The “Difference” Between Prayer and Magic

Praying Woman

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.

About Agostino

Originally from Queens, N.Y., and having grown up in Dayton, OH, Agostino Taumaturgo is a unique figure. He is the product of the unlikely combination of coming from a Traditional Roman Catholic background and a spirituality-friendly home. It was in this home that Agostino first learned the basics of meditation, prayer, and spiritual working. In time Agostino completed his theology studies and was ordained to the priesthood and was later consecrated a bishop. He has since left the Traditional movement and brings this knowledge to the “outside world” through his teaching and writing, discussing spiritual issues and practical matters through the lens of traditional Christian theology.
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3 Responses to The “Difference” Between Prayer and Magic

  1. Pingback: When You’re Not Getting Results | THAVMA: Christian Occultism and Magic

  2. pumpkincast says:

    I have issue with the statement that prayer hinges on the person, but my opinion is not based on much and has no research behind it. I would however like to know your opinion on the prevalence of summoning demons (evil spirts) to do your bidding in medieval grimores. What is your opinion on this act?


    • Agostino says:

      Hi there! I’ve got a two-sided opinion on demon summoning and the grimoires, largely the question of whether you can versus whether you should.

      Can you? Yes, Jesus said at the end of Mark that believer may cast out demons (which can’t be done without commanding them). So the ability to command spirits is already established in scripture.

      Should you? I’m not going to recommend it. Going beyond the Church saying it’s sinful, there are also the potential pitfalls associated with trying to command a being much older, smarter, subversive, and manipulative than you. These beings play 4-D Chess on a level humans aren’t exactly capable of, and that’s where the potential for danger comes in.


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