Monday, April 4, 2016

Curious Pope St. John Paul II Photo: Meditations on the Tarot?

 Update: the Bear fears some may not make it through the entire article, for which he accepts full responsibility. The Bear quotes prominent Catholic sources expressing enthusiasm for the book in question. They are exhibits for the enthusiasm among Catholic thinkers, not for the soundness of their content. This is not a book review.

The article is not about St. John Paul II. The part of about him is to illustrate how high the book penetrated into Catholic circles. It is "hey, this is sort of weird, when you've got well-known Catholics lavishing praise on Meditations on the Tarot." 

The Bear is in the odd position of admiring aspects of a very strange book that hops from mind-blowing insight to rank heresy. The Bear does not recommend this book, even for its good parts. 

Finally some alert readers have pointed out that the logos on the book aren't pointing in the same direction and the Pope's wristwatch is on the wrong hand. However, if the image is reversed, those problems are resolved. The cite to the German magazine "Weltbilt" at the bottom  is apparently what is reversed.


Photo correct, cite at bottom reads backwards. 

                                                     

Photo reversed, cite at bottom reads correctly.

So, what books are on his Holiness' desk in 1988?


Kind of hard to read, no?



But carefully compare to this high-quality photograph above. The title, translated, is "Meditations on the Tarot." Objections that the logo is pointing in different directions, and that St. Pope Paul II is wearing his watch on the wrong wrist are resolved if the photograph has been reversed. 

One ephemerist alleges that, while living in Germany, he received a "reliable report" that the book had been presented to St. John Paul II by Robert Spaemann. These were people who knew Spaemann. Now, Rorate Caeli reported an audience between Spaemann and Pope Benedict XVI shortly before the Motu proprio was issued. Spaemann was a philosophy professor at the University of Munich, and is a personal favorite of Pope Benedict. Pope Benedict dedicated one of his books to Spaemann. And Hans Urs von Balthasar was one of Pope Benedict's very favorite theologians. And guess who wrote the second afterward to the German edition of Meditations on the Tarot, after von Balthasar? Robert Spaemann.

Of course, there is no picture of Pope Benedict sitting at a desk with Meditations on the Tarot.

Now before you get too excited, gentle reader, "Meditations on the Tarot" is not about fortune-telling. It is a melange of Christian Hermeticism, and often reactionary, yet sometimes unorthodox Catholicism. It also has a healthy dose of  Christian mysticism. It discusses the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience at length. There is much that is intriguing and suggestive, but a little bit of leaven leavens the whole loaf.

As we shall see, however, the book was circulating among Catholic intellectuals at the time so perhaps we should not be surprised.

Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar and Other Catholic Reviewers

In fact, Cardinal Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote a favorable afterward, which is more or less gently critical depending on the edition. It seems as if some unscrupulous publishers left off the end of von Balthasar's contribution, where he lists issues with the book, such as the author's apparent acceptance of reincarnation, and believe it or not, the author's "fundamentalist approach." (Tomberg could be very non-ecumenical toward Protestants.)

Von Balthasar was not made a cardinal until seven years later, so one assumes whatever he wrote was not an issue for Pope St. John Paul II. (Of course von Balthasar building his theology on the channeled communications of medium Adrienne von Speyr wasn't a problem, either.)

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 summarized 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. Firstly, it may be recalled that such an attempt is to be found nowhere in the history of philosophical, theological and Catholic thought.

Other Catholic reviews of the book (from the Amazon website) said:

"This book, in my view, is the greatest contribution to date toward the rediscovery and renewal of the Christian contemplative tradition of the Fathers of the Church and the High Middle Ages." (Trappist Abbot Thomas Keating, OCSO)

"The book begs not only to be studied cover to cover, but also to be savored, meditated upon and assimilated into one's life." (Richard W. Kropf, National Catholic Reporter)

National Catholic Register's Review

But before you snark on the Reporter, the National Catholic Register had a glowing review, too, published in the mid-80s and written by Stratford Caldecott. It saw Meditations on the Tarot as a kind apologetic, even invitation addressed to the New Age Movement. Indeed, it seems that this dense, difficult book has brought many former New Agers into the Church. Further the Bear sayeth not. 

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."

When you put it that way, where does the Bear sign up? Today, that would get you put in fundie time out by Pope Francis.


Valentin Tomberg

Valentin Tomberg
The book was published anonymously and posthumously. The reader is addressed rather charmingly as, "My unknown friend."

The secret eventually came out that the author was Valentin Tomberg. 

Tomberg was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1900. He was drawn to Theosophy and the mysticism of the Orthodox Church. He became a Martinist. His family fled the Russian Civil War to Estonia, but his mother was killed by marauders. He went to Amsterdam and married a Polish Catholic woman He also joined Rudolph Steiner's Anthroposophical Society. His career course is typical for an aspiring occultist of that era, although had he been English, it would have included a tour in the Golden Dawn.

