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Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Tarot: A Review of Meditations on the Tarot by Anonymous (Valentin Tomberg) | Stratford Caldecott

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Editor's Note: Was Swiss theologian Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar--acclaimed by both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI--a closet New Ager who dabbled in the occult? Or, put less sensationally, did he exhibit poor judgment and unwittingly spread teachings contrary to Catholic doctrine when he wrote a foreword to the book Meditations on the Tarot, written by "Anonymous" (Valentin Tomberg, [1900-73]), and first published in France as Méditations sûr les 22 arcanes majeurs du Tarot in 1967? In recent years variations on both views have been spread, sometimes in complete ignorance, sometimes with an understandable concern about the nature of von Balthasar's involvement with a book that apparently contains strange or questionable theological material.

Recently I wrote a short piece on the Insight Scoop blog about Tomberg and his book, and then contacted Stratford Caldecott, the editor of Second Spring, who is far more knowledgeable than myself about New Ages beliefs in general and this topic in particular. He was kind enough to locate a review he had written of Meditations on the Tarot--which he has studied in both the English and French editions--in the mid-1980s for the National Catholic Register. He then added further information to it regarding von Balthasar's foreword and graciously allowed IgnatiusInsight.com to republish it.

We are all aware of the popularity of witchcraft, magic, astrology and the "New Age" movement. The cults and new religions are growing in number and strength every year: in contrast, the Catholic Church is often represented as a fossil, its life extinguished by centuries of dogmatism. True Christianity, says the New Age, has been lost, or retreated underground where only an elite few can find it. Meditations on the Tarot answers these accusations. It claims that Christianity has not been lost at all, but has been preserved precisely by those institutions and dogmas that, to the New Agers, appear opposed to the life of the Spirit. The book was written by a remarkable convert, an experienced occultist who finally discovered "that there are guardian angels; that there are saints who participate actively in our lives; that the Blessed Virgin is real... that the sacraments are effective... that prayer is a powerful means of charity; that the ecclesiastical hierarchy reflects the celestial hierarchical order... 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."

By means of 22 meditations, in the form of "letters to an unknown friend", the anonymous author attempts to assimilate his vast store of "esoteric" knowledge, gleaned from years of spiritual training in the more serious New Age groups, within the orthodox Catholic vision of faith. The Tarot cards are used, not for divination, but as symbolic encapsulations of the wisdom he has leant. "The High priestess warns us of the danger of Gnosticism in teaching the discipline of true gnosis. The Empress evokes the dangers of mediumship and magic in revealing to us the mysteries of scared magic. The Emperor warns us of the will-to-power and teaches us the power of the Cross."

Hans Urs von Balthasar has compared the author to Charles Williams, Hildegard of Bingen and even St Bonaventure, praising (with certain qualifications) the book's "superabundance of genuine, fruitful insights". An example of such an insight might be the distinction it draws between three forms of mystical experience: union with Nature, with the transcendental human Self and with God. The first is pantheism; the second lies at the heart of the Eastern religions, and leads to metaphysical distortions when Westerners take the Self to be identical with God. The third is the goal of Christianity, and is inevitably dualistic because it involves the union in love between two distinct beings. Characteristic of this third kind of mystical experience is the "gift of tears", whereas the "advanced pupil of yoga or Vedanta will forever have dry eyes".

At its orthodox core, the Hermetic wisdom boils down to the doctrine of analogy: "As above, so below." By exploring the implications of this symbolic correspondence between different levels of reality, the author opens a dimension of depth on the Scriptures and dogmas of the Church. Take the so-called Law of Reward: "Renunciation of what is desired below sets in motion forces of realization above." This leads the author into an analysis of the three sacred vows--poverty, chastity and obedience--as the basis, not just of monastic life, but of all spiritual realization. The three temptations of Christ in the wilderness are directed at the three vows, the angels who came to minister to him after his triple victory are the "response from above", bringing him a threefold reward.

The three vows are also related to the five wounds, the Stigmata: "obedience rivets the will-to-greatness of the heart", "poverty holds fast the desire to take and the desire to keep of the right hand and the left hand", while "chastity pins down the desires of the 'Nimrodic hunter'." Christ's triple victory flowers into the seven sacraments, each corresponding to one of the "seven archetypal miracles" and one of the seven "I am" sayings in the Gospel of John. Exposing in this way hidden connections that link seemingly unrelated events in the Bible, Meditations on the Tarot aims to attune us with the breath of the Holy Spirit, who inspires and vivifies Scripture.

