Friday, 6 January 2012

A book of spiritual exercises

In the fourth chapter of All Things Made New I refer to a comment by Valentin Tomberg, the (no longer) anonymous Catholic author of Meditations on the Tarot. Here I want to expand that reference. Meditations, of course, is a highly controversial book, and at the mere mention of it orthodox Catholics tend to reach for their pitchforks. The positive (but not unreserved) recommendation by Hans Urs von Balthasar has undoubtedly done more to damage Balthasar's reputation than to elevate Tomberg's. Nevertheless, this strange book contains many interesting insights – things which "ring true", to me at least. Let us look at what he says about the Book of Revelation.
"The key to the Apocalypse is to practise it, i.e. to make use of it as a book of spiritual exercises which awaken from sleep ever-deeper layers of consciousness. The seven letters to the churches, the seven seals of the sealed book, the seven trumpets and the seven
vials signify, all together, a course of spiritual exercises composed of twenty-eight exercises. For as the Apocalypse is revelation put into writing, it is necessary, in order to understand it, to establish in oneself a state of consciousness which is suited to receive revelations."
This is roughly the approach I adopted in my book. The author of Meditations, however, then goes on to specify the "key" to the Apocalypse in the four "arcana" symbolized by the first four cards of the Tarot (which, I should emphasize, is NOT being treated here as a system of divination or black magic). The first stage is that of "concentration without effort" taught by the card "The Magician" (and also, the author points out, by St Teresa of Avila and St John of the Cross). The first principle (i.e., of "esotericism" – another red-flag word, but meaning here simply the "way of the experience of the reality of the spirit") is expressed in the following formula: 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! 

The concentration spoken of is the "fruit of moral purification of the will", the silence of desires, imagination, and discursive thought. "One may say that the entire being becomes like the surface of calm water, reflecting the immense presence of the starry sky and its indescribable harmony." This "service of silence" is "concentration without effort". Once this state becomes permanent in the soul, all activity is without effort and thus work is transformed into play. One is able to draw from the "zone of perpetual silence" a sort of "secret and intimate respiration, whose sweetness and freshness accomplishes the anointing of work and transforms it into play".
For the "zone of silence" does not only signify that the soul is, fundamentally, at rest, but also, and rather, that there is contact with the heavenly or spiritual world, which works together with the soul. He who finds silence in the solitude of concentration without effort, is never alone. He never bears alone the weights that he to carry; the forces of heaven, the forces from on high, are there taking part from now on.
Hence the last part of the formula, based on Matt. 11:30: make every yoke that you have accepted easy and every burden that you carry light. This is the stage at which we perceive the world as composed of correspondences, based on the "analogy of being". We read the book of the world as speaking of spiritual realities.

The second stage ("High Priestess") involves reflection or becoming conscious of the fruits of the first, as indicated by the instructions of Jesus to Nicodemus: "unless one is born of Water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God". Water "must become a perfect mirror of the divine Breath", in a perfect integration of active and passive, taking us into the realm of "Christian Yoga", which leads not to unity (as in Eastern or monistic Yoga) but to unity of two, or in other words the unity of love (lover and beloved), the essence of the Christian Way. This stage is analogous to the incarnation of the Word in the womb of Mary. It corresponds to the formation or opening of the "book" of knowledge – the book with seven seals in Revelation. It is the development of a "gnostic" or contemplative sense (the result of listening in true silence), which is the equivalent of vertical or typological memory, the memory of what is "above".

The third stage ("The Empress") is that of the union between two wills – divine and human ("on earth as it is in heaven"), which is the essence of true "magic", i.e. divine magic or imagination, and the healing miracles of the saints, and the Tree of Life, and the theological virtues, and the seven trumpets – not a forcing of the divine will to accord with ours, but a submission of the human to the divine. And so the fourth stage ("The Emperor"), as I understand it, is that of divine authority, revealed in the seven bowls of wrath and the sufferings of Christ on the Cross where all the consequences of human sin were experienced by God in man.

All of this will seem like nonsense, and dangerous nonsense, unless one can see through the surface of the words to the intentions behind them. And it is true that the author of Meditations sometimes puts a foot wrong – he is not consistently orthodox (and I may discuss those aspects in a later article). The book may be dangerous for many people, and I certainly don't recommend it to everyone. But for some, it can serve as a road out of the "New Age" and the world of "occultism" in the direction of true wisdom and Christian conversion: see my review of the book at the Ignatius web site, and this weblog by a convert from the New Age.


  1. Excellent post! You hone in on a helpful framework for somebody who wants to approach MotT from a solidly Catholic perspective. Both books, yours and Tombergs, are beautiful in their "play" and examples to me of "concentration without effort."

  2. To better understand MoT, one should try to grasp the Christian work of Rudolf Steiner and what he meant by the Mystery of Golgotha being the Turning Point of Time. Although, following the WWII, Tomberg left the Anthroposophical Society, the foundations for MoT still come right out of Steiner's work. If interested, I suggest this web site: to get a quick grasp. Another site is