by Kathy Berkowitz
Journey of the Soul (Continued)
This is part III of a series of essays that explores Bonaventure’s mystical tradition and its influence on the 1910 Waite-Smith Tarot. Saint Bonaventure’s (1217-1274) The Soul’s Journey to God follows the contemplative method of Pseudo-Dionysius (5th Century). Both Bonaventure and Pseudo-Dionysius were on the recommended book list for Waite’s Hermetic Text Society.
Bonaventure’s Soul’s Journey has six stages. In the first two stages, the contemplative takes in the world or macrocosm through the five senses; in the second two stages the internalized image of the macrocosm goes through a transformation awakening the powers of the soul and regenerating the lost spiritual faculty of perception that allows the soul to come into harmony with the spiritual realm; in the fifth stage, the contemplative strives to conform to the two highest divine names, Being and Good. However, if the soul is not properly prepared and has not developed the spiritual faculty to perceive Being and Goodness, the soul is in danger of taking the wrong turn toward the abyss rather than the heights.
In this Sixth stage the soul emerges from the interiorized hierarchy into the natural world. In an earlier stage of the journey the rational mind can perceive the world as beautiful but cannot penetrate beneath the veil to the source, so the mind sees signs but doesn’t directly experience the world as sacrament. Now with the restored faculty the soul is able to fully recapitulate creation as a living image of the Creator, as a microcosm of the macrocosm. The soul becomes the divine reflection on all levels.
Dividing the twenty-two Tarot Trumps into eleven pairs I show how the Waite-Smith deck can be viewed as Bonaventure’s Journey of the Soul.
The Sixth Step in the Journey of the Soul
Pair: Magician / Strength
The Magician and Strength cards are a natural pair because both figures have the infinity sign over their heads. The color themes are similar with red for passion, white for purity, and yellow for the mid-day sun. Waite also links the Trumps in his descriptions in his guidebook where he describes Strength as
A Woman, over whose head there broods the same symbol of life which we have seen in the card of the Magician. (Pictorial Key to the Tarot [PK] p.100)
Both cards feature scenes of the natural world.
Waite writes that the Magician, ‘signifies the divine motive in man, reflecting God, the will in the liberation of its union with that which is above. It is also the unity of individual being on all planes’ He explains that the infinity sign symbolizes life, a horizontal 8, and signifies ‘rebirth in Christ’ and ‘Jerusalem above’ (PK p.75).
Waite uses similar language to describe Strength, ‘Fortitude is one of its most exalted aspects, is connected with the Divine Mystery of Union; the virtue, of course, operates in all planes, and hence draws on all symbolism. It connects with Innocentia inviolata, and with the strength which resides in contemplation’ (PK p.100).
Both Trumps, then, are connected with divine union, and unity on all planes.
I interpret Waite’s reference to a ‘rebirth in Christ’ as a summation of positive theology. Denys Turner, a scholar of Christian Platonism, writes:
Christ is the resume of the cataphatic (positive contemplation) for in Christ is all our language of God…The human is therefore both a little less than the angels and raised, through Christ, to the height above them, to an ecstatic oneness with the Godhead (Darkness of God, p.130)
The unity at all levels that Waite describes for both the Strength and the Magician card could represent the culmination of the six days of creation when the soul recapitulated all of nature by integrating all levels of being. The natural world is symbolized by the four suit signs or four elements on the Magician’s table. The body like the soul is transformed to come into a greater harmony (conformity) to better reflect divine unity.
Kent Emery in his essay on ‘Bonaventure’ points out that Bonaventure saw the sublunary body, that is the human body, composed of a mixture of the four elements:
while the four elements are contrary among themselves, they adhere through the transcendental element of light. The human body participates through an influence from the heavenly bodies, and as the human ascends the hierarchy of being the more proportional and equal the elements become. In the final step of the ascent, man’s body, the ‘minor mundus’, recapitulates the entire material universe. (Bonaventure, p.202)
Light as a metaphor for God not only adheres the material nature but embodies in man the highest virtues. Humanity and all of nature reach a natural perfection in union with God.
