This is a website written by two Catholic converts from the New Age movement.
And central to my own conversion, at least, was a very unusual book called Meditations on the Tarot – an anonymous 650 page magnum opus by another convert, Valentin Tomberg.
Truly, I do not think I could have escaped the clutches of the New Age mindset without this book.
Meditations on the Tarot, it must be emphasised, contains not a single line about divining the future through Tarot cards.
Nonetheless, the book contains elements that are definitely problematic for Catholics. Now, I would say that these elements are not primary, nor secondary or even tertiary – but they are there.
Perhaps most difficult of all is a curious treatment of reincarnation in which the author suggests that reincarnation possesses reality in a certain sense and yet is untrue in the deepest sense of that word. (Although he asserts that understanding of this is so dangerous that the Church is absolutely right to refute reincarnation, adding that ‘it is worth a hundred times more … to deny the doctrine of reincarnation’ than to court this danger.)
However, unpacking this curious treatment is far beyond the scope of our present post. (We have dealt with it a little bit further in a series of posts on Valentin Tomberg starting here) (UPDATE 2017: I also go extensively into Tomberg and his thinking in my just-released book from Angelico Press Cor Jesu Sacratissimum: From Secularism and the New Age to Christendom Renewed.)
Rather, our main purpose today is to reflect on the attitude towards Meditations on the Tarot emanating from the Vatican.
This is an important issue for us at this website. Because I have taken the apparently odd position (again in that same Tomberg series starting here) that Meditations on the Tarot, despite its highly problematic nature for Catholics, forms an important defense of the Faith in our troubled age.
Why I take that seemingly bizarre stance relates to my twenty year experience in the aforesaid New Age mindset and witnessing the power of Tomberg’s work to liberate people – myself and many more.
However, as a Catholic now, I aspire to think with the Church. My own little opinion matters little indeed compared with the Church’s judgment.
But the Vatican has not spoken regarding Meditations on the Tarot. And indeed there would seem to be little need. There are, of course, any number of heretical writings which the Church never troubles herself with for an instant.
And yet there are tantalising indications that Tomberg’s opus has, in fact, received some kind of support from the highest echelons of the Church, including the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith and the Papacy.
Author’s book concerning Valentin Tomberg. Click to see at Amazon.
The Core of Meditations on the Tarot
But before we come to these striking indicators, a little further context seems appropriate. For it is good, I think, to indicate what Meditations on the Tarot is – which may help the baffled Catholic reader to understand just why the Vatican might be taking such a curious position in regards to it.
I have said that the highly problematic aspects of the book are not primary. This begs the question as to what is the primary, central element of Tomberg’s Meditations on the Tarot …
For myself, it was only after my seventh reading of the book in 2001 that I could answer that question in a satisfying way. For it was then I saw that Tomberg’s profound, complex masterpiece turned not simply on Jesus Christ – but on a sustained meditation of how the entire cosmos changed through the Incarnation, Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
And because the universe changed, all forms of pre-Christian spirituality are potently, if often subtly, called into question by Tomberg. Here is the core of the book.
Potently, yet subtly – this is important. Tomberg is not a polemicist. Indeed, he abhors polemic as a form of violence.
Nonetheless, Tomberg gently pulls the rug out from the feet of today’s New Age movement. His tactic is delicate, but thorough.
For the New Age movement is based, above all, on Eastern forms of pre-Christian spirituality, which became outmoded by the Incarnation.
The book contains scores of examples of what I mean by this delicate deconstruction of both pre-Christian paganism and today’s burgeoning New Age movement.
Here I shall only cite one instance. The book features an extremely beautiful meditation on the nature of love as central to Christianity, whereas the author suggests that pre-Christian Indian spirituality is based not on love – but indifference.
I shall break Tomberg’s rich, dense paragraphs on Christian love versus pre-Christian indifference into shorter ones – which I think makes easier reading from a computer screen:
Now, two ways, two quite different methods exist which can free us from the illusion “me, living — you, shadow”, and we have a choice.
The one is to extinguish love of oneself and to become a “shadow amongst shadows”.
This is the equality of indifference.
India offers us this method of liberation from ahamkara, the illusion of self.
This illusion is destroyed by extending the indifference that one has for other beings to oneself. Here one reduces oneself to the state of a shadow equal to the other surrounding shadows.
Maya, the great illusion, is to believe that individual beings, me and you. should be something more than shadows— appearances wirhout reality. The formula for realising this is therefore: “me, shadow—you, shadow”.
The other way or method is that of extending the love that one has for oneself to other beings, in order to arrive at the realisation of the formula: “me, living — you, living”.
