Meditations on the Tarot: A Conclusion UPDATED

The Pope design, from various editions of the Tarot de Marseille

Note: This is the last in a series which looks at the real history of Tarot. I do not deny that Tarot has occult connections which are seriously problematic for Catholics. This series is not about fortune telling, but about cultural history and gaming.

I was beginning to worry that God and the Machine would be All Tarot, All the Time, but the series is done and you’re all free to get outraged now that the facts have been laid out from beginning end.

This was never just about playing cards. This was a tiny sliver of European Catholic cultural history, and by reclaiming it we begin to feel some of the life of our ancestors in the faith. That’s what cultural history should do. By looking at a small or seemingly insignificant subject in detail, it brings an entire people back to life.

I feel the pulse of medieval Catholics and their uniquely beautiful and challenging world in the cards. When you know how people dressed, sang, danced, and, yes, played, you know that people a little bit better. What it reveals is a people who let faith and wonder imbue even humble pieces of paper used to play games. That should inspire us.

I never imagined when I first starting researching this subject four years ago that I would write over 10,000 words about it, but I followed the story where it led me. As I explained in earlier posts, this is an expanded version of a feature story I wrote for Games Magazine (where I’m Editor-at-Large), and it will appear in the November 2013 issue. The expansion fleshes out the religious themes related to tarot, exploring some of the specifically Catholic issues in more depth.

Along the way, as expected, I angered both Catholics and New Agers, pagans, and occultists. Let me address both groups.

To My Fellow Catholics: I had comments here and many messages in social media (as well as emails to my portal editor, Elizabeth Scalia) objecting to the fact that I was even writing about this subject. Some of these were made early in the series and were reasonable expressions of concern that the link to the occult was too strong to overcome.

Others were of the “Tarot cards are playthings of the devil and no good can come of them, and don’t bother me with the facts” variety. I think many of the latter comments came from people who didn’t read past the word “Tarot.”

Honestly, I’d like to be polite and say how much I respect their opinions and sympathize with their perspectives … but I don’t.

In fact, that kind of reactionary anti-intellectualism is what’s driven Catholic culture into the ground, leaving us with a pietistic, Precious Moments-style faith with all the marrow sucked from it. It refuses to ask hard questions and make challenging inquiries because “intrigue is one of the enemy’s tools,” and Satan might … I dunno, jump out of the cards and strangle them. I’m fuzzy on the details.

My point was always this: The cards are not innately wicked. They only become so by misuse.

I believe in Satan. I believe he prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking souls to devour. That’s why we must be innocent as lambs, but also cunning as serpents.

The pietistic Catholics have the lamb part down.

The serpent part? Not so much.

It was the devil who took a plaything created by Catholics and reflecting their faith, and turned it into a tool of evil.

“Cunning” means taking it back. It then becomes one less tool of the devil.

Tarot is shrouded in a history of lies, but that history was trapped in specialty publications and only rarely acknowledged by occultists. My goal was to tear that shroud away for a wider audience. Given the thousands who have already read this series, and the many thousands more who will read my magazine, I’d call that a success.

No one says you need to be interested in this. I doubt most readers of this series will ever pursue the cards as objects of entertainment. If you don’t like the cards, or if you were wrapped up in the occult and can’t trust yourself, then by all means, avoid them.

But making the truth known in a detailed, thorough way serves to demystify something wrapped in a gauze of arcane mumbo jumbo. See also John 8:32.

To New Agers and Other Occult Dabblers: I was one of you once, and I don’t really know how better to say it than this: you’re on the wrong path. You’re following a road of spiritual emptiness  and destruction. There is one God, and he has one Son, Jesus Christ.

St. Paul addresses the pagans

You draw gods from your imagination and worship them; which is in fact worship of the self. Some truth can be found on this path. The Fathers–and even St. Paul–acknowledged that which was true in paganism, and kept it. That process of Hellenization–the very thing stripped from Christianity by the Protestant Reformation–was part of the true genius of the early faith.

It took the idol To A God Unknown and said, “I will make Him known.”

And you’ve chosen to make Him unknown again.

Much of this is purely reactionary: people who grow up with a defective religious experience or a poor religious example fleeing their own heritage in search of some new truth of their choosing and their own invention. It’s rebellion. People are wounded and searching, and react against the dominant religious culture. Christianity can often be unappealing, largely because it’s filled with Christians: the wounded and broken.

That was me. I didn’t want any part of this Catholic thing, so I concocted my own belief system. Oddly enough, it reaffirmed all my thoughts and wishes and biases, because it came not from without, but from within.

I didn’t find a Truth: I manufactured one to my liking. My ego was my idol.

You can’t rebuild a broken soul using broken materials. The patient needs a doctor with a clear eye. Only a healthy spirituality can fix a broken spirit.

As The Prophet said, “We do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.”

If you use tarot for divination, you are doing one of two things: deluding yourself, or trafficking with evil forces. There is no option three. There are no gods and goddesses, and the only spirits who would allow themselves to be manipulated by you are fallen spirits with evil intent.

Just turn away from it.

Valentin Tomberg

One man turned sharply away from just such an occult path and embraced Christ and his Church. His name was Valentin Tomberg, and he was one of the leading intellects of Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical Society. He abandoned the occult and became a Christian mystic, writing several books, including his most important, Meditations on the Tarot, for anonymous posthumous publication.

This weighty book on the meaning of the symbols is considered one of the classics of modern Christian mysticism, albeit one with some serious problems which are the result of Tomberg’s long immersion in anthroposophy prior to his conversation. He uses the images of the tarot to analyse different aspects of the Christian’s inner life, drawing on a vast well of knowledge, both Catholic and pagan.