Bonaventure writes of the sixth stage:
In this consideration is the perfection of the mind’s illumination when, as if on the sixth day of creation, it sees man made to the image of God […] The image of our soul, therefore should be clothed with the three theological virtues, by which the soul is purified, illumined and perfected. And so the image is reformed and made like the heavenly Jerusalem. (Soul’s Journey, p.108)
The Magician card, then, represents the culmination of the journey, and in recapitulating nature on all levels summarizes the journey. In the Magician’s hand gesture that Waite describes as signifying the ‘Instituted Mysteries’ Waite writes,
In the Magician’s right hand is a wand raised towards heaven, while the left hand is pointing to the earth. This dual sign is known in very high grade of the Instituted Mysteries; it shews the descent of grace, virtue and light, drawn from things above and derived to things below. (PK, pp.72)
Here I have paired the Magician card with William Blake’s ‘Angel from Revelation 10’ to show that the Magician is making the same gesture.
Magician and William Blake’s Angel from Revelation
To briefly summarize Revelation 10, the angel is standing with his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land. He raises his right hand to heaven and swears by him who created the sea, land, and heaven and all that is in them that the mystery of God will be accomplished. In his hand he carries a scroll that he will later eat.
Waite refers to Revelation 10 in his introduction to his guidebook when he writes that the Secret Tradition might be made public with the ‘revelation’ containing ‘a third part of the earth and sea and a third part of the stars in heaven in respect of symbolism’. This third and third and third, I believe refers to Revelation 10. Waite will often loosely paraphrases a passage as a way of making a reference (PK p.5).
Pair: Temperance / Star
The Temperance and Star Trumps, although not one of the eleven pairs, represent the beginning and middle of the Soul’s Journey, since both figures have the right foot on the sea and the left foot on the land as in Revelation 10. Even though The Magician is the first Trump in the series he also is the last.
At the beginning of the soul’s journey Temperance anticipated the process that blended the psychic/spiritual with the body. The Star card is the mid point in the journey when the infusion of divine rays bring about an interior transformation so the soul comes into conformity with celestial harmony. Finally the triumphant gesture of the Magician showing the ‘sign’ symbolizes the completion of the connection between the divine and human, as well as the divine and nature.
Recall that in Bonaventure’s Journey of the Soul, external reality is read as a Book of Nature or a book without. In Revelation 10:10 the angel tells John to eat the scroll, ‘Take it and eat it’.
In the following quote from Bonaventure we can see how the Book within and without (or perhaps the scroll of Revelation 10) becomes part of the mind’s perfect illumination.
In this consideration is the perfection of the mind’s illumination
when, as if on the sixth day of creation,
it sees man made in the image of God.
For if an image is an expressed likeness
when our mind contemplate in Christ the Son of God,
who is the image of the invisible God by nature,
and our humanity so wonderfully exalted, so ineffably united,
when at the same time it sees united the first and the last,
the highest and the lowest, the circumference and the center,
the Alpha and the Omega, the caused and the cause,
the Creator and the creature,
that is,the book written within and without. (Soul’s Journey, p.109)
Beyond Positive Contemplation Lies the Negative Path
The soul’s journey has reached the culmination of positive theology (words, concepts, and symbols) with Stage 6, but beyond the positive or what is knowable is the Unknowable.
Bonaventure was working within the Dionysius contemplative system where ultimately God is Unknowable. Here is a quote from Dionysius on how the Divine cannot be grasped:
Indeed the inscrutable One is out of reach of every rational process. Nor can any words come up to the inexpressible Good, this One, this Source of all unity, that supra-existent Being. Mind beyond mind, word beyond speech, it is gathered by no discourse, by no intuition, by no name. (Divine Names, p.50)
The contemplative uses symbols that refer to a divine attributes but in a dissimilar way so as to not mistake the symbol for the divine itself. It’s like climbing a symbolic ladder, and abandoning concepts as one climbs. Dionysius writes:
We use whatever appropriate symbols we can for the things of God. With these analogies we are raised upward toward the truth of the mind’s vision […]. But eventually leave behind our own notions of the divine. We call a halt to the activities of our minds and, to the extent that is proper, we approach the ray which transcends being. (Divine Names, p.53).