Here it is a matter of rendering other beings as real as oneself, i.e. of loving them as oneself. To be able to attain this, one has first to love one’s neighbour as oneself.
For love is not an abstract programme but rather, it is substance and intensity. It is necessary therefore that one radiates the substance and intensity of love with regard to one individual being in order that one can begin to ray it out in all directions. “To be able to make gold one has to have gold,” say the alchemists.
The spiritual counterpart of this maxim is that in order to be able to love everyone one has to love or to have loved someone. This someone is one’s “neighbour”.
So, so much is contained in this short passage. Love is not abstract – but rather substance and intensity, which is symbolised by GOLD.
And this gold, Tomberg says, is all to do with the LOVE of Christ.
In a multiplicity of ways, his book goes on to suggest that this Gold of Christic Love did not exist in the world before Christ.
Therefore, it forms no part of the pre-Christian spirituality that the New Age now champions. Here is why the pre-Christian path of Eastern spirituality is challenged here – not with violent polemic, but, as I say, delicate deconstruction.
In Defense of Catholic Tradition
And again, speaking very personally, it was only through my repeated reading of Tomberg’s deconstruction of paganism that I could free myself from the New Age. (There is much at this website that is pertinent here, but the interested reader may be referred to an article on Eckhart Tolle as well as a piece on my conversion.)
In this regard, let us note that Tomberg addresses his book to esotericists and hermeticists – in other words the very kind of folk who lie at the root of todays’ serious New Age movement.
Indeed, Tomberg had been active in esoteric circles in his youth. And after his conversion, he clearly felt the need to keep talking to the hermeticists – who, again, are often, if not always, the prototypes of today’s New Agers – and call them to the Church.
The Catholic Church is repeatedly, clearly and staunchly defended throughout the book. For example, Tomberg writes:
The Catholic Church, being catholic or universal, cannot consider itself as a particular church among other particular churches, nor consider its dogmas as religious opinions among other religious opinions or confessions.
And here, he argues that Hermeticism must eventually lead to the Church:
The way of Hermeticism, solitary and intimate as it is, comprises authentic experiences from which it follows that the Roman Catholic Church is, in fact, a depository of Christian spiritual truth, and the more one advances on the way of free research for this truth, the more one approaches the Church.
Sooner or later one inevitably experiences that spiritual reality corresponds—with an astonishing exactitude —to what the Church teaches: that there are guardian Angels; that there are saints who participate actively in our lives; that the Blessed Virgin is real, and that she is almost precisely such as she is understood, worshipped and portrayed by the Church; that the sacraments are effective, and that there are seven of them — and not two, or three, or even eight; that the three sacred vows —of obedience, chastity and poverty—constitute in fact the very essence of all authentic spirituality; that prayer is a powerful means of charity, for beyond as well as here below; that the ecclesiastical hierarchy reflects the celestial hierarchical order; that the Holy See and the papacy represent a mystery of divine magic; that hell, purgatory and heaven are realities; that, lastly, the Master himself—although he loves everyone, Christians of all confession as well as all non-Christians —abides with his Church, since he is always present there, since he visits the faithful there and instructs his disciples there. The Master is always findable and meetable there.
The Meditations and St. John Paul II
So, so much more might be said. But the above, as we have said, is mainly offered as context for the Catholic who is puzzled – puzzled by the idea that a book called Meditations on the Tarot could have received some kind of support from the highest echelons of the Catholic Church.
Amongst these highest echelons are, of course, the Cardinals – that elite college of no more than 150 men in the world, of whom those under the age of 80 elect the Pope.
And here is where we begin. For it is significant that Hans urs von Balthasar, a theologian Bl. John Paul II nominated to the college of cardinals wrote a foreword to Meditations on the Tarot.
In that foreword von Balthasar says:
A thinking, praying Christian of unmistakable purity reveals to us the symbols of Christian Hermeticism in its various levels of mysticism, gnosis and magic, taking in also the Cabbala and certain elements of astrology and alchemy.These symbols are summarised in the twenty-two so-called “Major Arcana” of the Tarot cards. By way of the Major Arcana the author seeks to lead meditatively into the deeper, all-embracing wisdom of the Catholic Mystery.
Now von Balthasar wrote his foreword originally in 1980, seven years before Bl. John Paul II nominated him to the college of Cardinals. This would suggest that von Balthasar’s praise presented no difficulty for Bl. John Paul II.
Book inspired by Tomberg and exploring his thinking. Click here.
However, there is another link to St. John Paul II. Somewhere in the 1980s, Bl. John Paul II was photographed with the German edition of Meditations on his desk. The photograph has been widely seen across the Internet and is reproduced above.
