I have written previously on the limitations of magic within the context of the spiritual quest. At the time, I saw that article as a necessary rebuttal of a common view in Western occultism that somehow magic and spiritual practice (mysticism, in a very specific sense) are identical or “two sides of the same coin.” This is flatly false; magic is not authentically “spiritual” insofar as magic has no capacity to bring us into direct contact with the Reality behind the physical, astral, and mental planes. The belief that it can is largely the result of a misunderstanding of the levels of being. Broadly speaking, the great teachers of humanity have felt quite comfortable in referring to all planes of existence (as defined and explored by occultism, rAja yoga, etc.) as being “material” in nature, even if the constituting matter of any given plane is quite subtle compared to physical matter. I maintain the position of that article, as do all of the great Masters who have come before us. We ignore their experience out of our own ignorance (or arrogance), and at our own peril.
That said, there is an equally problematic position which places magic firmly within “the devil’s camp”, or else denies it any spiritual utility at all. Indeed, magic has a potentially important role to play in the continuum of human striving toward the Light. Magic has at least served us as a tool of survival in the inhospitable reaches of the natural world, but today it maintains relevance as a very human, cultured, yet ineradicably primal link between ourselves and those forces of Nature which can serve as foundations, or even propellants, along the Way.
Let me begin this discussion in earnest by defining some very useful terms: rAja yoga; bhakti yoga; karma yoga; j~nAna yoga; theurgy; and, finally, magic. (Note that the strange spellings of the Sanskrit words are intentional; please see the Wikipedia article on ITRANS for more information. ITRANS is a method of representing Sanskrit and other Indian language scripts in ASCII in a more phonetically accurate manner than a lot of more plain transliterations provide.)
rAja yoga is what most occultists in the West think of when the term “yoga” is used. The term can be translated as “royal yoga” or “royal union”. Yoga, generally, is any disciplined practice the goal of which is to attain “union” with the Divine. The various physical yogas are only preparations for and aids to rAja yoga, traditionally speaking, and are said to possess little to no spiritual value outside of that context. It is from rAja yoga that we get the idea of the seven chakras, the various energy channels, etc. The central discipline of rAja yoga is simply mental concentration; every other facet of rAja yoga develops somehow out of concentration. This is quite similar to authentic esoteric practice in the West, as well. Disciplined training in concentration comes first, and only after some degree of mastery has been gained in it will a teacher move the student on to other things. Even the so-called “siddhis” or “occult powers” cannot be gained except through concentration. So, it should be clear that the capacity for concentration is of paramount importance, whether a person’s interest is in mere psychism, or in the actual spiritual pursuit. Nevertheless, even rAja yoga cannot reach the pinnacle of spiritual attainment; instead, it serves as a preparation, and one can either get “stuck” in it, or else learn its lessons and move forward.
bhakti yoga, or “devotional union”, is rather distasteful to most Western occultists, but is still considered to be a vital preparation for the highest spiritual goals. bhakti essentially consists of some form of intense, earnest religious practice; it ultimately matters little which religion this is, as long as its focus is towards the Highest God of both law and mercy, beyond wrath and jealousy. Thus, the devotees of Christ-as-Logos kneel in awe alongside devotees of Ishvara/Siva, and the cultus of the Holy Mother in many cultures. This is not to say that there is no difference between these religious practices, or even their conception of God, but that the results are ultimately the same. bhakti yoga develops in the adherent a sense of honest humility, which eventually blossoms into the knowledge that it is not I who act but God who acts through me or, rather, that “I” and “God” are not as distinct as we are generally taught. It is the very “emptying-out” of self and “giving over” of one’s power (which is really God’s to begin with) to God which make Western occultists wrinkle up their noses in derision, much to their own detriment. (Note that Aleister Crowley wrote a truly awful essay on the practice of bhakti yoga based on his profound misinterpretation of it; I cannot recommend his essay for a proper understanding of bhakti because of his cynical, utilitarian approach to all things spiritual.)
This same “giving over” of one’s power, sense of self-will, and so forth, constitute karma yoga. Without going too deeply right now into the concept of karma, karma yoga can be translated as “action union”. This yoga is equally vital as a preparation; bhakti and karma practice generally grow with one another. It should be clear how karma yoga can grow out of bhakti yoga, and vice versa. The practice of karma yoga is simply dropping the sense of being “the doer”. This generally begins by first doing away with attachment to the “fruits of action” (karmaphala), realizing that once you have performed an action the results of it are out of your hands. Eventually, this practice itself fructifies into the realization that it was never “I” who “did” anything in the first place.
Both bhakti yoga and karma yoga serve to gradually undermine the sense of “I” (as in the limited little ego), which helps to make way for j~nAna yoga. j~nAna yoga, like the authentic practice of gnosis here in the West, is a process of enquiry, meditation, discernment and intuition which bring about insight. It is translated as “wisdom union”. While it is true that all of the preceding methods are essentially preparations for j~nAna yoga, that is not to say that they all lose their meaning the moment a person begins to practice j~nAna; no, many j~nAna practitioners remain bhaktis throughout, and it is quite impossible for them to give up karma yoga in any case. bhakti yoga, in a purely pragmatic sense, helps the j~nAni to maintain the “humility in wisdom” for which the Christian theurgist prays, but beyond even that pragmatism, a spiritual eye ever upturned towards God is what ultimately allows our minds to give in to the Reality of God. That said, j~nAna is definitely the most “advanced” of them, insofar as it requires a mind purified by the processes of bhakti yoga and a discriminating faculty honed to a fine edge by karma yoga. Yes, intuition will sometimes spontaneously “flash” before this point, but we cannot truly rely on it until we are capable of dispassionately observing intuition and “feeding” it with appropriate intellectual and devotional materials, and in any case it will not be reliably active until the ego-mind is quieted down.
