True Religion

True religion is the intuition of the living God by the living soul, hence mysticism must be the root of any true religion; theology, rituals, rites, and practices then follow from that. The stages of revelation descend from the mystical experience. The following diagram shows the stages and relates them to the letters of the sacred name of God.

Stages in the development of a Tradition
Letter Stage Applies to Description
Y Mysticism Religious   Life To experience the unique essence of Being
H Gnosis Esoteric   theology To understand the mystical experience
V Magic Esoteric   art To put mystical experience into practice
H Hermetism Esoteric   philosophy To communicate mystical experience

This all starts with mystical experience; one cannot hope to make progress by skipping over the beginning. Without the complete process a tradition will decay and die. A stage in isolation, unconnected to the other stages, will result in misunderstanding. Hence, secular philosophy that does not derive from mystical experience, magic, and Hermetism enslaves the human mind. A person stuck in an ideology cannot see the world as it is, but only through the distorting prism of the philosophical system. This is a web of thought that maintains the mind in a trap.

Magic in isolation becomes sorcery, or as Tomberg put it, “a pathological, romantic aestheticism”. I suspect several members of this discussion have been involved with, or know someone who has, with such magical orders. These orders are dark, they try to promote personal power as an end in itself, or engage in activities such as “sex magick” in order to provoke unusual states of consciousness.

Gnosis in isolation is sterile. People stuck in this level often seem to know a lot about religious ideas and symbols, and “talk a good game”, but really have no depth, and “live on the scraps” (as Tomberg put it) of various religious traditions, resulting in some incoherent, syncretism.

Even the mystic is not immune to spiritual pathology. If there is not intellectual effort made to understand the experience, he becomes addicted to the experience itself, a “spiritual drunkard”. We see this in some people who seem to be quite spiritual, but the most common symptom is an extreme “quietism”. That is, the experience alone counts, and there is nothing to do. Or else, the attitude is that “nothing matters”, so mystical experience is allied with libertinism in one’s personal life.

Once again, Tomberg points out the dangers encountered along the path. At every stage along the way, he clearly points out the narrow path, but simultaneously issues a warning of possible deformations. These must be taken seriously, because once one has veered off the path, it is difficult to get back on. This is because such a person is usually in a state of denial, believing his level of understanding is perfectly sound.

The complete human being is a mystic, a gnostic, a magician, and a philosopher, i.e., “he is religious, contemplative, artistic, and intelligent”. At least, this is true virtually in every person, i.e., in potential. Obviously, anyone involved in this work of participating in the Hermetic tradition, wants to actualize all these latent possibilities.

That will be our goal.

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Mystical Experience

Although Tomberg offers many diversions and side trips, we see that there is a single thread, the vertebrae, off of which everything hangs. The Bateleur represents the inspiration of the Spirit and the High Priestess, gnosis. Tomberg now expands on its meaning.

Gnosis, as represented, is unlike science. Gnosis is the part of the process of the descent of revelation to individual facts, while science starts with the facts and tries to determine laws and principles from them.

Gnosis is mysticism that has become conscious of itself. That is, it expresses the essence of the mystical experience. As for the latter, Tomberg explains that the essence of pure mysticism is creative activity. The mystic transcends created things level by level until it reaches the essence of Being, the divine, creative fire. Of course, God, in Tradition, is understood as the essence or principle of Being.

There have been many saints of great sanctity who have been unable to express that experience in a meaningful way. Those are rare who can turn mysticism into higher knowledge, or gnosis. This occurs in four stages.

  1. The first stage is the reflection in consciousness of the mystical experience.
  2. The second stage is its entrance into memory
  3. The third state is its assimilation into thoughts and feelings
  4. In the fourth stage, it is formulated in words or a book

Tomberg here is not giving us a theory, but rather he is describing his own experience of how he came to write this collection of letters. Perhaps some of you have had an experience of the supreme Reality, but just can’t get it into words. Just allow it to happen and maybe it will come out in a contribution to this list. Probably at first, it won’t sound as good in words as it did in your mind; keep in mind that Tomberg spent 40 years writing his book. But first, that experience needs to penetrate into your being so that it is inextricably enmeshed in your memory, thoughts, and feelings. Now you can understand why the mind must be made clear of distracting elements.

