"Ritual is poetry in the realm of acts."
- Ross Nichols, founder of OBOD
Is magic simply "prayer with props"? After much thought on the matter (though I may very well change my mind after further thought in the future!), right now I'd have to say, no. It seems to me that there is a fundamental difference between "prayer" and "magic."
Let's start by looking first at the common definitions of these words.
Main Entry: prayer (noun)
- A reverent petition made to God, a god, or another object of worship.
- The act of making a reverent petition to God, a god, or another object of worship.
Main Entry: magic (noun)
- The art that purports to control or forecast natural events, effects, or forces by invoking the supernatural.
- The practice of using charms, spells, or rituals to attempt to produce supernatural effects or control events in nature.
- The charms, spells, and rituals so used.
I've quoted only the first and most relevant definitions for each word, though these few uses listed above should give us a general idea to start. Even though the definitions of "prayer" and "magic" reach far beyond these summary definitions, these simplest explanations of each word seem to have little in common. "Prayer" is a kind of petition or, more generally, a communion or communication with God; "magic," on the other hand, has to do with personal will and gaining control over reality.
Of course, these definitions are limited. Many Christians would be insulted to think of prayer as merely groveling at the feet of the Lord, begging for favors like weak but selfish children. Likewise, many Witches and magicians would object that magic is much less about exerting control over the external world, and much more concerned with working in harmony with the energies and forces that unite the individual with the rest of reality. Furthermore, both prayer and magic are more generally directed at change--either through God's intervention, or by personal will. If we take the broader understanding of "prayer" and "magic" into consideration, we might define prayer as "communion with God through thought and word, aimed at making room for Divine to act in one's life;" and magic as "prayer--that is, communion with the Divine, aimed at making room for its activity--through the use of physical tools and ritual actions in addition to thought and word." While some might be content with these definitions, they're not enough for me. I want to dig more deeply into the subtleties and nuances of each word.
Prayer : To me, prayer is above all communion and communication with the Divine. This can take the form of centering prayer or meditation, or it can be something we do everyday, like washing dishes or walking the dog. It is a time to "talk" to God, yes, but above all it is a time to listen. Prayer is ideally a way of paying attention to that "still small voice." Often when we pray out loud and spontaneously out of great distress or need, we articulate fears and anxieties we may not even know about consciously. We don't need to tell God what He already knows, but the real benefit of prayer is to listen to ourselves, to find out what we are really asking for and begin to consider if that is what we really need or want. I often find myself saying things during prayer I would never have verbalized otherwise. Other times, I simply break down into overwhelmed murmurs of "I love You so much!" While I feel a bit silly, I'm also reassured because I can say so and mean it. Prayer is a way of bringing oneself into a better awareness of and connection to the Divine. Anything can be prayer--it can be verbalized or silent, motionless or a kind of dancing, or even work itself. When I write poetry, I am praying. When I laugh, I am praying. When I eat, I am praying. Because each of these activities reminds me of my connection with the Divine, and reminds me to listen, to pay attention.
Magic : Magic goes a step further. Prayer is largely passive, focusing on listening and paying attention (stilling ourselves and our clamoring desires long enough to make room for God's reply). But magic is active. The focus on control and personal will, although somewhat shallow and misdirected, does give us some insight. After all, is our goal as spiritual beings to deny our free will and become mindless robots of God? Or do we accept free will as a gift and exercise it with love and wisdom, bringing personal will into harmony with the Divine Will? God is not a cult-leader; He wants participation, not subordination. Magic is how we participate. It is how we manifest the communion of prayer in the world so that it can change us and change others. Prayer is necessary for magic--we must communicate with God and pay attention in order to be in harmony with the Divine Will. When we act in harmony, we can be creative and free, without being arrogant or cut-off from God.
While magic in general might be the practice of exerting personal will arbitrarily on the world, sacred magic, informed by prayer (communion and listening), is an act of creation in harmony with Divine Will.
What do I mean? I'll give you an example. When I free-write a rough draft of a poem, I am praying--I quiet myself down and listen to what that Divine voice within me articulates spontaneously. But, when I return to the poem, revise it, craft it into a work of art that does something and changes the reader and the world, I am performing magic. Writing is the best example of how magic does not need "tools" or "props." Magic is about creation and change, not about what tools you use. A great work of poetry changes the world, and the writer knows that the piece comes not from her, but through her--it has her "flavor," but its ultimate source is something greater. Similarly, other forms of magic change the world, and the individual practitioner, through creative acts. Sacred magic is essentially creative--it brings something new into being and, thus, changes the world. It expresses the Divine Unity in a new, particular and unique way.
Prayer reminds us of our source; magic is the active participation in the paradox that that source is expressed through particulars. Prayer is the necessary foundation of magic, and magic is the natural fruit of prayer. They have many of the same goals, but they are different. To call magic simply "prayer with props" would be to ignore the active, creative side of our participation in the Divine. The results of magic are, essentially, miracles. But all miracles require human participation--we plunge our staffs into the sea, we anoint the sick with oil, we bless the communion bread.
We listen, we pray, we contemplate--and then, we act, we create, we participate.