He converted to Catholicism around the end of WWII. He moved to England and worked for the BBC as a translator. After his retirement, he devoted himself full-time to his writings, including his magnum opus, Meditations on the Tarot.

He died on vacation with his wife in 1973. Meditations on the Tarot was published in 1984.

Bear's Opinion

It has been awhile since the Bear has read Meditations on the Tarot. It is a difficult work, and the Bear can't remember much of it. There was much that he thought made sense, and much that is lyrical, and much that gently but devastatingly skewers non-Catholic religions, even eastern ones, which are traditionally admired by New Agers.

Then there's a long segment on the perilous and illicit process of turning oneself into a ghost, to crystalize oneself after death in order to remain here on earth and avoid judgment and purgatory.

It's almost like talking to someone with a psychotic delusion. One minute they sound perfectly sane, and the next minute they're demanding aluminum foil to make hats for everyone. Or, more dangerously -- and this is the real problem with Meditations on the Tarot -- one minute Tomberg sounds perfectly sane, and the next minute he sounds perfectly sane, too, but he's saying something unsound.

The Bear can see how people who are not experienced with the magic-show cum striptease that is occultism might be gulled. It isn't New Age Catholicism, represented by shelves of books in your local Catholic bookstore. It's nearly a kiss to Catholicism from the best traditions of western occultism, but it's really a miss.

42 comments:

  1. Your attitude to JP II is scandalous. And another thing, if this will be true (the picture is so unclear that this looks like pure smear), then logo on the spine of the questionable books would be turned the same way and THIS IS NOT!!! How come dear Bear?

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    1. Kissing a Quran would be scandalous. The Bear never said he read it, or liked it. Looks to me it is probably sitting on his desk, possibly a gift by Robert Spaemann. It intrigued a lot of Catholics at the time. What is scandalous if he did have a copy? It's an interesting book with a lot of speculation, some solid Catholicism, and a few clunkers.

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    2. John Paul II wore his watch on his left hand.

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    3. I agree w/Tereze that the logo on the spine is reversed in the bright clear close up. Yes, otherwise, it may appear that they are the same books. What's up with that? Otherwise, I've never heard of these books or that JP2 had them.

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    4. If you reverse the photo, both the questions about the logo and the wristwatch are resolved, no? That theory has a lot of explanatory power. Pictures do get reversed for whatever reason.

      But the watch on the wrong hand, while curious, does not go to the issue of the books on the desk. Photoshopping this picture would not involve the watch at all, so the observation has no explanatory power.

      If a hoax, the whole purpose is defeated by glaring errors like the wristwatch problem, the different ways the logos are pointed, and having the books in question so low-res as to make it impossible to read the title.

      In other words, someone would have to be a genius at photoshop, and a complete idiot about hoaxing.

      Besides, it just does't look photoshopped. Look at the light on the stack of books. It perfectly matches JPII, as he is dramatically lit from the window.

      Finally, except for being able to read the titles, the books look the same as in the clearer picture. I guess you either see it or you don't. It doesn't matter to me, because whether JPII was given it or not does not change the fact that the Catholic press and Catholic intellectuals thought very highly of a Christian Hermetic tome.

      The Bear is baffled why people would be upset about someone saying that Pope St. John Paul II had sitting on his desk a book many Catholics was wild about at the time. Because it has the scary word "tarot" in it? The book has nothing to do with fortune-telling or devil worship.

      The author uses 22 images (which the Bear believes were derived from Catholic sources to begin with) as illustrations of Catholic concepts, albeit within a framework that might owe more to Plotinus than St. Augustine. I am fairly sure Pope St. John Paul II had the discernment to read it without danger. If he did read it.

      Read the whole article, and you will understand.

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    5. I don't know, Bear, I'm seeing no reflection of the watch on the table, so obviously photoshopped. :-)


      I don't think this is scandalous...if the book was popular St. JPII might have read it to see how dangerous it was. He'd presumably have read the Quran too at some point...after all "it is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." - Aristotle

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    6. Very funny. I thought about that, too :-) Maybe the watch was photoshopped on later to throw us off? Remember, this is 1988. There should be an original somewhere. It was apparently in a German magazine in November, 1988.

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    7. In regard to the photo and switched images:

      If you click on the first lick provided by the bear, the JPII image is reversed. That resolves both the book image and the watch question.

      So which image is correct? Can you tell from the picture? Well in image from http://corjesusacratissimum.org, the letters under the bust, while not quite legible, do suggest that the Bear has the reverse image.