Nevertheless, it is better to strive for the creative activity of mysticism even if you can’t fully express it. The worse situation is the man who has a certain knowledge, but lacks the mystical experience that gives it life. Typically, he will get stuck with a fixed idea and will be unable to move beyond it.

Tomberg describes the pure reflection of mystical experience (stage 1) as without image and without word (i.e., thoughts). This is important to keep in mind or else the danger will be that all sorts or images or unsound ideas may be mistaken for the experience itself. He describes it as more like a “touch” than the other senses, since touch does not experience form, color, or sound. Nevertheless, this spiritual experience is as real as any sensory experience. He uses the word “intuition” to describe it, since it is a direct experience not mediated by images or thoughts.

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A Thought in the Mind of God

Following up on the idea of an imposter self, Louis Claude de Saint-Martin makes a similar point about the number two in the course of explaining the proper object of contemplation. While contemplating a higher truth about God, our lower faculties are suspended and we become one with the Creator. On the other hand, if we turn our gaze to ourselves, looking for some inner light originating from our self, there arise two centres of contemplation, one real, the other false. This is the illegitimate binary.

Tomberg then seeks for a legitimate binary based on the divine Breath and its Reflection. Then one is aware of the two aspects of reality simultaneously: the noumenal and the phenomenal. Keep these in mind because he will switch terms, using essence and substance, respectively, to mean the same thing. Thus his point is that two is the number of the reintegration of consciousness.

Tomberg then addresses in an interesting way the question of the fundamental nature of reality. There is no need to repeat it here, but comments on the writers mentioned would be appropriate. The binary nature indicates that Love is the fundamental principle, since it necessarily requires two. He addresses alternatives such as Being and the Good, although fundamentally the Good is the “abstract philosophical notion of the reality of Love.”

The idea of Being is morally indifferent, as it leaves out the experiences of the good and the beautiful. Being is passive and objective while love entails activity and subjectivity. You can experience being externally. However, the experience of love touches our inner life. The choice between Being and Love is an important question, even the most important question, facing us, since we find what we look for.

If you choose Being, there can only be the One and any second thing will be false, a mere illusion. Tomberg attributes this attitude to the Eastern religions such as the Vedanta and claims that on that path, “one loses the capacity to cry.” This path regards the divine union as the absorption of one’s being into the divine Being.

The other path sees the divine union as the experience of the breath, illumination, and the warmth of Divine Love. The human personality is not extinguished but is instead set ablaze. This legitimate binary quality is the union of two separate substances in one essence.

Tomberg holds to the traditional understanding that essence is the idea of something (the noumenal) and substance is its actuality (the phenomenal). God is essence as He is not an object in the world, thus no one has “seen God” face to face. Tomberg points to several documented experiences of God, but it is the Beatific vision that he is ultimately driving at. This can only occur in the domain of essence (or ideas); it is an encounter in which the human personality not only remains intact, but actually becomes truly itself. Since everyone was first a Thought in the Mind of God, we become fully what we were intended to be from all eternity.

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Water and the Spirit

If the meaning of the Bateleur is one side of a coin, it must immediately reveal the other side. The letter writer provides several synonyms for the Arcanum of the Bateleur: “intellectual and heart-felt geniousness (“génialité intellectuelle et cordiale”), true spontaneity, and the act of pure intelligence. The pure act is that of the Spirit, it is spontaneous and cannot be controlled. More importantly, it cannot be known directly, but only through its effects, i.e., we become aware of it through its reflection.

Perhaps you have seen photographs in the forest of a very still lake, the trees, clouds, etc., are reflected to perfectly in the reflection off the lake, that it can be a challenge to know if the picture is upside down or not. We are in the position of someone suspended above the lake starting down at it but unable to turn around to look upward. Nevertheless, we can know what is above from what is below. However, if a motorboat crosses lake, causing turbulence, the image immediately becomes distorted and that perfect correspondence has been lost.

