by Kathy Berkowitz
Journey of the Soul (Continued)
This is part II of a series of essays where I argue that Arthur Waite’s 1910 Tarot’s hidden tradition is Bonaventure’s (1217-1274) Soul’s Journey into God, which follows the contemplative method of Pseudo Dionysius the Areopagite (5th Century). Both Bonaventure’s and Dionysius’s books are prominent in the reading list for Arthur Waite’s Hermetic Text Society (1908). Dividing the twenty-two Trumps into eleven pairs I show how Waite’s descriptions of the Trumps along with his iconography match the writings of Bonaventure, and Dionysius.
There are six stages in the Journey of the Soul. In a previous essay, I described the first four stages. In the first and second stage the contemplative interiorizes the physical world as a living symbol of God. In the third stage this interior image acts like a mirror to reflect the light of truth, awakening the soul’s powers of memory, will, and understanding. In the fourth stage the soul is prepared for mystical ecstasy by the regeneration of a spiritual faculty. In coming into greater harmony with the angelic realm the soul becomes its reflection. The stages are symbolized by a six-winged Seraph that I believe is Temperance in disguise with its six appendages.
The 5th Stage of the Journey
In the 5th stage the soul acquires the two highest names of God, Being and Good. But it also must face peril in a dark night of uncertainty, and the temptations of material desire.
The Tarot card with the two cupids holding up a city within a circle does not belong to the Waite/Smith Tarot imagery but to an Italian deck named the Visconti-Sforza from the 15th Century. I chose it because it so perfectly captures a feature of the 5th step.
By these Cherubim we understand the two modes or stages of contemplating the invisible and eternal things of God…The first method (cherubim) fixes the gaze primarily and principally on Being itself […] the second method (second cherubim) fixes the gaze on the Good itself. (The Soul’s Journey p.94)
Pair: Chariot / Wheel Trumps as the Divine Attribute of Being
The Chariot/Wheel: The clue that these Trumps are a pair is found in the common symbol of the Sphinx, and the references to Eliphas Levi. For the Chariot, Waite writes ‘I have accepted the variation of Eliphas Levi; two sphinxes thus draw his chariot’ (PK p.96).
For the Wheel of Fortune, Waite writes:
The symbolism is, of course, not exclusively Egyptian, as the four Living Creatures of Ezekiel occupy the angles of the card, and the wheel itself follows other indications of Levi in respect of Ezekiel’s vision […] The Sphinx is the equilibrium therein. (PK p.108)
Ezekiel’s vision can be interpreted as either a Wheel or a Chariot of Fire. As both wheel and chariot simultaneously the vision of Ezekiel is an inexplicable paradox. In the 5th Stage the paradox of divine Being must be faced in order to move beyond the coincidence of opposites to experience divine unity.
As Dionysius writes:
The fact is the more we take flight upward, the more our words are confined to the ideas we are capable of forming. (Mystical Theology, p.139)
Language is by nature dualistic. We reason based on cause and effect thinking, but this thinking limits our ability to understand the nature of unity, which transcends opposites. Waite writes ‘It is to be understood […] that the liberation which he (the Charioteer) effects may leave himself in the bondage of logical understanding’ (PK, p.99).
For Dionysius one must move beyond opposites to experience being:
So there is nothing absurd in rising up, as we do, from obscure images to the single Cause of everything, rising with eyes that see beyond the cosmos to contemplate all things, even the things that are opposites, in a simple unity within the universal Cause. (The Divine Names, p.100)
The Chariot’s sphinxes are black and white or piebald. In the Dionysian symbolism ‘piebald’ means extreme opposites: ‘the piebald is the alliance of opposite extremes’ (Angelic Hierarchy, p.189).
The circle of the Wheel of Fortune symbolizes unity, and the rays from the center symbolize the nature of unity and differentiation. As Dionysius writes:
All the radii of a circle are brought together in the unity of the center which contains all the straight lines brought together within itself. These are linked one to another because of this single point of origin and they are completely unified at this center. As they move a little away from it they are differentiated a little, and as they fall farther they are farther differentiated. That is, the closer they are to the center point, the more they are at one with it and at one with each other, and the more they travel away from it the more they are separated from each other. (Divine Names, p.99)
The worst place to be on the Wheel of Fortune is on the outside going up and down with the tides of Fate; while the best place to be is in the center where one balances oneself in pure being no matter what the vicissitudes.