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    8. I agree on the reversal utuebeo. What has confused people is that the attribution to Weltbilt at the bottom is on the reversed image.

      Why can't my computer enhance photos like in Bladerunner?

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    9. Perhaps there is another explanation for Pope St. John Paul II's possession of these books.

      "If you know others and know yourself, you will not be imperilled in a hundred battles; if you do not know others but know yourself, you win one and lose one; if you do not know others and do not know yourself, you will be imperilled in every single battle.! - Sun Tzu

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    10. Bear has no idea why he had them, Your Honor, nor is it essential to the story to know. If someone put a gun to his head (why do they keep doing that, anyway?) the Bear would guess someone gave him the two volume edition and he had heard some buzz from Vatican insiders. He decide to read them for himself so he could have an informed opinion. It seems a bit odd to have both volumes out on your desktop if you're really reading the book, though, but perhaps that's just me.

      People need to understand how interesting this book is. The first epigraphs are from Jesus (first in Latin, then in the vernacular) and St. John of the Cross. It is indeed an attempt to jump-start Catholic mysticism post-Vatican II using the Western Mystery Tradition, a.k.a. Hermeticism. At the same time the author explicitly states he wanted to "incarnate" this work into the Western Mystery Tradition, and wrote in French because France has an unbroken tradition in these matters unequalled by other countries.

      Even if he read it and enjoyed it, it is a "hmm..." instead of "St. John Paul II was an occultist!" I suspect parts would have been significant others not so much. I'm reading it again to see what the perspective of many more years provides.

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    11. P.S. Good to hear from you, Your Honor.

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    12. When I mentioned the thing with the Pope's wristwatch, I didn't mean it as a problem, but as a solution to Tereze's objection. (I was replying to her comment, but blogger doesn't do a good job of identifying such things.) It seemed obvious to me that the image had been flipped - so obvious that I didn't think it necessary to explain in greater detail. Sorry if that caused unnecessary confusion.

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  2. When I was a kid, my family hosted a student from South Africa...and she was white. (talk about a confused smalltown southern town who thought everyone in Africa was black) and she was a Christian Scientist - what's that!? (We were all thrown for a loop) But I remember my father (who drove our family 25 miles to nearest Catholic church - and we were lucky!) studying Edward Cayce and the like. I never spoke with him about it... but who knew why he was looking into it? Who knows why St. John Paul had these books? But my question, is what is the Bear trying to get us to think about in showing us this picture?

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    1. The Bear just thinks it is an interesting story about how an unlikely book became popular among the Catholic intelligentsia. Any conclusions are for the reader to draw.

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  3. Thanks Bear. Sounds interesting. I ordered the book as a change of pace though my guess is that, in traditional Catholic circles, it would be verboten as are a number of folks you mentioned above. I am hoping that getting edgy once in while will not be harmful.

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    1. The Bear is the Bear, and has never claimed that this ephemeris is anything more than a two bit dancing Bear show. He cannot give the book a recommendation, though.

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    2. >>I am hoping that getting edgy once in while will not be harmful.

      Since when has it ever been good, and what would drive someone to desire getting edgy?

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    3. Oh, there are many edgy ephemera, some even Catholic. Most of the time it's a pose, Bear thinks. It is an easy way to gain audience. Is the Bear edgy? He certainly doesn't wake up and say "the Bear will be edgy today." Jokes about tranquilizer dart abuse might be edgy. But he is a Bear. He doesn't consider this article edgy. If anything is edgy, it's his satire.

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    4. I wasn't referring to your writing.

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  4. The picture is sourced to Weltbild vol. 18, November, 1988. This is not only from the picture itself, but in Thomas Körbel, in his treatise Hermaneutik der Esoterik: eine Phänomanologie des Kartenspiel Tarot als Beitrag zum Verständnis von Parareligiosität in 2001.

    Weltbild ("World View") was started in 1948 and was Catholic at the beginning, but, as the Bear understands, later changed.

    Today, Weltbild is still owned by the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. It still offers Meditations on the Tarot, plus Tarot cards, for that matter.

    You may remember the 2013 controversy over the publishing company owned by the German Church publishing porn.

    While you are stewing over this, there is a book entitled The Case of Valentin Tomberg by one Sergei O. Prokofiev (?) that advances the theory that Meditations on the Tarot is, in fact, a Jesuit tract, since Tomberg lays so much emphasis on blind obedience. It has more in common with the Jesuits than the Hermeticists.

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  5. This issue is water under the bridge at this point. I'm not worked up about it either way. I just found the reverse logo peculiar. Be prepared for the synod against the family report. That's where we need to concentrate ourselves.

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    1. What would Dan Brown say about your lack of curiosity?

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    2. Those books about the Church, and conspiracies and such, with the albino assassin monk.

