Meditations on the Tarot

the greater trumpsIt has been an unexpected joy for me– this (past) spring and summer –to delve into the history, mystery, and lore surrounding Tarot cards.  My focus has been on their psychological significance, in a Jungian sense– and on their philosophical and theological significance –not on their popular employment as a means of divination.  When it comes to fortune telling, I’m like Aunt Sybil in Charles Williams’, The Greater Trumps.  The sentiments that I have in mind are expressed in the following  exchange between Sybil, her niece Nancy, and Nancy’s boyfriend, Henry:

“What did you mean about fortune-telling?” [Nancy] said, addressing ostensibly Mr. Lee, but in fact Henry. Both of them came jerkily back to consciousness of her. But the old man was past speech; he could only look at his grandson. For a moment Henry didn’t seem to know what to say. But Nancy’s eager and devoted eyes were full on him, and something natural in him responded. “Why, yes,” he said, “it’s here that fortunes can be told. If your father will let us use his pack of cards?” He looked inquiringly across. Mr. Coningsby’s earlier suspicion poked up again, but he hesitated to refuse. “O, if you choose,” he said. “I’m afraid you’ll find nothing in it, but do as you like. Get them, Nancy; they’re in my bag.” […] “Right,” said Nancy […] She found the Tarot pack and ran back again […] “Who’ll try first?” she went on, holding out the Tarots. “Father? Aunt? Or will you, Mr. Lee?” Aaron waved them on. “No, no,” he said hurriedly. “Pray one of you–they’re yours. Do try–one of you.” “Not for me, thank you.  I’ve no wish to be amused so–” Her father hesitated for an adverb, and Sybil also with a gesture put them by. “O, aunt, do!” Nancy said, feeling that if her aunt was in it things would be safer. “Really, Nancy. I’d rather not–if you don’t mind,” Sybil said, apologetic, but determined. “It’s–it’s so much like making someone tell you a secret.” “What someone?” Henry said, anger still in his voice. “I don’t mean someone exactly,” Sybil said, “but things…the universe, so to speak.  If it’s gone to all this trouble to keep the next minute quiet, it seems rude to force its confidence.  Do forgive me.”  She did not, Nancy noticed, add, as she sometimes did, that it was probably silly of her. Nancy frowned at the cards. “Don’t you think we ought to?” she asked. “Of course, if you can,” Sybil answered. “It’s just–do excuse me–that I can’t.” “You sound”, Henry said, recovering a more normal voice, “on remarkably intimate terms with the universe.  Mayn’t it cheat you? Supposing it had something unpleasant waiting for you?” “But,” said Sybil, “as somebody says in Dickens, ‘It hasn’t, you know, so we won’t suppose it.’ Traddles, of course. I’m forgetting Dickens; I must read him again. Well, Nancy, it’s between you and Henry.”

Likewise– while  I am not suggesting that anyone else should feel the way Aunt Sybil and I do about fortune telling –I want to make clear to others who do feel that way that I know where they are coming from.  But it is also worth noting that Charles Williams, J.R.R. Tolkien, and C.S. Lewis were friends and fellow inklings.  As such, those of us who (like Charles Williams) find ourselves nonetheless fascinated by these cards are not necessarily (or for that reason alone) in bad company.  One may well ask, however,

If you aren’t interested in divining the future, what is your fascination with Tarot cards? 

As it happened, my interest sprouted almost immediately– and began to blossom very quickly  and unexpectedly –when a friend handed me Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey Into Christian Hermeticism, by Valentin Tomberg. mott-ver4This amazing book is written in the form of 22 letters– addressed to the unknown friend –with each letter pertaining to one of the 22 Major Arcana or Trumps of the Tarot.  Each letter is a sustained meditation on a particular card, relating it to the teachings of the western, Catholic tradition, to the so-called Hermetic tradition, and to other religious and quasi-religious philosophies from a variety of cultures and epochs.  Moreover, most of the letters also refer to several of the other letters, at least in passing (and to their corresponding Trumps), creating a very dense network of interlocking symbols and multifarious modes of discourse  which is extremely difficult to summarize, but which– in conjunction with a contemplation of the Trumps themselves –tends to captivate the imagination and open the heart in a way that has, for me, been truly extraordinary.   I say this in spite of the fact that I have not been reading it uncritically.  At some point, perhaps, I will write a sympathetic critique in which I will address, among other things, what are, in my opinion:

