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.
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.
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.