correctness’ and, having considered the evidence, I am inclined to agree with him). 

Thumbing through the pages, he squinted through his glasses to check the verse numbers and then passed the bible to me and asked me to read Mark 7:32-37 and identify the word that Jesus uses to heal the deaf-mute. I scanned through the passage until I came across the word ‘ephphatha’. I had encountered this healing story many times before in my studies but for some reason I had entirely overlooked the peculiar nature of this word until Leonard brought it to my attention.

Leonard said that some of the healing commands that are spoken by Jesus are simple imperative commands and - since many psychologists and biblical scholars agree that the illnesses cured by Jesus may have been simply hysterical disorders - if an individual’s illness is merely psychosomatic then a sharp authoritative command directed at the patient could instigate or reverse a psychological process, which in turn could bring about the cure. I understood the rationale behind this and I was willing to accept it as a reasonable explanation for how Jesus’ healing miracles were achieved, but that was until Leonard pointed out that the deaf-mute in Mark 7 is deaf and therefore Jesus’ spoken command cannot have prompted a psychological reaction. Leonard also pointed out that the word ‘ephphatha’ is transliterated into Greek from an Aramaic word meaning ‘to open’, so the deaf-mute may have been unfamiliar with the meaning of the word even if he had perfect hearing. In this particular case the efficacy of the healing command cannot have been dependent upon the word being heard by the patient and it appears the word itself possessed healing properties that directly instigated the cure. 

Taking the bible from me, Leonard flicked through the pages again and handed it back to me opened on a different page. He asked me to read the account of the healing of Jairus’ daughter in chapter five of the Gospel of Mark in which Jesus brings a young girl back to life using the (yet again Aramaic) command ‘Talitha Koum’, which the author of Mark somewhat self-consciously translates for the reader as ‘little girl, I say to you arise’. Leonard asked for my opinion on this Aramaic command and again I answered that the strangeness of the phrase had not been evident to me before. Leonard smiled and he said that the other Gospel writers clearly considered this phrase to be a little too strange for their liking too, as the author of Luke simply replaces it with the Greek command ‘child, arise’ and the Matthean version removes the healing word altogether.

Leonard proposed that Matthew and Luke scramble to explain or omit these peculiar healing commands because they imply that Jesus used foreign - and possibly magical - words in his healing ministry. “And yet,” I enquired, “the author of Mark has no problem with the inclusion of these strange words in his Gospel?”. Leonard acknowledged my observation and he answered that the author of Mark may have included these commands in his Gospel because he believed that Jesus’ words had a magical function in these instances and he was familiar with the importance of preserving magical words of power in their original language. Alternatively, the author of Mark may not have considered the words to be magical himself but he felt obliged to include them as such due to the fact that they were well-known magical formulas that were commonly associated with Jesus’ healing ministry. Leonard said that if the commands that were spoken by Jesus were unfamiliar to his audience and/or the people thought that Jesus’ words possessed an inherent magical effectiveness, then these words may have been adopted by the witnesses to Jesus’ healings and exorcisms who were eager to perform the same miracles themselves; a sort of do-it-yourself miracle kit, if you like. Hence the popularity of these particular words amongst the people may have forced the author of Mark to consider it unavoidable and necessary to include them in his narrative, regardless of any personal objections that he may have had to their inclusion.

I had not paid attention to these healing commands before and they had seemed so natural and unobtrusive when I encountered them in my undergraduate classes, but, as is often the case when your attention is drawn to a matter that you have accepted willingly and without question for some time, the longer that I studied these words, the more they popped out of the page at me and the more I questioned my understanding of them. And, if I am honest, the more they began to resemble magical words, much like ‘abracadabra’. I was seeing these Gospel passages in a completely new light and I was disappointed that I had not questioned the meanings of the words before. If our discussion yesterday afternoon has taught me one important lesson it is that I am painfully na├»ve at times and I should look deeper into subjects when they are presented to me rather than blindly accepting them at face value. After all, there is no harm in re-evaluating evidence that one has previously – and perhaps mistakenly – accepted as truth.