  • The Many Imaginative Leaps in the Arguments
  • The Seemingly Blind Defense of Catholic Tradition and Dogma
  • Its Less than Fair Treatment of Nondual Philosophies
  • Its Less than Fair Treatment of Nietzsche
  • Its Occasional Lack of Scientific Rigor

These criticisms notwithstanding, it is– in contrast to Our Sunday School Theologya breath of fresh air.  And even if it is not (in my opinion) completely fair in its presentation of other philosophies and religions, it at least attempts to represent them as having a share in the truth which, from its own point of view, both antedates and ultimately finds fulfillment in the Catholic faith. But over and above this, the author seems to appreciate– fully and without reservation –that faith is not merely a matter of believing in sacred texts, religious dogma, or some imagined series of historical or prophetic events, but entails entering into the One life Divine, here and now.  And, my brief but pointed criticisms notwithstanding, his treatment of other faiths and other philosophies is, it seems to me, fair enough and comprehensive enough to build a bridge that can allow traffic to pass both ways (i.e. into or out of the Roman Catholic Church for which he is an apologist).  Indeed, with respect to the Hermetic tradition, this highly recommended website quotes him as follows:

In May 1967 the author wrote to some friends: “My meditations on the Tarot are no scientific undertaking. Rather, they are a wide-ranging effort, by means of the symbolism of the Hermetic tradition, to enter again deeply into the all-encompassing stream of the Catholic tradition, so through a shift in perspective, through a purifying atonement, the Catholic and the Hermetic traditions might be seen as one, in harmony with each other” (EnglishWordPlay.Com).

So, if one is willing to roll with the punches– to go along and get along so to speak –this book is, on balance, rather ecumenical and inclusive.  In fact, I think it could, with sufficient nuance on the part of the instructor (and in conjunction with other texts offering alternative and supplemental points of view), be used in a college level course in comparative philosophy and/or religion. Rather than struggling to summarize the content of this extraordinary book in this brief review, I recommend that anyone who is so inclined follow the link below to a beautiful summary presentation (of several of the Letters) complements of BBC Radio Drama Producer, Shaun Macloughlin:

jack2 English Wordplay ~ Listen and Enjoy Meditations on the TAROT

And, for additional online resources, see my new blog which, among other things, is designed to pull together as much quality content as possible from around the web pertaining to this text:


blog banner book mark3

In the process of reading these 650+ pages, I decided to purchase a deck of Tarot cards and became increasingly fascinated by the Major Arcana as I continued to work my way through the text.  Later, I decided to print my own deck of Teeny Tiny Tarot Trumps and also secured copies of the following:

The Symbolism of the Tarot, by P.D. Ouspensky

The Greater Trumps, by Charles Williams (a novel)

The Fools Pilgrimage: A Kabbalistic Meditation on the Tarot, by Stephan A. Hoeller

The Tarot: History, Mystery & Lore, by Cynthia Giles

The William Blake Tarot of the Creative Imagination — Created by Ed Buryn (Based on the works of William Blake)

In the process of exploring this material, I also found something very much akin to my own default philosophical position echoed in the writing of P.D Ouspensky, via Cynthia Giles.  The image, at the bottom, is based on this quotation:

00. resized“If we imagine twenty-one [numbered Tarot Trumps] disposed in the shape of a triangle, seven cards on each side, a point in the centre of the triangle represented by the zero card, and a square round the triangle (the square consisting of fifty-six cards, fourteen on each side), we shall have a representation of the relation between God, Man and the Universe, or the relation between the world of ideas, the consciousness of man and the physical world. The triangle is God (the Trinity) or the world of ideas, or the noumenal world. The point is man’s soul. The square is the visible, physical or phenomenal world. Potentially, the point is equal to the square, which means that all the visible world is contained in man’s consciousness, is created in man’s soul. And the soul itself is a point having no dimension in the world of the spirit, symbolized by the triangle. It is clear that such an idea could not have originated with ignorant people and clear also that the Tarot is something more than a pack of playing or fortune-telling cards.” ~ D.P. Ouspensky, “THE SYMBOLISM OF THE TAROT”

