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Exploring Magic and Mysticism

By Travis Meeks

The Mystic's Prayer
By William Sharp (1856-1902)

"Lay me to sleep in sheltering flame,
O Master of the Hidden Fire!
Wash pure my heart and cleanse for me
My soul's desire.

In flame of sunrise bathe my mind,
O Master of the Hidden Fire,
That, when I wake, clear eyed may be
My soul's desire"

The Oxford Book of English Mystical Verse

When we consider the concept of mysticism the idea of magic inextricably comes to mind. There is a relation between the two, both are children of the word mystery in a sense. Both of them reflect the unknown, explorations in and of themselves into various places, sometimes into inner space. What inspired me to consider this article was a recent conversation that I had with a colleague who is a Buddhist and our discussion of mysticism and magic. We were discussing the old concept that one can tell a tree by the fruit that it bears. We segued into the further concept that because a Buddhist monk might be able to control his heart rate by meditation that this would be the fruit of the tree

However this would not really be the goal or even the main point. It instead would be a side effect for better meditation, spiritual prayer and a mystical experience. The definitions of magic vs mysticism and theurgy vs thaumaturgy are useful for trying to look at the whole forest as opposed to the trees. However we cannot ignore that they are still a part of the greater whole in that forest and indeed may very well be cousins of a sort.

Author Nicholas Whitehead states in his book "Patterns in Magical Christianity" and in a subsequent interview in the Gnosis Fall 1997 Issue that: "Basically I am making a distinction between mysticism and magic. Mysticism I define in the classical sense of the approach of the individual soul to God, seeking union with Divinity in the great traditions of the mystics of the Church. Whereas magical or theurgical Christianity is concerned with mediating the Divine energies to the outer world through a connection with the magical realm..... less interested in personal mysticism or personal union with God, than with becoming a channel for the Work of God...... what others term theurgy."

While definitions of mysticism and magic differ there seems to be a common thread or element that is expressed in several conceptualizations or models. One of the common themes is that somehow mysticism is less active than magical practice. It is considered more passive. Isaac Bonewits in his book "Real Magic" directly applies this thought in his definition of a mystic when he states: "A person who uses mostly passive talents and rites for mostly theurgical purposes."

He points out in his definition of "Mysticism" that this is related to the occult

(1) The doctrine or belief that direct knowledge of the God(s), of spiritual truth, of ultimate reality, or of comparable matters is attainable through immediate intuition, insight, or illumination and in a way differing from ordinary sense perception or conscious thought.

(2) The concepts and theories behind the theurgical approach to occultism."

The linkage is clearly made between magic and mysticism in the definition above although it may be a more passive than active form. The relationship between mysticism and theurgy is less clear until one examines the definition of theurgy. Theurgy over time has come to have a connotation of good, or holy magic or a manifestation in a sense of that which is holy. It also has the connotation of self improvement through these means, perhaps through mystical means.

Suddenly we find when we look at how we feel about these words exactly how they interact. When sitting down and comparing the definitions and seeing how they interlink we see that mysticism becomes the natural ally of theurgy, while magic becomes the natural ally of thaumaturgy. However we also must realize that many practicing mystics and magicians do not make these distinctions and the borders between these concepts become blurred.

Once again we arrive at the forest and trees metaphor. While Isaac Bonewits gives an excellent definition of magic, it is quite lengthy. It points out in it's text basically that "magic" is about bringing about change "altered consciousness, psychic talents, changes in metabolism and electrochemical balance, techniques designed to get ones psychic talents to more or less get what one wants done. It should be obvious that these should be thaumaturgical definitions." Considering that Mr. Bonewits is the first man in 1970 to graduate with a B.A. in Magic and Thaumaturgy from the University of California at Berkley, it is not surprising that he defines so many of these concepts in light of thaumaturgy. Which brings us to theurgy vs thaumaturgy and how these allies are related to mysticism and magic.

The key distinctions between thaumaturgy and theurgy does not appear to be whether they are magic or not, but the purpose of the magic, one seeming to focus on attaining salvation or for psychotherapeutic purposes while the other has the connotation of wonder working or gaining material or practical things of earthly concern through magic. It is this dividing line which seperates the two and creates the alignment between theurgy and mysticism and perhaps thaumaturgy and magic, although this is arguable. The goals may be similar but once again the like anything else in the field of mysticism and magic and belief systems these definitions are misty and gray depending on the mystic or practitioner, priest or shaman. Both definitions indicate that thaumaturgy is for non religious purposes while theurgy is for religious purpose which is implied by the base roots of both words.

Where does that take us in our exploration of mysticism vs magic and theurgy vs thaumaturgy. It takes us to an interesting place where a duel was fought at least metaphorically if not in reality between the representative of the traditional Christian Church and Gnosticism. In the minds of some in the school of thought concerning Gnosticism, Simon Magus was the founder of Gnosticism. Simon Magus was reputed to have a number of magical skills. Professor Geoffrey James gives a basic list in his in his book "Angel Magic" :

  • Making himself invisible
  • Creating a man out of air
  • Passing through rocks and mountains without encountering an obstacle
  • Throwing himself from a precipice uninjured
  • Flinging himself in fire without being burned
  • Breaking through bolts and chains
  • Animating statues, so they appeared to every beholder to be men and women
  • Making the furniture in a house to change places
  • Changing his countenane and visage into that of another
  • Making himself into a sheep, a goat, or a serpent
  • Walking through the streets with a multitude of strange figures, which he affirmed to be the souls of the departed.
  • Making trees and branches to spring up wherever he pleased
  • Setting up and deposing kings at will
  • Causing a sickle to go into a field of corn, which unassisted would mow twice as fast as the most industrious reaper

    The discussion of the challenge indicates that Simon ordered his spirits/servants to lift him above the earth and St. Paul commanded them to drop him, which they did causing his death. The Gnostics built their belief in control of spirits or what many call Angel Magic based upon the biblical references to Jesus ability to control demons (Mark 16:7). The orthodox church found this distasteful and later started to reject many of these practices, although exorcism and other similar ritual still reveal their heritage tracing back to these belief systems. Perhaps what we find in the duel above is not just the clash between more conservative Christianity and Gnosticism but some would argue between theurgy and thaumatergury while others would argue between different magicians or systems of belief. It is fascinating to see esoteric Christians returning to some practices that would be recognized by the Gnostics and to see this turning of the wheel. It is amazing to see how closely mysticism and magic go together. While I cannot draw any earth shattering conclusions from examining some of the definitions and parallels, linkanges and intertwining of magic and mysticism, I think that Robert Frost's words are most appropoe for closing:

    "We dance round in a ring and suppose,
    But the Secret sits in the middle and knows."

    (-The Secret Sits).


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