Now we know what concentration without effort is. The spirit is the one, the central point of concentration. The world is the many, but united as the reflection of the one spirit. The Arcanum of the High Priestess is that of the reflection of the pure act of intelligence. In other words, the pure act is the Spirit, the active principle, and the reflection is the Soul, the passive principle, which is represented by water. This is the analogical meaning of John 3:5 – “unless  one is born of Water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.” The act of the spirit and its reflection in quiet waters gives us the conscious experience of the Kingdom of God.

Once again, this points us to the reintegrated consciousness, i.e., that before the fall of man. This requires two things: Spirit must become again the divine Breath or Holy Spirit, and the Water must become the Virgin Mary. (NOT “virginal” as translated in the English text.) Now we can understand the analogical meaning of this text from the Creed:

“And by the Holy Spirit [the Lord Jesus Christ] became incarnate of the Virgin Mary.”

Note that this is the analogical meaning of the incarnation, not the “real” meaning. That is, it doesn’t replace the literal meaning, but understands it using the principle of analogy described by the Batelleur. Without the actual incarnation, this understanding would just be philosophical speculation. Without the analogical level, the historical event would be without meaning for us.

So the initiation, the second birth of the Logos in consciousness, requires the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. The water, i.e., the Soul, must become a perfect mirror. Unfortunately, such as we are, our minds are agitated by the turmoil resulting from the imagination, passions, and personal desires. These are incompatible with real concentration since they scatter the attention of the mind in various directions, destroying the unity of consciousness.

It is as though an imposter self has replaced the Holy Spirit and what we experience in our consciousness are the reflections of this imposter. This imposter keeps a tight grip because the rebirth that we are promised can only seem like a death for him. However, that imposter is not real, but rather a creation of our imaginations, passions, and desires, that we then mistake for our real selves.

This is an ongoing task and not something accomplished immediately after reading the first two letters. To hear the sound of the Holy Spirit, i.e., to consciously experience Him, we must be concentrated, and to be concentrated, we must transcend the turbulences in our soul. Only then can the initiation of rebirth take place.

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The Unity of the World

Since concentration without effort puts unity into practice, the theoretical teaching therefore is the unity of the world, without which no knowledge would be possible. The method for extending knowledge then, is the Method of Analogy; phenomena that manifest at different levels are analogous to each other. This is usually known by the formula: “As above, so below.” Note that this is different from logical knowledge which uses the method of deduction and also from the scientific method which derives universal laws from specific facts.

Analogy is the distinctive method of Hermetism, although we will see that it the hidden assumption even behind empirical science.

Space and time are two of the preconditions of all manifestation. They divide manifestation into two different levels: “above and below” for space, “past and future” for time. Two fundamental notions of analogy arise from that.

SPACE: the typological symbol is the prototype. These are ideas, forms, or essences of which the phenomenon is its manifestation.

TIME: the mythological symbol is the archetype. These are patterns that repeat in history under different guises.

Tomberg next brings up the crucial point that hierarchy is at the root of all manifestation. All wars, murder, and revolutions are the result of the “denial of hierarchy”, or, in other words, the “pretense to equality”. Note that my translation here is clearer than the text. I’ve found that many modern people have difficulty accepting that.

Tomberg’s distinction between prototype and archetype does have practical ramifications. For example, the story of the fall of Adam and Eve my lead some to assume a corresponding fall in Heaven on the basis of “as above, so below”. But a mythological symbol is horizontal, not vertical.

The method of analogy is expressly used by two medieval doctors of the Church: Thomas Aquinas and Bonaventure; you may draw conclusions from this if you like. Jesus, himself, resorted to analogies in some of his parables.

Dangers of the method

Although the method of analogy is a powerful tool to penetrate into reality, there is certainly a danger. As it comes from experience, it is subjective and hence erroneous applications may creep in. A good analogy is an intuition rather than discursive thought. In other words, “getting” an analogy is more like “seeing” than thinking, except that the seeing is into the subtle realms rather than the phenomenal world of the physical senses.