Making suitable allowance for the context– and keeping in mind (as Donald Tyson point out) that the fool was originally an unnumbered card and that, later, it was numbered “0” (zero) by occultists and esoteric philosophers –I think Ouspensky’s formulation articulates very well (in the imaginal context of the Tarot) my own implicit idealism (derived from my admittedly idiosyncratic  reading of Kant and Spinoza) which I sometimes refer to (only half jokingly) as Trinitarian panentheism. Here, in conclusion, is Ouspensky’s formulation as represented by Cythia Giles: Giles on Ouspensky

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3 Responses to Meditations on the Tarot

  1. Jon says:

    Wayne! Thanks so much for what you do! I’ve been reading on your site for a little while now and have found it very helpful. One quick question, I’m very interested in reading “Meditations on the Tarot” because it is so wildly praised by so many Christian mystics I respect. I’ll be honest though… flipping through it I see him using the word “gnosis” and “gnostic” and “gnosticism” everywhere and it confuses me. I read your post “Gnosticism: the Good the bad and the Ugly” and it helped clarify some. Could you help me understand the way in which the author uses the term “gnosis” along with “magic” in his book? I’m really not compelled by any philosophy or theology that implies the world is somehow dualistically separate from God and therefore evil. I know that can’t be what he’s speaking of or else those I respect (including yourself) would not speak so highly of it. I have such a hard time knowing how to know WHICH gnosticism each author I read is referring to. Thanks again!!

    • [Wayne! Thanks so much for what you do! I’ve been reading on your site for a little while now and have found it very helpful.]

      You’re welcome, Jon–so glad to hear from you!

      [Could you help me understand the way in which the author uses the term “gnosis” along with “magic” in his book? I’m really not compelled by any philosophy or theology that implies the world is somehow dualistically separate from God and therefore evil. I know that can’t be what he’s speaking of or else those I respect (including yourself) would not speak so highly of it. I have such a hard time knowing how to know WHICH gnosticism each author I read is referring to. Thanks again!!]

      Yes–he definitely isn’t speaking of the world that way: “The world is a work of art animated by creative joy!” (644).

      Mysticism, gnosis, and magic are the themes of the first three letters, respectively. You can get the best sense of our anonymous author’s meaning by immersing yourself in the text and giving the author the benefit of the doubt when you find something obscure or off-putting. Below are some relevant texts, but you will encounter many more as you begin to spend some quality time with this extraordinary text.

      Having said that, it also seems to me that his definition of gnosis is rather technical and personal to him. The mystical encounter with silence– recognizing and honoring awareness, as such –is, itself a kind of gnosis (a kind of intuition or realization that transcends the ratiocination of the discursive mind). The teachings of Eckhart Tolle were the occasion of my “seeing” this. Many find “The Headless Way” of Douglas Harding helpful in this regard. I would encourage you to check out those teachings (if you don’t already “know” what they are about) and see if you can “see” what is being alluded to.

      Meanwhile– to repeat –the best way to grok our anonymous author is to spend a good deal of quality time in his meditations. But keep in mind that they are not merely a cerebral exercise. While they offer much in the way of “a reasoned account” of Christianity and Christian faith, their primary function is that of spiritual exercises offering a way of initiation.