I use all of these Sanskrit terms found in Hindu (and, to a certain extent, Buddhist) teachings because they are useful organizational categories for various practices which generally fall under the heading of “spiritual”. In other words, these four yogas—rAja, bhakti, karma, & j~nAna—differentiate quite nicely between the authentically spiritual (the trinity of bhakti, kamra, & j~nAna) and the purely psychic (rAja). With this information in hand, we can move back to the topic of magic.
In Hermetism, we largely split magic into two broad categories: magic proper, and theurgy. The difference between them is subtle but important.
A powerful example of theurgy is the Eucharistic Mass found in the Sacramental Churches, such as the Catholic, Orthodox, Lutheran, Anglican, and most Gnostic churches. The other sacraments and sacramentals are also theurgic in nature, as are many prayer practices such as the rosary and the Eastern Orthodox prayer rope. Of course, many of the practitioners of these methods, whether priests or congregants, would not recognize the word “theurgy” to describe them, but that’s what it comes down to.
The word “theurgy” translates roughly to “God-work”. Theurgic practice slots quite snugly into the category of bhakti yoga, insofar as it is a primarily devotional art, and because it acknowledges at the outset that it is not the practitioner him- or herself who brings about the results but rather it is God, and the practitioner is simply a tool or channel for that influence. The rituals of theurgy serve to “clear” or “broaden” that channel in the same way that Hindu bhakti yoga breaks down the personal, egoic barriers which keep the yogi from channeling the Divine Light. The differences in the types of theurgy are largely a function of who they are supposed to benefit. The Mass, and similar religious rituals, are theurgic in nature but serve a much larger number of people, at least in principle: a Mass performed by somebody with both the training and authority to do so not only sheds Grace upon (awakens Grace within) the priest him- or herself, but also upon the entire present congregation, and even out into the surrounding neighborhood. There are also “private” group theurgic practices, such as those found in theurgic lodges, healing circles, prayer groups, and so forth, which serve the needs of the members of the group and perhaps anybody else who is “linked” to their theurgic practice, such as those who ask the group to perform a healing for them, etc. Finally, there are private, solitary theurgic practices, such as praying the rosary or prayer rope, or performing a solitary theurgic ritual in one’s bedroom or home oratory (an oratory being similar to a combined “home shrine” and “meditation room”).
Naturally, this sort of devotional work, when practiced in an authentically devotional spirit, not only serves to bring about Grace-results (“miracles”) in the outside world, but also to connect the practitioners, beneficiaries, and parishioners with Grace within for the sake of their spiritual awakening; it also serves, just as with bhakti yoga, to gradually sever the sense of “I-as-doer”, leading into karma yoga, wherein the individual begins to more and more identify him- or her”self” as being only an instrument of the True Reality in the form of God.
Magic-proper is generally not so concerned with the emptying-out of self, but rather with the strengthening of it. All it takes is the close reading of any given manual of ritual magic to see this. The “exalted experiences” of ritual and ceremonial magic generally consist of contacting a being of the mental plane, because magic cannot truly reach beyond the manifest planes. However, there have been and still are magical practices and practitioners who find that the tools at their disposal, whether so-called “high ritual magic” or “low folk magic” (the latter generally working more consistently than the former anyway, despite the “high” and “low” designations) need not be the tools of the ego.
I have known ritual magicians, for instance within the Golden Dawn tradition, who understood that their magic was best used as an expression of Divine Grace rather than as a grasping for personal power. They are uncommon, but such individuals can be found. Within folk magic, it is much more common. The Pennsylvania Dutch methods of Braucherei are a personal favorite of mine for the deeply-ingrained devotion to God inherent in them which cannot be stripped away; if the bhakti is removed from the Brauche, the Brauche ceases to be. A prayer-charm with which I am familiar in the tradition of the Braucherei says that, “Dei Hand und mei Hand iss Gottes Hand.” That is, “My hand and your hand are God’s Hand.” (For those who are familiar with German, the form of the language spoken by the Pennsylvania “Dutch” is a bit different, due to a primary root in continental “low German”, contact with other Germanic languages such as Dutch, and the process of change inherent in having been settled in a non-German-speaking locale for multiple generations. See C. R. Bilardi’s The Red Church and his bibliography for more information.)
Has, then, the practice of Braucherei, the previously mentioned Golden Dawn magicians, and others like them, transformed their “magic” into “theurgy”? In a very real sense, yes. While they may not be practicing within any of the traditions which refer to their practices as being specifically “theurgic”, their intent is clearly as theurgic as those of any Martinist. They act for God, from God, and through God to achieve Godly ends. And while the healing of a damaged limb, or the removal of a curse from milk cows may not be specifically spiritual results, unlike with the “mere magic” of the egoic practitioner, the magic of the Braucher serves as a finger pointing to the Moon: the Braucher’s eyes are turned toward God and her magic turns the eyes of her patient Heavenward as well.
That, then, is the value of magic along the spiritual path. It is not flippantly that Draja Mickaharic has written that,
Being a magician is a stage in the process of developing spiritually. It is not the height of development; in fact, it is only a step in the first part of the range of real human development. the fact that many religious sects speak and act harshly against those who have the ability to practice magic is most revealing of the true character of the leaders heading those religions. Those whom they speak against may be more developed spiritually than the so-called religious people who speak against them! (Draja Mickaharic, Practice of Magic, page iiiv from the Introduction)
So magic is a stage of human development, and a potentially very important one for the people who have to pass through it. Even for many those who have passed beyond it, magic still remains a useful tool in guiding others and in aiding an ailing world. Dedicated to God, magic turns our gaze upward and inward; dedicated to self, magic solidifies and increases our suffering.