Deborah Oak over at Roots Down recently made an interesting post in which she discussed, among other things, the difference between prayer and spell work. She states: "Prayer is one form of asking, as is spell work." This got me thinking, and has forced me to define what prayer and spell work actually mean to me. Then I got to thinking about how we relate to the gods, because if you only think of the gods as metaphors then you're probably not going to approach things the same way as those who see the gods as real, living, breathing individuals. So I gave myself a refresher course in various terms and ideas. I decided to start at Wiktionary and here's what I got:
Prayer: a practice of communicating with one's god; a request; petition
Spell: words or formula supposed to have magical powers; a magical incantation
Rite: a repeated set of actions
Ritual: related to a rite or repeated set of actions
Immanent: naturally part of something; inherent; integral
Transcendent: surpassing usual limits; being beyond the range of normal perception
Seems pretty cut and dry, right? Well, maybe not. Plenty of folks consider spell work to be a form of prayer and, in one way, I can agree with that. Most of the time when I work a spell I do it within a larger ritual that includes invocation of the elements and the gods, among other things. But the spell itself, to me, is the combination of the actual words (chants in my case) and appropriate tools used to bring about a certain goal or desired outcome. But prayer can be found within a spell even without the larger, full ritual. Some folks pray and work a spell but do not include any ritualized actions. It's a way of saying: "I want/need such and such to happen, but you, the gods, know best and I will respect your decision." So I guess a spell can include a prayer but if a prayer includes a spell it's no longer just a prayer.
Another difference between spell work and prayer is the fact that spell work allows us to get past our daily, speaking, "rational" minds and get in touch with our subconscious mind, the childlike or more primitive part of our minds. I consider spell work as somewhat akin to lucid dreaming. It enables us to learn about our deepest selves and hopefully, make positive changes. With time and effort we can learn to access our psychic energy and realize our magical potential.
After considering the human side of prayer and spell work, etc. I think it's also important to point out how these things might possibly be interpreted by the gods, or whoever you might pray to or invoke. These ideas are contingent on what kinds of beliefs folks have about deities. Some neo-pagans consider deities, as least theirs, to be real walking, talking, corporeal beings. Others think of them only as metaphors and symbols. And still others, like me, believe in a mix of both; the gods are essentially too "big" or complex for us to really, fully understand but in order for us to have a relationship with them they allow us to put them in boxes so that we might communicate with them. In effect, they can be heavenly beings or they can reveal themselves in smaller ways; it depends on the specifics. When someone prays to a god, and does nothing else, no ritual or spell, they are putting the ball in their court. When all you do is pray you are asking for their good will; it is up to them to answer or not. Obviously, if your only communication with the gods is just to ask for stuff your chances might not be that good, but that's between you and your god(s).When ritual spell work is performed the practitioner is depending on their own will playing a part in the magic, not just the will of the gods. Then there are those who don't include any mention or idea of gods and do the spell work using their own will and energy and nothing else. I have to wonder how effective that kind of magic is but that's a topic for another time...