      Thanks again for contacting me and please forgive my delayed response.


      p.s. here are the promised quotes from the first three letters– quoting from Meditations on the Tarot:

      “Learn at first concentration without effort; transform work into play; make every yoke that you have accepted easy and every burden that you carry light! (8)

      “For silence is the sign of real contact with the spiritual world and this contact, in turn, always engenders the influx of forces. This is the foundation of all mysticism, all gnosis, all magic and all practical esotericism in general.” (11)

      “All practical esotericism is founded on the following rule: it is necessary to be one in oneself (concentration without effort) and one with the spiritual world (to have a zone of silence in the soul) in order for a revelatory or actual spiritual experience to be able to take place. In other words, if one wants to practise some form of authentic esotericism— be it mysticism, gnosis, or magic —it is necessary to be the Magician, i.e. concentrated without effort, operating with ease as if one were playing, and acting with perfect calm. This, then, is the practical teaching of the first Arcanum of the Tarot. It is the first counsel, commandment or warning concerning all spiritual practice; it is the aleph of the “alphabet” of practical rules of esotericism. And just as all numbers are only aspects (multiples) of unity. so are all other practical rules communicated by the other Arcana of the Tarot only aspects and modalities of this basic rule. Such is the practical teaching of the Magician” (11-12)

      “[The second arcanum] is concerned with gnosis and not at all with science, since gnosis is exactly what the Card of the High Priestess expresses both in its entirety and in its details, namely the descent of revelation (the pure act or essence reflected by substance) down to the final stage —or “book”. Science, on the contrary, begins with facts (the “characters” of the book of Nature) and ascends from facts to laws and from laws to principles. Gnosis is the reflection of that which is above; science, in contrast, is the interpretation of that which is below. The last stage of gnosis is the world of facts, where it becomes fact itself, i.e. it becomes “book”; the first stage of science is the world of facts which it “reads”, in order to arrive at laws and principles.

      “As it is gnosis (i.e. mysticism become conscious of itself) that the Card symbolises, it does not present the image of a scientist or a doctor, but rather that of a priestess, the High Priestess —the sacred guardian of the Book of Revelation. As the High Priestess represents the stages of the descent of revelation, from the small uppermost circle on her tiara as far as the open book on her knees, her position is in keeping with this —she is seated. For, to be seated signifies a relationship between the vertical and horizontal which corresponds to the task of the outward projection (horizontal, book) of the descending revelation (vertical, tiara). This position indicates the practical methodof gnosis, just as the standing Magician indicates the practical method of mysticism. The Magician dares—Tor this reason he is standing. The High Priestess knows — this is why she is seated. The transformation from to dare to to know consists in the change of position from that of the Magician to that of the High Priestess.

      “The essence of pure mysticism is creative activity. One becomes a mystic when one dares to elevate oneself—i.e. “to stand upright”, then even more upright, and ever more upright – beyond all created being as far as the essence of Being, the divine, creative fire. “Concentration without effort” is burning without smoke or crackling fire. On the part of the human being it is the act of daring to aspireto the supreme Reality, and this act is real and effective only when the soul is serene and the body completely relaxed —without smoke and crackling fire. The essence of pure gnosis is reflected mysticism. Gnosis signifies that that which takes place in mysticism has become higher knowledge. That is, gnosis is mysticism which has become conscious of itself. It is mystical experience transformed into higher knowledge.

      “Now, this transformation of mystical experience into knowledge takes place in stages. The first is the pure reflection or a kind of imaginative repetition of the experience. The second stage is its entrance into memory. The third stage is its assimilation in thought and feeling, in a manner where it becomes a “message” or inner word. The fourth stage, lastly, is reached when it becomes a communicable symbol or “writing”, or “book”—i.e. when it is formulated.

      “The pure reflection of mystical experience is without image and without word. It is purely movement. Here consciousness is moved by the immediate contact with that which transcends it, with the trans-subjective. This experience is as certain as the experience belonging to the sense of touch in the physical world and is, at the same time, as much devoid of form, colour and sound as the sense of touch. For this reason one can compare it with this sense and designate it as “spiritual touch” or “intuition”.” (40-41)

      “The third Arcanum, the Empress, is that of sacred magic. Now, there are three kinds of magic: magic where the magician is the instrument of divine power — this is sacred magic; magic where the magician himself is the source of the magical operation —this is personal magic; lastly, magic where the magician is the instrument of elemental forces or other unconscious forces —this is sorcery. The teaching of the third Arcanum —in view of the context of the Card and its place between the second and fourth Arcana—refers to sacred or divine magic.” (53)

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