Some may doubt of course that these books are the Meditations. I can only say that I myself have lived in Gemany and it is obvious to myself and all who know the German text that this is the two-volume German edition. (If any doubt remains, a blow-up of the photo can be seen here compared with a clear picture of the German volumes.)
I will also note that whilst living in Germany, I received a reliable report that St. John Paul II had received Meditations on the Tarot in person from Robert Spaemann.
However, as Spaemann is a figure more linked to Benedict XVI than St. John Paul II, we will turn to him in the next section.
Here it suffices to say that St. John Paul II certainly knew the Meditations on the Tarot and would have known that von Balthasar had written the foreword. And yet for John Paul II this presented no obstacle in raising von Balthasar to the highest levels of the Church.
This, I think, can be said with certainty. One may also speculate about the photo. Was Bl. John Paul II caught unaware when photographed – or did he possibly wish to send a discreet signal of support for the book, even if not as pronounced as the step taken by von Balthasar?
Meditations on the Tarot and Benedict XVI
But let us now turn to Benedict XVI. In 2007, Benedict XVI transformed the Church with his Motu Proprio Summorum Pontificum which meant to liberate the traditional Latin Mass.
Now, allow me to make a personal digression here. Before the Motu Proprio, I was living and travelling in France, profoundly interested in the rumours that existed that Benedict XVI was about to free the Latin Mass.
And during that time, I came across a notice on the internet that had appeared in the leading Catholic traditionalist weblog Rorate Caeli. That notice read as follows:
For the Record
Paolo Rodari, in Il Riformista (May 29 issue):
For when, then, the expected liberalization of the ancient rite? Hard to answer. What seems to be certain is that the text of the “Motu proprio” by Benedict XVI is ready. Recently, moreover, it seems that the Pope spoke about it in a private audience with Robert Spaemann, philosophy professor at the University of Munich, the great Catholic intellectual to whom Ratzinger himself dedicated the book “Church, Ecumenism, and Politics” (Kirche, Ökumene und Politik). An audience — the one the Pope granted to Spaemann — of which little has been known, even if it is said that the German professor left it with the belief that the “Motu proprio” will be made known soon, maybe even within the month.
This notice of a private audience between the Pope and Spaemann in terms of the Latin Mass came as no great surprise to me. For I had long been aware of this ‘great Catholic intellectual’ and that Ratzinger had rendered him the singular honour of dedicating one of his books to him.
At some point, I also became aware that Spaemann wrote the foreword to the original edition of Martin Mosemann’s The Heresy of Formlessness – a classic book against the modern liturgy. And so it seems natural that Spaemann knew of Summorum Pontificum before nearly anyone did.
As I say, I have lived in Germany and know several Germans who know Spaemann personally, from which I received the report of Spaemann’s present to St. John Paul II.
What I have not mentioned so far is a certain link between Spaemann and Hans Urs von Balthasar, which is relevant in this context. For there were two forewords to the German edition of Meditations on the Tarot. One of them, as mentioned, was written by Hans urs von Balthasar. The other was written by Robert Spaemann …
Moreover, it is clear that both men are personally important to Joseph Ratzinger. Whilst the link to Spaemann is obvious from his dedicating a book to him, the connection to Hans urs Von Balthasar may be even more profound.
Indeed, John L. Allen Jr. claims that Ratzinger has four favourite theologians – from all time, that is! – of which von Balthasar is one. The other three are Augustine, Bonaventure, and Romano Guardini.
And so it is clear that two important, influential figures for Benedict XVI regarded Meditations on the Tarot most highly.
But has Benedict XVI ever given his public opinion of Meditations on the Tarot? Not to my knowledge – however there are two other indications of Joseph Ratzinger’s attitudes towards the book.
While they are hardly conclusive, they remain interesting. The first is a report that Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, prior to becoming Pope Benedict XVI, authorised the Russian edition of Meditations on the Tarot. This was related by the Anthroposophist Sergei Prokofieff in a book hostile to Tomberg – The Case of Valentin Tomberg: Anthroposophy or Jesuitism? (pg 8).
Given that Prokofieff is Russian himself and, I think, very unlikely to be lying, I find this report credible – however I have not seen it mentioned anywhere else. It is, however, consistent with all that we have said above.
Finally, there is another (admittedly very small) indicator of Ratzinger’s attitudes from public statements made by Martin Kriele, a significant cultural figure in German jurisprudence. Kriele is both Tomberg’s literary heir and also close to Robert Spaemann. Kriele had some acquaintance, at least, with Ratzinger in the past and has publicly asserted – quite honestly I am sure – that Ratzinger offered no objection to Kriele’s unusual positions in regard to esoteric Christianity.
