Harrison Middleton University

BOOK REVIEW: Meditations on the Tarot

BOOK REVIEW: Meditations on the Tarot

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November 19, 2021

Thanks to A. Calhoun, a 2021 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.

Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism is the work of a great reconciler. These figures appear when some new body of knowledge, when some great insight or edifice of thought must be reconciled with the Christian Tradition. St. Thomas Aquinas is the most obvious example of such a figure, reconciling the insights of Aristotle, and through him the best of the Greek philosophical tradition, with the Catholic Faith. This type, though, is not limited to the Angelic Doctor. A list of such thinkers might begin with St. John the Apostle who unlocked the cosmic implications of the Logos, and end with Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day, whose Catholic Worker Movement reconciled the Anarchism of Peter Kropotkin with the personalism of St. Francis of Assisi. Valentin Tomberg, the true author of Meditations who is identified in the book merely as “your friend from beyond the grave,” took on an even more dangerous task when he attempted to reconcile what insights he could from the fringes of German and French Romanticism and Esotericism with orthodox Catholicism. Authors such as Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Anthroposophy, an esoteric Christian movement that today still operates the Waldorf schools, and Joséphin Péladan, Papus, and Louis Claude de Saint-Martin, all French esotericists, are quoted liberally in the text, as well as the Hermetic Emerald Table, various Cabbalistic writers, Plato and Plotinus. In this startling book, Tomberg takes these disparate streams, many subterranean and even occult, and brings whatever is good in them into harmony with Scripture, the Saints and Catholic Tradition through a series of 22 ‘meditations’ on the major arcana of the Tarot of Marseilles.

Valentin Tomberg’s biography well-suited him to this unique undertaking. Born in St. Petersburg, Russia, on February 26, 1900, Tomberg was raised a Lutheran. As a young man, he gravitated to the Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky, moved from this to the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner, explored Russian Orthodoxy, but finally entered the Catholic Church after the Second World War. In 1920, he found his mother tied to a tree and shot by communist revolutionaries in a forest near their home in Estonia. During the war, he was part of the Dutch anti-Nazi resistance and studied law, receiving a PhD in Jurisprudence from the University of Cologne; during the Cold War, he lived in England and translated Soviet broadcasts for the BBC. He died in 1973, his life spanning some of the most turbulent and violent decades of the last 2000 years. Yet, while the world seemed to fall apart around him, Tomberg worked and prayed, gleaning truth wherever he found himself, teaching courses and giving lectures, and finally bringing all that he had learned along the way into harmony with the Catholic Tradition that he finally united himself to.

The book, 658 pages in English from the French, is massive. Its form is unique, using each of the images of the Tarot arcana to initiate a ‘letter,’ addressing the reader as ‘Dear Unknown Friend.’ The writer moves, by means of analogy, from the particulars of each picture to its message, connecting it to various great thinkers of the East and the West, and ultimately arriving at profound insight into some aspect of Christian truth, descending and ascending again and again from the concrete particulars of the card to sublime spiritual insight. The book is an immersion in a completely different way of thinking. The three monastic vows of Obedience, Poverty and Chastity, the Virgin Mary, the Pater Noster, the Trinity, the Hierarchy, the Angels, the Saints, the words and person of Jesus Christ– all are explored as Tomberg meditates on each of the Tarot images. Following the ebb and flow of Tomberg’s thoughts is thrilling. You will be left dazzled by the author’s brilliance, moved by his sincerity, often shocked at his startling insights and connections, and perhaps wiser for being dunked into this great river of thought.

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