Meditations on the Tarot has flaws: the influence of anthroposophy is still too evident, for example, in the discussion of reincarnation. But potentially important for the future of the New Age movement is its breakthrough realization that, in Christianity, the esoteric and the exoteric cannot be separated, because "the spiritual world is essentially moral".

More could be said about Balthasar's Foreword or Introduction to the French edition, which was reproduced in slightly truncated form as an Afterword to the English paperback edition. That Foreword originally began: "Having been asked to write an introduction to this book, which for most readers enters into unknown terrain, and yet is so richly rewarding to read, I must first of all acknowledge my lack of competence concerning the subject matter. I am not in a position to follow up and approve of each line of thought developed by the author, and still less to submit everything to a critical examination. However, such an abundance of noteworthy material is offered here, that one may not pass it by with indifference."

Also omitted at the end of the piece from the English edition were the following comments of Balthasar's: "[The author] may from time to time make a step from the middle too far to the left (in presenting, for example, the teaching of reincarnation), or too far to the right (in occasionally approaching in a somewhat 'fundamentalist' manner Catholic religious opinions and practices, thereby coming too close to Church dogma, sometimes arriving quite unexpectedly as evangelical counsel or the rosary prayer, for example)." He continues then, as in the published text, "However, the superabundance--almost too much--of genuine, fruitful insights which he conveys, certainly justifies bringing these Meditations to a wider circle of readers."

By the latter criticisms I think Balthasar meant that there remained a certain imbalance in Tomberg's thought and method, which did not always rest in the calm centre of Catholic truth and flow from there, but struggled to reconcile and integrate the turbulent currents of Hermetic thought with the teachings of the Magisterium. I don't have access to the original French of the phrase translated here as "coming too close to Catholic dogma" and would welcome some clarification of this, but I suspect he just means that Tomberg jumps too quickly at times from one of his insights to some dogma or devotion without recognizing that these spring perhaps from another source.

I think that Tomberg's intention of fidelity to the Church and his love of Christ is fairly evident. Even while he had been a leading figure in Steiner's Anthroposophical Society before his conversion to Catholicism at the end of the Second World War his work was directed largely at making Christ better known and loved in the Society. Tomberg was apparently received into the Church in Germany, after working on a Doctoral thesis about human rights that was partly based on a study of Thomas Aquinas. He was deeply opposed to Nazism, and hid himself during much of the War in Amsterdam where he was studying also the Lord's Prayer with a small circle of friends. There he became involved for a time in the Orthodox Church (he had been born in St Petersberg in 1900, so this was a way of returning to his roots). After the War, as a Catholic, he gave lectures in legal philosophy, and from 1948 was able to employ his vast knowledge of languages working for the BBC in London, monitoring broadcasts from the USSR. For many of his remaining years, till his death in 1973, he lived near Reading.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles:

Author Page for Hans Urs von Balthasar, with biography and listing of books published by Ignatius Press
Love Must Be Perceived | Hans Urs von Balthasar | An excerpt from Love Alone Is Credible
A Résumé of My Thought | Hans Urs von Balthasar
Church Authority and the Petrine Element | Hans Urs von Balthasar
The Cross–For Us | Hans Urs von Balthasar
A Theology of Anxiety? | Hans Urs von Balthasar | The Introduction to The Christian and Anxiety
"Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary" | Hans Urs von Balthasar | An excerpt from Credo: Meditations on the Apostles' Creed
Love Alone is Believable: Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Apologetics | Fr. John R. Cihak
Catholic Spirituality | Thomas Howard

Stratford Caldecott is author of The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind The Lord of the Rings and The Seven Sacraments: Entering the Mysteries of God (Crossroad). He is editor of Second Spring, the journal of faith and culture published by Thomas More College, co-director of ResSource, and a research fellow of St Benet's Hall, Oxford. He is on the editorial boards of The Chesterton Review and Communio.

Visit the Insight Scoop Blog and read the latest posts and comments by IgnatiusInsight.com staff and readers about current events, controversies, and news in the Church!


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