You hear a lot about this in Pagan circles: that spellwork is essentially the same thing as prayer. You hear it especially when dealing with a potentially fearful public wondering exactly what it is Pagans, Wiccans, and Witches are up to. Even with people who try to put a skeptical face on the whole notion of magic, there remains a little nugget of doubt, worries about Hollywood style devil worship, human sacrifice, etc. So to sooth the troubled brow of the general, nominally Christian, public and to convince people that modern Witches are basically harmless there came into being the claim that “all spellwork is just like a prayer.” People understand prayer. It’s familiar. It’s safe.
It’s also completely inaccurate!
Yes, there is a segment of magical practice that is tied directly to prayer. “Religious magic” is universal across all faiths regardless of whether they acknowledge it as magic or not. The Catholic Mass is a classic example of ceremonial high magic that calls on the divine power of deity to intervene and shape the course of perceptions and reality in order to transform wafers and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Another example is a consecration ritual where a Witch calls down the power of the Gods to bless themselves and their tools, transforming a regular wine glass into a Chalice, a fancy stick into a Wand. What makes these forms of magic “the same thing as prayer” is that they call on the direct assistance and/or intervention of deity on some level to change reality.
But don’t for a minute think that all prayer or religious magic is harmless. Try reading through the Book of Psalms sometime. Those are prayers originally designed to be used as religious magic and a LOT of them deal with specifically with causing the death of people those saying the prayer are pissed off at, even if they rarely if ever actually work anymore.
When deity is involved in any magical working, the eventual outcome of the work is usually left up to the whim of the deity invoked. Plus, according to most surveys, people who pray regularly will admit that the vast majority of their prayers go unanswered or they will hedge their bets by claiming the prayer was answered, it’s just that the answer was “no.” So if Jesus rarely answers Christian prayers, they can rest comforted in the belief that the Moon Goddess will rarely answer the prayers of the local Witch, making Witchcraft and magic no more reliable… and no more dangerous… than Sunday morning prayers.
Claiming that spellwork and magic are no different than prayer is giving the fearful congregation down at the local Baptist Church a comforting reassurance that we are all in the same boat when it comes to being powerless to actually direct the course of our own lives, that all we can do is muddle through with whatever Life throws at us because “God” is actually in charge, not us, and it is reassuring them that even we Witches have no power on our own.
“Secular” (meaning non-religious) spellwork does not involve asking for the intervention of any divine being on our behalf. Spellwork is power, direct and personal. Spellwork is deliberately and precisely gathering the ambient energies around us, raising and concentrating our own personal energies, maybe combining those energies together with the energies of crystals, herbs, candles and directing it into the universe in order to achieve a specific change in reality, be it ours or someone else’s. Spellwork is taking charge of our lives directly and personally. It is the ultimate expression of personal responsibility. It is not necessarily discounting the existence of the divine. It’s saying to the universe that “I am the captain of my own life. My successes and failures are my own.”
The difference between religious magic/prayer and spellwork is asking “Lord help me do well on this interview so I can get this job” versus charging a quartz crystal for strength, confidence and eloquence, and wearing a yellow tie or scarf (yellow for stimulating the intellect, and to draw in success) and a blue shirt (blue enhances communication skills), and visualizing yourself shaking hands with your new boss while he or she welcomes you to the team. In this case you are taking your own energies and intentionally combining it with the energy of the crystal and the vibrational energies of specific colors to help influence the outcome of the interview without relying on the external intervention of deity.
Now this is not to imply that I think spellwork is superior to the other, or that one is more or less effective than the other. There is nothing wrong with preferring religious magic over “secular” spell work. I use both depending on the circumstances as do most of the Witches I know. All I am trying to do is get people to think about the inaccuracy of automatically telling people that prayer and spellwork are exactly the same for no other reason than to make spellwork, Witchcraft, and therefore ourselves seem “harmless.”
Religious magic/prayer and secular spellwork both have the potential to change reality, for good or ill, but they are not the same thing. And never forget that when you make your magic “harmless,” regardless of which you choose to work with, you also run the very real risk of making your magic ineffective. There is a very fine line between “harmless” and “useless.”