Hence, this intuition comes only after the practice of “concentration without effort” and there is no shortcut. Hence, one must be careful of the danger involved in this “game”. In particular Tomberg mentions two dangers in particular and the failure to recognize these distinctions leads to charlatanism:

  • The confusion between concentration without effort and the lack of concentration
  • The confusion between simple mental associations and the vision without effort of the correspondences of analogy


I need to point out here that “geniality” is a misleading translation of “génialité” since in English it means being a “nice guy”. Rather it means “geniousness” or the quality of genius (English does not have a good word). Without this understanding the passage in the text makes no sense. Thus there are two opposed paths:

  • The path that leads to genius
  • The path that leads to charlatanism

Does this now make it clear why moral purification is first necessary to follow this path? A physicist, for example, can make groundbreaking discoveries in his field regardless of his personal moral qualities. A great artist may be a cad. Not so for the Hermetist. It takes humility and careful discernment to ensure he is following the correct path.

Ultimately, the temptation to charlatanism often arises from the denial of hierarchy and the pretense to equality.

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Transform Work into Play

Before finishing up the practical teachings of the first Arcanum, we can speculate about the origins and purpose of the Tarot. The Bateleur was more like a street performer with more skills than juggling. In the medieval era, Hermetists would pose as street performers, horse traders, and similar occupations, that gave them cover. Since their jobs required travel, they could move about from town to town without attracting undue attention. Since books were quite expensive, not to mention bulky, it was easier to carry a deck of cards which served as summaries to esoteric teachings. In that way, the Hermetist could meet with his groups in various places, using the cards as a teaching tool. To the outsider, it would look like men playing a game … one way to look at “turning work into play”.

The transformation of work from a chore into play is completed following the presence of the zone of perpetual silence. At this point, the soul is in contact with heaven. Note how Tomberg is bringing in the idea of reintegration, as taught by Martinez de Pasqually and Louis Claude de Saint Martin. The goal of reintegration is to restore man to his state before the Fall. After the fall, work became toil and man was separated from God. In the zone of silence, the effects begin to be reversed. Work becomes creative play once again, and man’s soul regains contact with heaven. Hence, in the state of silence, a person is never alone.

Thus Jesus’ promise that “every yoke that you have accepted becomes sweet, and every burden that you bear becomes light,” is fulfilled as part of the process of reintegration. Moreover, this becomes one’s actual experience and not just a pretty phrase.

Silence is the sign of real contact with the spiritual world, which in turn leads to the influx of forces.

Tomberg summarizes the practical teaching of the Bateleur with a rule, a very important rule since it is the foundation of all mysticism, gnosis, magic, and esoterism. It has two parts … It is necessary both

  • To be one (un) with oneself (concentration without effort)
  • To be united (uni) to the spiritual world (i.e., to have the zone of silence in one’s soul)

These are the prerequisites. All the remaining cards depend on this, so it would not be wise to skip past this step without understanding it fully. And the only way to achieve concentration without effort is to begin concentrating as everything else is a distraction.

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Personal Effort and Spiritual Reality

The principle underlying the other arcana, as revealed in the first Arcanum, is the relationship between personal effort and spiritual reality. The juggler relates the practical method that is necessary to know and to be able to do in order to enter the school of spiritual exercises that constitutes the game of Tarot as a whole. These are therefore the initial steps:

  • Learn first of all concentration without effort
  • Transform work into play
  • Make every yoke that you have accepted, sweet, and every burden that you bear, light

Concentration without Effort

Concentration is the faculty of fixing the maximum of attention on a minimum of space. To understand what concentration is, we can start with what it is not. And that is the automatic or mechanical movement of thought and imagination. As the first step of the first principle of the entire Tarot, it is necessary to understand this, and not in a merely intellectual or bookish sense, but in the actual sense of adverting to that automatism in one’s own consciousness. This does not happen overnight or from reading a text.