Meditations shouldn’t be approached by someone without a firm understanding of theology and the literature and imagery common to Christian mysticism. It requires grounding in the work of Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (who uses a unique terminology) and Hermetic Christianity, but will reward the judicious reader with profound insights. Tomberg’s mad erudition zips from St. John of the Cross to Eliphias Levi (!), from the Gospel of John to the Buddha, taking worthwhile images and ideas wherever he finds them and molding them into an almost-orthodox vision of deep Christian wisdom.

Some of the gnostic still clings to Tomberg and mars the work in places, and the bizarre juxtaposition of occultists and saints is hard to swallow at times, but there’s no question that it’s an important and challenging work by a writer who considered himself a devout and faithful Catholic.

An edited version of Hans Urs von Balthasar’s essay on the the book is included as an Afterword, and you can read more about his impressions of the work here. Von Balthasar greatly admired the work, with reservations. (Von Balthasar’s measured appraisal of the work is one of the sins trotted out to condemn him–and Bl. John Paul and Benedict XVI by extension–by certain rad-trad sites.)

Flannery O’Connor famously called the South “Christ-haunted.” She only got it partly right: the entire world is Christ-haunted.

Because Christ is the ultimate Truth, all things trend toward Him. All things that were true before Him anticipate Him, and all things that are true after Him reflect His incarnation.  Truth is found everywhere and in almost all religious traditions, but the fullness of Truth is found in Christ alone. And the more people turn away from Him, the more they find Him.

The great punchline of this entire series and the whole history of Tarot is this: Occultists think they are fleeing as far from Christ and His Church as possible. They adopt absurd and exotic practices. They create idols of the self and of imaginary beings. They use tools, which they imagine to be ancient and thus “pre-Christian” (and therefore “pure”)  for these practices. One of these tools is the Tarot.

The cards never would have caught on without the appeal–which still lingers for the vast majority of Tarot users–that here was something authentically ancient, mysterious, and wholly outside of the dominant Christian culture. That was the entire allure of Tarot: that it was non-Christian.

And now, when they can no longer deny the false history they peddled for so long, they act like it never mattered and everyone knows it anyway.

The original cards reflect our faith. The pope and the Church, the virtues, the mysteries of life and death, and the idea of a divinely ordered cosmos are all embedded right there in images create by a wholly Christian culture.

It’s hard to see in this picture, but the two books on the bottom of the pile on St. John Paul II’s desk have been identified as “Meditations on the Tarot”: a gift from Von Balthasar

I know I repeat these words of T.S. Eliot endlessly, but that’s because they contain the entire story of my life in four short lines: “We shall not cease from exploration, / And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”

People “explored” the tarot so deeply they got lost, and only now can we really know these things for what they truly are, not for what charlatans and dupes imagine them to be.

You can’t escape God. Even when you wander far afield and into error, He is there. He holds Fr. Brown‘s unseen hook and invisible line, which is long enough to let you wander to the ends of the world, and still bring you back with a twitch upon the thread.

I couldn’t escape Him for trying. Even when I’m writing about playing cards, it all comes back to Christ. Even if you’re deep in the occult, Christ is there, waiting for your return: the one lost sheep of the ninety-nine.

God finds a way.

Posts in this series:

UPDATE: I always find the good stuff late.

The site pre-Gebelin Tarot History by Michael J. Hurst is absolutely jammed with material on the real history of tarot. We’re both working from the same wellspring (Sir Michael Dummett, who he appears to admire as much as I do) but he’s dug further and written far more.

He wrote a post on this series, and I won’t argue with his criticisms except to say I was writing a different kind of thing for a different audience. I was more interested in general, striking examples of potential card meaning, which is why I “took them out of context” rather than examining their place and exploring just “why” these cards are in the sequence, and in particular the position they occupy in that sequence.

I also spun out some fantasies of interpretations–such as the Franciscan/Dominican thing, which I don’t actually believe–in order to show how easy it is to read meaning into a card (or anything, for that matter).

I think it’s possible that the order of the images does not have meaning. Dummett allowed this possibility as well.  That’s an unsatisfying answer, however. If the order does have meaning (and it seems odd that it would not), we don’t really know for sure what that it is. Indeed, Hurst asks a worthwhile question: “Why does [The Hanged Man] follow cards like the Triumphal Chariot and Love, then Time and Fortune, and why does he precede Death?”

I have no idea.

We’re also working opposite sides of the same street. My writing here is catechetical and, in a sense, evangelical. From the “Out Campaign” icon on his page, I assume Hurst is an atheist. Our historical “agendas” are the same, but my theological agenda gives my writing a different purpose. Hurst is looking at pure history. I’m looking at what history tells us about the life of faith. Faith has to be grounded in history and reality or it’s worthless.

Here’s how he describes himself:

Caveat Lector

I’m a Tarot geek, fascinated by the factual history and characteristic medieval allegory of this remarkable artifact. The bad news is that I’m not an art historian. My only credentials are having read most of the salient books on the subject and having a strong preference for facts over fiction. The good news is that I am not an apologist for occult, paranormal, or other New Age nonsense, nor a sucker for pseudo-historical fantasy. That has made me a skeptic among the true believers who dominate the online Tarot community. These are some of my musings, to provide an occasional counterpoint to the pervasive New Age pseudo-history of Tarot.

He’s doing good work. Read him for more detail on the history.

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About Thomas L. McDonald

Thomas L. McDonald writes about technology, theology, history, games, and shiny things. Details of his rather uneventful life as a professional writer and magazine editor can be found in the About tab.


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