Theologians and magicians alike talk about the difference between prayer and magic, and why one should be preferred over the other. Of course you hear more about this from magicians, since theologians may only devote a chapter or even a paragraph at most to the subject, while rank-and-file pewsitters often take their pastor’s word for it without a second thought.
So let’s try taking a stab at this ourselves, shall we?
On the surface, prayer and magic appear like two totally different things: one makes use of petition while the other relies on command. In fact one charge made by magicians is that praying for something is equivalent to putting your desire at the mercy of forces wishing to negate it.
Equally on the surface, prayer is seen to rely overmuch on the spoken word and magic on mental attitude. The mental attitude is seen as necessary for stirring up the energy, calling on the entity or element or whatever, to make the working effective.
Other differences can be cited as well, such as the use of incense, oils, gestures, symbols, and so on. I answer that these are all false distinctions.
I answer that these distinctions are false, because they only address the accidents of each practice while making no reference to the substance, which at its base is the same.
In ancient and medieval philosophy, the accident of a thing is the adjectives used to describe it, such as the redness of a rose or the beefy taste of a hamburger. The substance is a thing as it actually is. So while we concede the accidents of prayer and magic are different, I assert the substance of the two are one and the same.
The two are of the same substance because they begin with a belief in a supernatural universe or at least the ability to influence one’s life and one’s world by non-physical means. Both likewise seek to address what powers they believe capable of affecting that change, and both believe in a system for making those changes happen.
I think the last similarity is the method: both work on a principle theologians call ex opere operantis, or “by the work of the person working,” meaning that a person’s preparation and other measures of “fitness” or “skill” will affect the outcome. And when people fail at prayer or fail at magic, it typically happens for the same reasons: their mind wasn’t on what they were doing, they didn’t have the right attitude or didn’t really want it, the situation wasn’t made conducive to manifestation beforehand, or a stronger force may have been working against them.
Texts on mystical theology talk about mental prayer and vocal prayer, focusing with your mind as well as speaking intent with your mouth; likewise some texts speak of corporeal prayer which focuses on gestures and physical postures. Biblical instructions on prayer hint at an attitude of command in believing your results have already happened, with the implied intent of hardening one’s will against forces of negation. Prayerbooks throughout the ages have contained prayers to various entities (Angels, Archangels, Saints, and so forth) with the intent of making things happen. On the same vein, the classical magical grimoires have advised a life of prayer and use petitions to deity at various points in their operations.
This is why I see the difference between prayer and magic as a false distinction. Now the distinction between the types of prayer and the types of magic might be a different story, or even the distinction between theurgy and thaumaturgy (which I’ve likewise tended to see as blurred). But in the final analysis I see prayer as a form of religious magic, and magic as a form of non-religious (or different-religious) prayer.
For more on ex opere operantis and the mechanics of prayer, see my The Magic of Catholicism.