A simple exercise in concentration is to follow the movement of the seconds hand on a clock or watch for one minute without losing attention. You will see how that automatism will intrude thoughts and images into your awareness, thereby causing you to lose concentration. The remedy is not to “try harder”, but rather the opposite, a sort of mental Aikido. By not fighting them, the thoughts and images will pass by and disperse; otherwise, they will take hold and one thought will simply lead to another.

After this calm, the silence will follow. This is why in Hermetic teaching Silence precedes Knowing, Willing, and Daring. This is the esoteric meaning of silence beyond the exoteric practice of certain orders. Tomberg makes a key distinction. True concentration is free from passions, obsessions, and attachments that enslave the mind. Obsessions may mimic concentration because of the intense focus they bring, but that is not what is meant here.

So clearly passions, obsessions, and attachments are obstacles to concentration without effort; they make concentration difficult. As soon as the mind begins to be quiet, these thoughts and images will arise and absorb all the attention. That is why these meditations cannot be separated from the moral purification of the will.

Bateleur is a French pun meaning “the low deceives you” (“le bas te leurre”). We are deceived by the lower elements in us, that is, if we just satisfy this desire, or avenge a wrong, etc., then all will be OK. But initiates are not deceived as they learn to let go of all such obsessive thoughts. Patience is necessary. As Tomberg points out, we first measure our periods of concentration with instants, then minutes, and so on, until Silence becomes the fundamental element always present in the life of the soul.

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The Spirit of Hermetism

The Spirit breaths where he will; and you hear his voice, but you do not know from where He comes, and where he goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (Adapted from the Douay-Rheims edition)

On that glad night, in secret, for no one saw me, nor did I look at anything, with no other light or guide except the one that burned in my heart. (Dark Night of the Soul, tr Kavanaugh & Rodriguez).

Note that I shall usually be using the Douay Rheims translation of the Bible made directly from the Vulgate; I shall also update it to contemporary English for the benefit of subscribers for whom English is a second language.

The first Arcanum is called the “Bateleur”, which means juggler, not magician as the English edition has it. Since it is the key to all the following arcana, it is necessary to get a grasp on it before proceeding. And the key to this arcanum is the gospel verse John 3:8. Further, the verse from St John of the Cross awakens the deep strata of the soul. So here are our clues: to understand the juggler, we must first understand the activity of the Spirit. To do that, we must become conscious of the deep layers of the soul, where the light of the Spirit burns in the heart. That is a secret place, a solitary place, so there can be nothing there but the Spirit. That is how you will know you have reached it.

There is the distinction between allegory, secret, Arcanum, and mystery. An Arcanum reveals its meaning gradually depending on the depth of meditation. As such, it is not an end in itself, but rather it is more like a leavening or enzyme that allows another process to complete. The arcana are meant to stimulate man’s spiritual life. What can prevent it is the spiritual malady of “suffisance” which does not mean self-complacency, but more like self-importance or conceit.

The Great Initiation

A mystery is an event, analogous to birth or death; it is a change in one’s level of consciousness. Hence Initiation is a mystery and it is appropriate that the first Arcanum deals with initiation. The initiation that Jesus described to Nicodemus is called being “born again”. Of course, Nicodemus was a Pharisee who visited Jesus one night. There Jesus told him that to see the Kingdom of God, a man must be born again of the Spirit. This is then tied in with the Light coming into the world.

That is the literal meaning of the gospel passage and there is also an esoteric meaning. Jesus would then be the Master within, the night would be the dark night of the soul, and the light is the one that burns in the heart as John of the Cross describes it. Augustine called it the special incorporeal light and Saint-Martin the torrent that illuminates itself in your heart.

Do you see how beautifully all this is connected together? Ultimately it is the Master who initiates us, hence the Tarot card, as well as any discussion, can serve only as a catalyst for our own Initiation. This theme will be gradually developed.

Although that is a solitary event, there is also a communal dimension. Fellow students of Hermetism will recognize each other by their mutual love for each other. We shall see how that works itself out over the course of time. To illustrate this, Tomberg quotes a passage from the life of St Anthony, who learned something different from each of his fellow hermits.