Author’s book exploring Valentin Tomberg. Click to see at Amazon.
In Conclusion: Tomberg on the Absolute Truth of Catholic Dogma
What are we to make of this list of items, some of them quite circumstantial?
It can at least be said that the previous Pope belongs to a milieu of influential German-speaking Catholics who have advocated Meditations on the Tarot in various ways. And if the report about the Russian edition is accurate, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger himself has shown his support for Tomberg’s work.
Moreover, Bl. John Paul II clearly saw no reason to deny a very high level of ecclesiastical authority to von Balthasar.
It remains true, however, that the Church has spoken nothing definitive about Meditations on the Tarot.
Many Catholics then may find themselves in a difficult position with this book. I know I do.
However, the Church faces a dark hour indeed. My own belief, as paradoxical (or even nonsensical) as it may sound, is that Tomberg’s unusual work forms an important support for the Church in this time of secular and neo-pagan deluge. And I cannot help but suspect that both Benedict XVI and Bl. John Paul II were conscious of its potential.
I see no way to argue this, however. I think only those deeply familiar with Meditations on the Tarot will readily see what I mean.
Let us say one thing in closing, however. Valentin Tomberg was deeply conscious of the crisis in the Church at the time of Vatican II – a time when nearly everyone else was rejoicing. (We have a post here about Tomberg’s grave concerns regarding the Council.)
And shortly after Vatican II, he wrote of the Church as headed towards the abyss in the wake of the conciliar changes. And I should like to close with a remarkable passage from Tomberg’s final book Lazarus Come Forth (something of a shorter companion volume to the Meditations).
From this, the sensitive reader should be able to see and feel both Tomberg’s profound Catholicity – and how he regarded the situation of the Church today.
The Christianity of the hermits … was no passing phenomenon limited to a few centuries only. Today it still lives with all the intensity of its youth. Though it may not be deserts and thick forests into which one can retire into an undisturbed solitude nowadays, there are still people who have found or created in the deserts of the great cities and among the thickets of the crowds, a solitude and stillness of life for the spirit.
And as before, their striving is devoted toward becoming a witness for the truth of Christianity. The way into the depths has not led them to an individualistic brand of belief, but has given them unshakable security in the truth of Christian revelation as transmitted and taught by the Church.
They know the truth of the following: Extra Ecclesiam non est salus (‘there is no salvation outside the church’); the Holy Father is not and cannot be the mouthpiece of an ecumenical council; the Holy See alone can make decisions in questions of faith and morals – a majority of the bishops cannot do so and even less can a majority of priests or congregations do so; the Church is hierarchic-theocratic – not democratic, aristocratic or monarchic – and will be so in all future times; the Church is the Civitas Dei (“the City of God”) and not a superstructure of the will of the people belonging to the Church; as little as the shepherd follows the will of the herd does the Holy Father merely carry out the collective will of his flock; the shepherd of the Church is St Peter, representing Christ – his pronouncements ex cathedra are infallible, and the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven belongs to him and him alone.
In other words, those who become solitary in order to seek profundity may reach on their path of spiritual experience to the unshakeable insight that the dogmas of the Church are absolutely true.
And so it can happen that, as they did at the time of the Arian darkening of the Church, the “hermits” of today may come again to the assistance of the Holy See, leaving their solitude to appear as witnesses to the truth of Peter’s throne and its infallible teaching.
In those times it happened that St Anthony of Thebes left the desert and hurried to Alexandria to support St Athanasius with the weight of his moral authority – St Athanasius who became the standard bearer for the divinity of Christ.
The darkening which today is described as ‘the present crisis of the Catholic Church” can lead to the necessity for the solitary sons of the Church to hurry to the aid of the Holy Father, the most solitary of solitaries, in order to save the Church from the abyss toward which she is moving. ..
What can I say? These last words regarding the need ‘to hurry to the aid of the Holy Father … in order to save the Church from the abyss’ have long penetrated my soul.
This abyss is real and each day I try to pray and ponder as to what can be done.
In my prayer and pondering, I cannot help but feel that pointing people to Meditations on the Tarot is something I must do.
The book is not for everyone – still it can help many souls lost in the wilderness, as I was lost, with its ‘delicate deconstruction of New Age neo-paganism.’
And moreover, it can help souls to attain, as Tomberg himself puts it:
The unshakeable insight that the dogmas of the Church are absolutely true.
Book inspired by Tomberg and exploring his thinking. Click here!