For Waite the Wheel of Fortune ‘stands for the perpetual motion of a fluidic universe and for the flux of human life’ (PK, p.108). And later he writes, that the symbolism expresses ‘the essential idea of stability amidst movement’ (PK. p.111).
Bonaventure defines Being as the unity of polarities,
It is, therefore, all-inclusive not as the essence of all things, but as the supremely excellent and most universal and most sufficient cause of all essences…Because it is eternal and most present, it therefore encompasses and enters all duration as if it were at one and the same time its center and circumference. (Soul’s Journey, p.100)
He then makes an extended list of opposites that are united in this ‘most present and eternal’ cause or origin.
One gets a better sense of the idea of Chariot/Wheel pair as symbolic of Being from this quote:
For because it is utterly simple in essence, it is greatest in power, because the more power is unified, the more it is infinite. It is unchangeable precisely because it is most actual. For because it is most actual, it is pure act. (Soul’s Journey, p.99)
To ride the Chariot is to experience pure being, what is most unified and actual, and this puts one paradoxically at both the center and the circumference of the Wheel, both in the hands of Fate and Divine Providence.
Notice, also, that by combining the imagery of the cards there are three sphinxes possibly symbolizing going beyond duality.
The Sun / Lovers Trumps represent the Divine Attribute of the Good
The Sun and the Lovers form a pair based on both symbolism and verbal hints.
Waite begins the description of the Lovers Trump with an image of the sun ‘The sun shines in the zenith’ (PK, p.92).
Waite conveys the idea that the woman symbolizes the ‘return’. He writes:
she signifies that attraction toward the sensitive life […] she is the working of a Secret Law of Providence […]. It is through her imputed lapse that man shall arise ultimately, and only by her can he complete himself. (PK, p.95)
For Dionysius human love is used as a symbol of divine love. Divine yearning has the same meaning as love: ‘This divine yearning brings ecstasy so that the lover belongs not to self but to the beloved’ (Divine Names, p.82).
Dionysius, a Christian Platonist, describes the Good in Platonic terms by comparing it to the light of the sun.
Here is a quote from Dionysius describing the Sun as the Good:
The great, shining, ever-lighting sun is the apparent image of divine goodness, a distant echo of the Good. It illuminates whatever is capable of receiving its light and yet it never loses the utter fullness of its light. It sends its shining beams all around the visible world, and if anything fails to receive them the fault lies not in the weakness or defect of the spreading light but in the unsuitability of whatever is unable to have a share in light. (Divine Names, p.74)
The Good emanates the divine rays, and all things are returned to it as their own goal:
All things desire it: Everything with mind and reason seeks to know it, everything sentient yearns to perceive it, everything lacking perception has a living and instinctive longing for it, and everything lifeless and merely existent turns, in its own fashion, for a share of it. (Divine Names, p.75)
Waite describes the Sun card as ‘consciousness in the spirit’. Also, it:
is the destiny of the Supernatural East (that Light to which the physical sun is a pale ‘echo’) and that great and holy light which goes before the endless procession of humanity, coming out from the walled garden of the sensitive life and passing on the journey home. (PK, p.144)
The card signifies, therefore, the transit from the manifest light of this world, represented by the glorious sun of earth, to the light of the world to come.
Bonaventure emphasizes the emanation of the Good as love and diffusion:
The ‘highest good’ embodies a principle loving in charity with a love that is both free […] and a mixture […] which is the fullest diffusion. (Soul’s Journey, pp.103/104)
The two paths of Being and Good represented by the two Cherubim raise the mind in contemplation. Goodness and Love are bound together to create the Unity of Being. The cherubim of the Good triumphs over the cherubim of Being because the Good unifies through the bonds of love.
It’s worth noting that Waite’s Tree of Life in the Lover’s card bears twelve fruit, ‘Behind the man is the Tree of Life, bearing twelve fruits’ (PK, p.92) which matches Bonaventure’s Tree of Life, ‘The fruit of the tree of life […] offered to our taste under twelve flavors on twelve branches’ (Tree of Life, p.121).