Pair: Hang Man / Death
The Hang Man/Death pair represent this stage of the journey when one must let go of the territory of thought to unite with the unknowable.
The Hang Man and Death Trumps are a pair because of the verbal clues, not iconography. In his paragraph on the Hang Man, Waite writes, ‘He who can understand that the story of his higher nature is imbedded in this symbolism will receive intimations concerning a great awakening that is possible, and will know that after the sacred Mystery of Death there is a glorious Mystery of Resurrection’ (PK p.119).
In his description of the Death Trump, Waite refers to an exotic death ‘while still in this life’. This is ‘a mystical death’ that involves a ‘change of consciousness and the passage into a state to which ordinary death is neither the path nor the gate’ (PK p.123).
One way to make sense of the Hang Man is as a Dionysian symbol of similar dissimilarities. What is similar to the divine nature is embedded in its opposite, the dissimilarity is discarded like a nut shell to get at the interior fruit, or the insight. The Hang Man Trump has been called The Traitor. In early 15th Century Italy, traitors would have their images painted on a city wall hanging upside down as a way of shaming them. The Hang Man is also called the Sacrifice. The Traitor Trump associated with shame painting might reference the walk of shame or the stations of the cross, and then the shameful death of dying in a manner cursed by God.
Christ was hung by a tree as a traitor under the law of Deuteronomy 21:22-23: ‘And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be put to death, and thou hang him on a tree […] (for he that is hanged is accursed of God)’.
Waite writes that the Hang Man is fixed to a living tree, ‘It should be noted that the tree of sacrifice is living wood with leaves upon it’ (PK p.116). One could climb up the Tree of Life (which in Catholicism is Christ) and bridge the gap between human and divine. Waite writes, ‘it expresses the relation in one of its aspects between the Divine and the Universe’. (PK p.116)
Bonaventure seems to echo Waite when he writes,
Therefore, if we wish to enter again into the enjoyment of Truth as into paradise, we must enter […] (with) hope in and love of Jesus Christ, the mediator between God and Man, who is like the tree of life in the middle of paradise’. (Soul’s Journey, p.88)
The Hang Man carries the association with water and is sometimes linked with the astrological sign of Pisces. Bonaventure in the Tree of Life writes:
See, now, my soul, how he who God blessed above all things, is totally submerged in the waters of suffering from the sole of the foot to the top of the head. In order that he might draw you out totally from these sufferings, the waters have come up to his soul. (p.149)
Finally the Hang Man image may refer to self-emptying as when ‘Christ emptied himself’. As Dionysius writes: ‘He (God) remains one amid plurality, unified through the procession, full amid the emptying act of differentiation’. The path of ascent is a path of emptying as Dionysius writes, ‘so now we plunge into that darkness which is beyond intellect, we shall find ourselves not simply running short of words but actually speechless and unknowing’. The Hang Man is upside down in an emptying position.
Bonaventure ends the Soul’s Journey Into God by referring to the negative theology of Dionysius. This is a contemplative death, because one discards or lets go of the concepts and imaginings.
My soul chooses hanging and my bones death
Whoever loves this death
can see God
[…] Let us, then, die
and enter into the darkness;
let us impose silence
upon our cares, our desires and our imaginings. (Soul’s Journey, p.115)
In the final essay, I will cover the Judgement, World, and Fool cards that represent the journey from beginning to end, as well as the Seventh Day. Also, I will show how the sum of each trump pair added together equal the number 78, the number of cards in a Tarot deck.
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 interiorized: Bonaventure’s Itinerarium Mentis in Deum‘ that explains the interiorized hierarchy. He gives a succinct description of the steps and really makes both 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.
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 essays on Bonaventure’s use of symbolism. Here I have quoted from Chapter VI, a chapter that links the symbolism of Bonaventure with Nicholas of Cuas and Jung.