It is important at this time to beware of “suffisance”, the attitude of self-importance that once in a while develops among Hermetists. There is the temptation to see in it the “true religion” or the “real knowledge” that makes him superior to others. Hermetism does not replace exoteric religion, science, politics, and so on, although it should act as the leavening agent. That is the spirit of Hermetism.

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Welcome to Medtarot Discussion

This is the Welcome message that went out to the Medtarot discussion group. It explains the ground rules and the purpose of the group.

Welcome to this discussion list on Meditations on the Tarot. There are over 50 subscribers at this point. That should be sufficient to sustain a discussion considering the impact of attrition or lack of interest. You can post to the list by clicking the Reply button on your email reader or by sending an email to [address hidden]. Although we know that certain agencies may be collecting metadata, there should still be some expectation of privacy. In particular, discussions must not be made public; people may be in the process of development and should not be bound to their earlier opinions, or sometimes information of a personal nature may be posted.

I will keep enrollment open for a little while, until we reach the point where there is a danger of losing continuity. However, current subscribers can invite a friend at any point. Many of you know me in some sense, many may not. I accept that things do not happen by accident so that certain souls may gather together for a purpose, often from their depths, and which they seldom are able to remember. So remember we are together for a purpose, bonds will form, but do not be surprised that bonds may also break.

I have been involved in previous endeavors like this, so I can anticipate the dangers. Some people get angry about another’s opinions and skirmishes arise. Others may have an agenda apart from the group will. I intend to prevent such disruptions. Should anyone become displeased with this group, he is free to start his own; I will give him the opportunity to publicize it once on this list.

Paradoxically, a good discussion begins with silence rather than talk. One must clear the mind of stray opinions, random thoughts, fixed ideas, and so on; such a mind can then be receptive. Unsupported assertions benefit no one, particularly the asserter. What is more important are the reasons because they can be the aim of a discussion. It is important to meditate often. For example, the first letter deals with concentration, so we ought to make efforts in that direction. The task is not to force it, since we aspire to concentration without effort, and still less to berate ourselves when we find we have lost concentration, but simply to observe what was going on that led to the loss of concentration. Determine what event or, better, what thought broke concentration.

So in our discussions we will force ourselves to concentrate on one particular point and not wander into irrelevancies. Ponder that before you click send.

The Tarot is not a means to “improve your life”. Some may make promises to bring you understanding about different parts of your life. However, the goal is reintegration, i.e., making oneself whole again. So compartmentalizing your life into work, play, relationships, etc., is the very opposite of what we want to achieve. Still less is it about fortune telling and I hope no one is here for that. This is not solely for our benefit; by participating, we will keep the Hermetic tradition alive in one way or another. English only speakers have a disadvantage, since so much material is available only in French. I will offer translations of certain texts as my contribution. I will also be using the French text of the Letters and will make corrections to the authorized translation as necessary. You will make contributions in your own areas of interest; I’m hoping that from among all the writers that Tomberg discusses, some among you may have some degree of expertise in their ideas.

Although this list is not primarily about me, as the host, it will be unavoidable that my own personal equation will often intrude. I hope that is not too annoying. Consider this as akin to an invitation to a banquet. You go to enjoy what is proffered; you participate in the festivities; you engage in the conversation. In that way, there is a benefit to the host and the guests. However, if you insist on bringing your own bucket of fried chicken, you would be considered rude and a boor; I will deal with you appropriately.

Ultimately, spiritual friends will come to a common mind. Ekartshausen wrote: “Men do not agree on their conceptions; the scholars dispute among themselves; and, where there is dispute, there is not yet truth.” Our aim is truth and that is how we know we have reached it.

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Arcana Discussion List

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This mailing list will go live as a discussion list on 4 Oct 2013. Currently, enrollment is open.

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This will be a close reading of Meditations on the Tarot by Valentin Tomberg. The arcana will be treated sequentially and our purpose will be to participate in and contribute to the Hermetic tradition. Our goal is a community of spirits; as such, we will recognize each other through depth and a common mind.

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