Magic and Miracles: What’s the Difference?

The other day I was having a conversation with an acquaintance who asked me to comment on the difference between “magic” and “miracles.”

It was an interesting conversation, especially given my history — that I spent a number of years explore magical spiritualities like Wicca and Celtic paganism, only to eventually forsake those paths in favor of returning to a more established mystical path: the contemplative expression of Christianity.

I don’t have a negative feeling about either magic or miracles, although I do have some concerns that magic can, in some circles, be a kind of code-word for a consumerist spirituality that I would not be comfortable endorsing.

But having said that, I think there are ways to understand magic as a positive thing, particularly in the light of an interspiritual understanding of contemplation and mysticism.

Here, then, is the gist of what I had to say about the difference — and similarity — between magic and miracles.

Magic and miracles have in common an invitation into mystery — into a realm beyond what we can easily explain or scientifically understand.

“Magic” and “Miracles” are both words that have been used to mean different things in different contexts. So for me, what they share in common is an invitation into mystery — into the realm of Spirit, beyond what we can easily explain or scientifically understand. The science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke is renowned for saying:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So there’s a level on which magic is simply something we don’t yet fully understand. 

Another quote I find helpful comes from another 20th century writer, Dion Fortune:

Magic is the art of changing consciousness at will.

I like this quote because it emphasizes that magic is less about what happens in the world at large, and more about the kind of transformation that can happen in an interior way. For example: the practice of meditation, for the purpose of cultivating inner peace or a sense of Divine presence, could be understood as a type of magic, because it’s related to the intentional transformation of human consciousness. Magic is something we initiate, we create. That doesn’t make it opposed to the action of the Spirit. But it’s something we have a say in, even if in spiritual matters we never have complete control.

What, then, can we say about miracles? The word miracle comes from a Latin word that means “a wonder” or “a marvel,” and I think it’s most helpful to think of miracles in terms of Divine action in the world — in our lives or in the environment. If magic is initiated through human agency, a miracle is completely about grace: a spiritual gift over which we human beings have no control. It’s simply a kiss from eternity that we are invited to receive.

Overlap?

Now perhaps there is some overlap here. If I pray that a loved one’s cancer goes into remission, and this in fact comes to pass, is that a miracle or magic? You could argue that the prayer, as an act of human will, set into motion the sequence of events that culminated in the miraculous healing. But I think most people who pray intuitively understand “not my will but thine.” That’s why I really like Dion Fortune’s approach.

If I cultivate an expansion of my own consciousness, that’s magic — whether I do it through meditation, or Wicca, or simply positive thinking. But whenever I receive a blessing that is beyond my control, or my understanding — whether I asked for it, or willed it, or not — that’s a miracle. Because at the end of the day, it’s not anything that my own will had anything to do with.

Finally, I should mention that I believe both magic and miracles come in all shapes and sizes. I had a teacher once who instructed us to notice at least three miracles a day. And it worked! They weren’t all on the scale of walking on water or parting the Red Sea — most of the miracles I found were on the level of being able to see love in a baby’s eyes, that sort of thing.

But it was truly wondrous, a marvel, something beyond my control, and as best I can tell it was real evidence of Divine action. So in a way, miracles are like dreams: pay attention to them, and you’ll start to notice and remember them more vividly and accurately. And then your life really will shimmer with wonder.

What do you think is the difference between magic and miracles? What do you see is their commonality? I’d love to hear from you — as a comment on this page, or on one of my social media pages.

 

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Carl McColman
Soul Friend and Storyteller. Lay Cistercian, Catechist, Author, Blogger, Podcaster, Speaker, Teacher, Retreat Leader.