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    3. Those books about the Church, and conspiracies and such, with the albino assassin monk.

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  6. Maybe the books were a gift from Teresa. Anybody catch the PBS special about the woman in his life tonight?

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  7. Oops sorry I forgot to id meself.

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    1. JP2 and Teresa were very bonded in their discussions of philosophy and actually co-wrote a book together---though her name did not appear on it. It seemed rather odd, but at one point in the show in their correspondence
      they asked each other "what his/her God was like?" Maybe it was a mistranslation, but it struck me as odd.

      It would not be odd for the 2 to have engaged in a philosophical study of the Tarot. Seems pointless as a Catholic pope to do so, but whatever.

      Seattle Kim

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    2. Seems legit to me. Lots of saints have corresponded with members of the opposite sex. Being saints, perhaps they did not have to worry about temptations to improper motives.

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    3. Seems legit to me. Lots of saints have corresponded with members of the opposite sex. Being saints, perhaps they did not have to worry about temptations to improper motives.

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  8. Young Karol Wotiya hung out with people we would now call New Age. I know of one Catholic woman who loves this book. As far as I know it's never been condemned out right but I don't trust it.

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  9. It hasn't, but you are right not to trust it. Bear believes you would have to know a lot about the Western Mystery Tradition to navigate it safely, and maybe that's self-delusion or pride on his part to think he can. On the other hand with things like "Mother, Daughter, Holy Soul," you would have to be that savvy.

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    1. maybe you wouldn't have to be that savvy

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    2. maybe you wouldn't have to be that savvy

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  10. It hasn't, but you are right not to trust it. Bear believes you would have to know a lot about the Western Mystery Tradition to navigate it safely, and maybe that's self-delusion or pride on his part to think he can. On the other hand with things like "Mother, Daughter, Holy Soul," you would have to be that savvy.

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  11. German: Die Grossen Arcana des Tarot - Meditationen: Die Großen Arcana des Tarot, Ausg.A, 4 Bde., Bd.1: Bd 1 (Sammlung Überlieferung und Weisheit) von Martin Kriele, und Robert Spaemann von Herder, Freiburg (Taschenbuch - Januar 1993)

    FWIW, here is the German version, which does not, Bear believes contain the afterword (or forward) by Hans Urs von Balthasar. It is two volumes, published by Herder. This would apparently be the 1983 edition. reprinted in two volumes in 1993. While the Pope could certainly have had the 1993 edition (he died in 2006), but f we go by the (reversed) attribution of "Weltbilt 24 18 November 1988, page 27" that makes the 1983 German, two-volume set likely.

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    1. Why would Robert Spaemann not only have access to two popes, but was so admired by one that he got a book dedicated to him? And he's an enthusiast of Meditations on the Tarot and apparently gave a copy to JPII?

      Well, he's in his '80s and is considered the foremost Catholic scholar in Germany. He was also highly critical of Pope Francis in an interview last year in Herder Correspondence, founded in 1942 as a Catholic journal. It is published by Herder -- the same company that published the German edition of Meditations on the Tarot that Spaemann gave to JPII.

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  12. I read this book and it is meant to be a series of spiritual exercises. Obviously his views on reincarnation are not acceptable. But were this book ever edited and made more approachable it is one of the finest books of Christian mysticism I have ever read.

    We have to remember that Christianity exploded eventually at first, not amongst religiously rigorous Jews in the Middle East but amongst the pagans of Europe. There is a reason for that! And tarot only later received its stigma with fortune telling. It originally was simply a card game with some very catholic imagery that rose in popularity in the Middle Ages. All very interesting. . . And I would bet both Pope Francis and Pope Benedict are familiar with this book.

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    1. My view is identical with yours. Tarot probably dates from early 15th century and is related to the "triumphs" of the Middle Ages in which the Church presented things like the virtues, death, the uncertainty of life, the devil, etc. which were natural to be reproduced on cards, which were used for card games. Evidently their use for fortune-telling came about much, much later. Even today occultists mostly use various more modern decks for meditation, not divination, but the different schools / authors seldom agree with each other.

      Tomberg uses each card as not much more than a hook to hang a series of discussions. Tis a puzzlement why Tomberg took such great pains to claim that his Hermetic stream was a perfect match for exoteric Catholicism, and do a good job selling it, but then throw in reincarnation, or mother-daughter-holy soul, or avoiding purgatory illicitly by crystalizing yourself into a ghost that he KNEW wouldn't fly in the orthodox Catholic circles he seemed to be aiming at.

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    2. P.S. Pope Benedict, no doubt. I suspect not in the case of Pope Francis. I think he would just see fortune-telling. I think it would be over his head. Interestingly, there's a book out accusing Tomberg of teaching Jesuitism!

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