As in the Chariot/Wheel Trump pair where there are three sphinxes; in the Lovers/Sun Trump pair there are three naked figures. This possibly symbolizes moving beyond duality with the regenerated spiritual faculty.
Evil is Nothing, and the Dark Night of the Soul
The dark cards of the Devil, Tower, and Moon are part of the Fifth stage in that they show what happens when the spiritual faculty is not restored and the soul makes a wrong turn toward the abyss.
Pair: The Devil / Justice represent Evil and its Consequences
The Devil and Justice form a pair in the sense that we live with the consequences of our action.
In describing Justice Waite writes, ‘it seems desirable to indicate that the moral principle […] deals unto every man according to his works’ (PK, 112). And Bonaventure writes, ‘each will receive according to his deeds. There is, then, a great necessity imposed upon us to be good’ (Tree of Life, p.165).
In his essay ‘Trumps Major, The Greater Arcana’, Waite links Justice with the Devil when he writes, ‘Transcendental Justice’ is like using ‘loaded dice when you play for high stakes with Diabolus. The axiom is Aut Deus, aut nihil‘. In other words, it is God or nothing (PK, p.18).
This statement may refer to Dionysius’s concept of evil as deficiency of the Good. Dionysius saw evil as non-being or as Waite would say ‘nihil‘.
Evil is not among the things that have being […]. It has a greater nonexistence and otherness from the Good than nonbeing has […]. Evil never produces being or birth. All it can do by itself is in a limited fashion to debase and to destroy the substance of things. (Divine Names, p.85)
Since evil has no being of its own, it is parasitic. Nature is not evil. Dionysius writes, ‘Evil in the domain of nature is against nature, a deficiency for what should be there in nature. Thus, there is no evil nature, for this is evil to nature. Rather evil lies in the inability of things to reach their natural peak of perfection’ (Divine Names, p.92).
In Bonventure’s theology, the Fall was the loss of the spiritual faculty of perception. In the fourth stage the soul experiences regeneration of this spiritual faculty, and for this reason the Devil is analogous to the Hierophant who represents restored faculty while the Devil is enmeshed in the blindness of materiality. The materialist does not see the animating principle of pure Being. Like light that reveals the spectrum, Being animates reality but is invisible. ‘Thus our mind, accustomed to darkness of beings and the images of things of sense, when it glimpses the light of the supreme Being, seems to itself to see nothing (Soul’s Journey, p.96). We cannot experience Divine Being directly so it is as if it doesn’t exist.
Although part of the 5th, the Devil/Justice pair lack a third element, having not regenerated a spiritual faculty the pair appears to remain in duality with two figures.
The Tower and Moon Represent the Dark Night of the Soul
The Tower and Moon card form a pair. Both have towers; both have two figures in a gloomy background. In the Moon card the abyss is represented by water and in the Tower the abyss seems to be where the figures are falling. As in the Lovers/Sun and the Chariot/Wheel, this card pair features a trinity with the three towers. This is a type of dark night of the soul. One cannot perceive one’s way out but there is a way out of this dualistic situation, as apparent by the theme of trinity.
Waite writes of the Moon,
The card represents life of the imagination apart from life of the spirit. Guided only by reflected light, the intellect cannot perceive the mystery of the unknown. The abyss represented by the creature crawling out of the water is close. (PK, p.140)
Waite describes the Tower as ‘the House of Life, when evil has prevailed therein’ making it a ‘House of Falsehood’. Yet he expresses sympathy for the ‘two persons who are the living sufferers’, that is, the two figures that are falling toward the abyss (PK, pp.132-135).
One way of looking at the Tower card is as a collapsing hierarchy, such as in the hierarchies described by Dionysius.
The hierarchy of Dionysius consists of an arrangement of sacred realities that provides a means for rising up through the levels to become an image of God, and a channel for divine light to flow down. The hierarchy operates almost as a reversed pyramid scheme, with each member in the hierarchy taking only the barest minimum for the self and then passing on the rest. It is a way of multiplying light similar to ceremonies where everyone lights one’s own candle and then lights someone else’s until the room is filled with light. However, the hierarchy becomes corrupted if the sacred order is violated.
