On Mysticism

Magic and mysticism are often confused.  Many times they’re even equated as if “magic” and “mysticism” are synonyms for essentially the same thing.  But magic and mysticism are not the same thing.  In fact, there are some essential differences between magic and mysticism.  Evelyn Underhill writes that the “fundamental difference between the two is this: magic wants to get, mysticism wants to give.”  Magic and mysticism are actually opposite poles on either side of conventional religion according to Underhill.

magic, mysticism, religion

A magician intends to get power over others and the world.  The motive of a magician is selfish control.   Like a scientist who develops technology that enables him to master and manipulate elements of the natural world for his own ends, a magician extends this attitude over into the unseen world.  A magician uses techniques with the intent of mastering and manipulating entities of the supernatural world for his own ends.  In this respect, both a scientist and a magician may be motived by a desire to gain power over the world—to control, to manipulate, to master for selfish purposes.  The desire to get power over things is implied in magical potions, spells, and incantations.  But magical tendencies can appear in apparently non-magical activities as well.  When a Christian prays with the intent of manipulating God to do what he wants, he is praying with an attitude akin to magic—his ultimate desire is to get God to do his will.  Indeed, magic involves “the deliberate exaltation of the will, till it transcends its usual limitations and obtains for the self or group of selves something which it or they did not previously possess.  It is an individualistic and acquisitive science: in all its forms an activity of the intellect, seeking Reality for its own purposes, or for those of humanity at large.”  So magic, in whatever form it appears, is invariably a selfish and manipulative pursuit.

A true mystic, in contrast, intends to give herself over—to God, to others, and to the movements of Life and Reality.  The motive of a mystic is selfless love.  Mysticism, then, is guided by the opposite motive of magic towards which mature religion is inclined.  As Underhill notes, mysticism “is non-individualistic. It implies, indeed, the abolition of individuality; of that hard separateness, that ‘I, Me, Mine’ which makes of man a finite isolated thing.  It is essentially a movement of the heart, seeking to transcend the limitations of the individual standpoint and to surrender itself to ultimate Reality; for no personal gain, to satisfy no transcendental curiosity, to obtain no other-worldly joys, but purely from an instinct of love.”  Unlike a magical prayer, Jesus’ famous prayer, “not my will, but Yours be done,” is an essentially mystical prayer.  Indeed, the mystic does not intend to master and manipulate God or Reality.  Rather, out of love, a mystic intends to give herself over—to sur-render herself—to the movements of Life, to know and become one with the Essence of things in which “we live and move and have our being.”


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