In his 8th Letter, Dionysius tells the story of Carpos (a Hierarch) in a corrupted hierarchy. I have summarized the story for brevity’s sake.
Two unworthy men break into the holy space and violate the sacred order. Carpos, the hierarch, is enraged by the violation. In the middle of the night, Carpos in a waking dream prays that God will hurl his pitiless thunderbolts at the two men who have violated the order. Suddenly the place where he stood seemed to shake and split in two from the roof down and a shining flame appeared coming to him from out of heaven, and it now seemed as if he is in the open air […]. As he glanced down the ground seemed to open into a yawning, shadowy chasm. The two men whom he had cursed were trembling at the edge and they started to fall into the pit where serpents wound themselves around the men’s feet. Then, in the flame through the roof come angels with Jesus who reaches out and saves the men from the abyss. (Letter 8, pp.279-280)
The moral of the story is that the goal of the order is not to merely preserve the hierarchy, but to save souls and so the violator of the order turned out to be Carpos, or the dreamer, himself.
The flames and angels coming out from the heavens were possibly the ‘purifying’ seraphim whose name means ‘to purify with the lighting flash and the flame’ (Celestial Hierarchy, p.162).
The difference between the Waite image and the story of Carpos is that in Waite’s Tower card the falling figures are male and female, while in the Carpos story they are two men. Plato also has a variation of this story.
Both the Moon and Tower cards evoke dreamscapes, and fear. It is as if the seeker has climbed the mountain only to realize that for the final ascent, he must go into the unknown regions beyond the towers of the moon without a guide. He cannot get help from the defined order as symbolized by the hierarchy or Tower because it has crumbled from corruption within. For this reason I have described this stage as a dark night of the soul.
For Waite, the way out from the dark night is through stillness and peace.
The face of the mind directs a calm gaze upon the unrest below; the dew of thought falls; the message is: Peace, be still; and it may be that there shall come a calm upon the animal nature, while the abyss beneath shall cease from giving up form” ( PK, p.143)
To be continued…
The Sixth Stage will feature the culmination of the positive method with the Magician/Strength pair, followed by the Death/Hangman pair as symbolic of the mind emptied of thoughts in order to embrace the Unknown. And finally there is the ecstasy and unity of the Seventh day.
Bibliography and Notes:
Colm Luibheid (translator) and Paul Rorem (Foreword & Translation Collaboration), Pseudo-Dionysius: The Complete Works, Paulist Press, Mahwah, New Jersey, 1987
Note: All the quotations and page numbers refer to this translation of Dionysius.
Arthur Edward Waite, The Pictorial Key to the Tarot: Being Fragments of a Secret Tradition under the Veil of Divination, U. S. Games system, Inc. Stamford Ct., 1910 and 1997
Note: I have abbreviated the Pictorial Key to PK and all the page references are to this guidebook.
Ewert Cousins, Translation and Introduction, Bonaventure: The Soul’s Journey into God; the Tree of Life; The Life of St. Francis, Paulist Press Inc., Mahwah, New Jersey 1987
Note: All the quotations and page references are taken from this translation of Bonaventure
Denys Turner, The Darkness of God: Negativity in Christian Mysticism, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, Great Britain, 1995
Note: Denys Turner is a brilliant scholar of Dionysian spirituality. He has a chapter on Bonaventure, ‘Hierarchy interiorised: Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum‘ that explains the interiorized hierarchy. He gives a succinct description of the steps and makes Dionysius and Bonaventure more accessible.
Kent Emery, Jr., Monastic, Scholastic and Mystical Theologies from the Later Middle Ages, Variorum Ashgate Publishing Limited, Hampshire, Great Britain, 1996
Note: Kent Emery’s chapter on “Bonaventure” explains much of the underlying structure of the Soul’s Journey. In particular for the first four steps is the following sentence ‘The association of the three theological virtues with the three powers of the soul and the four cardinal virtues with the four elements of the body was current in the twelfth century’. Temperance carries the breast plate of the triangle inside the square.
Ewert Cousins, Bonaventure and the Coincidence of Opposites, Franciscan Herald press, Chicago, Illinois, 1978
Note: In the first four steps, I was influenced by Cousin’s essay on Bonaventure’s use of symbolism.