Every so often, a book appears that changes everything: the way you see God, yourself, and the world. The past two years have been my Season of Reading Consciousness Changing Books, but none have had such dramatic effect on me as Meditations on the Tarot by Anonymous.
Published posthumously, Meditations on the Tarot is by an anonymous 20th century Christian mystic and former member of The Golden Dawn. While an extraordinary and inspiring figure, it was his wish to remain anonymous in regards to The Meditations. To respect his wish, I will refer to him here as he refers to us, his readers: The Unknown Friend.
Within Meditations on The Tarot, The Unknown Friend uses the major Arcana as a launching point to explore Hermeticism, mysticism, God, human nature, and good and evil. In this post, we will examine his first letter: The Magician. It is simply impossible to sum up The Meditations in a single blog post – I’ve spent months contemplating the first letter alone. I will instead focus on my own personal highlights of the Letter.
What Are Arcana?
The Unknown Friend begins by giving a few important definitions. He writes that The Magician holds the key to all other Major Arcana of the Tarot, but what are Arcana?
Arcana, he writes, are “authentic symbols.” They are archetypes which allow us to explore deeper realities within ourselves.
They are ‘magic, mental, psychic and moral operations’ awakening new notions, ideas, sentiments and aspirations, which means to say that they require an activity more profound than that of study and intellectual explanation.
The Unknown Friend bids us to approach the Arcana in a state of deep stillness, silence, and meditation, likening the experience to the Night of Saint John of the Cross:
Therefore this ‘night’, of which St.John of the Cross speaks, is necessary, where one withdraws oneself ‘in secret’ and into which one has to immerse oneself each time that one meditates on the Arcana of the Tarot. It is a work to be accomplished in solitude, and is all the more suitable for recluses.
Within this deep silence, he writes that the Arcana unfurl their meaning to us in proportion to the depth of our contemplation upon them; that these “authentic symbols” are enzymes or a ferment that transform our interior lives. These symbols are the catalyst for transformation within our souls.
What is Hermeticism?
The Unknown Friend paints a picture of the Apostle John, reclining on the heart of Christ, listening to his heartbeat. Christian Hermeticism – a central theme in the book – is about listening, like John, to the heartbeat of God in all things. The Unknown Friend writes, “Now Hermeticism, the living Hermetic tradition, guards the communal soul of all true culture. I must add: Hermeticists listen to – and now and then hear – the beating of the heart of the spiritual life of humanity.”
This is our goal in studying the Tarot, and in studying all things – to press our ear against the chest of the world and listen for what’s beneath.
And now we come to The Magician – The first Major Arcana our Unknown Friend explores. Most depictions of the Magician portray him as a young man (thought sometimes as old), with an array of symbols surrounding him which correspond to the four suits of the Tarot: wands, swords, cups and pentacles. Each of these elements correspond to all our spheres of experience, and the Magician has mastery over them all.
The Magician represents, most simply, mastery without effort. The Unknown Friend writes,
Learn at first concentration without effort; transform work into play; make every yoke that you have accepted easy and every burden you carry light!
This card represents the transformation of the heavy, the mundane, the challenging into ease and play. Put another way, it is attainment of the 4th stage of learning, which a yoga teacher once explained to me:
Stage One: unconsciously incompetent
Stage Two: Consciously incompetent
Stage Three: Consciously Competent
Stage Four: Unconsciously Competent
In other words, the final stage of learning is one in which we approach the task with such ease, focus, and clarity, that it is pleasure instead of work. All distraction is drained away, and all that’s left is intuitive action. This is indicative of great mystical experience: focus comes with ease, and we are yoked easily to God, (Matthew 6:30). Another way to frame this concept is in the first Yoga Sutra of Patanjali: “Yoga is the suppression of the oscillations of the mental substance.”
Anyone who practices centering prayer, mindfulness, yoga, or other spiritual practices understands what the Unknown Friend is describing here. After all the effort and work of establishing a mystical discipline, there are moments of transcendence – moments when the mind is free of its struggles, and it simply imagines, creates, rests, or radiates joy and gratitude with absolute ease.
The Unknown Friend describes such focus as “a free act in light and in peace,” and compares the experience to that of a tightrope walker:
Look at a tightrope walker. He is evidently completely concentrated, because if he were not, he would fall to the ground. His life is at stake,and it is only perfect concentration which can save him. Yet do you believe that his thought and his imagination are occupied with what he is doing? Do you think that he reflects and that he imagines that he calculates and that he makes plans with regards to each step that he makes on the rope?
If he were to do that, he would fall immediately. He has to eliminate all activity o the intellect and of the imagination in order to avoid a fall.
But how does one attain such incredible freedom of focus? The Unknown Friend writes of the tightrope walker,
He must have suppressed the oscillations of the mental substance in order to be able to exercise his skill. It is the intelligence of his rhythmic system – the respiratory and circulatory system – which replaces that of this brain during his acrobatic exercises.
As I teach in my yoga class almost every week, the breath is the gateway to mystical experience. Mindful focus on the breath – a simple awareness of the rise and fall, the wind in the nostrils, the full-body experience of inhale and exhale – invites us into a state of profound calm. And the more we focus on the breath, the more it envelops us, the more our intellectual clockwork is put to ease, and the more our intuitive, creative, and spiritual nature comes to the forefront. We are brought to stillness, and it is in that stillness where we have the most profound encounters of our lives: with God, with our higher nature, with the Cosmos itself. It is there that we can meditate on the fullness of love and heartbreak, life and death, connectedness and brokenness. It is in the raising up of the rhythmic system that we become The Magician, embodying work as play.
It is on this subject of concentration without effort that the Unknown Friend writes some of the most sublime prose in the whole letter:
It is the profound silence of desires, of preoccupations, of the imagination, of the memory and of discovery of thought. One may say that the entire being becomes like the surface of the calm water, reflecting the immense presence of the starry sky and its indescribable harmony. And the waters are deep, the are so deep! And the silence grows, ever increasing … what silence! Its growth takes place through regular waves which pass, one after the other, through your being: one wave of silence followed by another wave of more profound silence, then again a wave of still more profound silence … have you ever drunk silence? If in the affirmative, you know what concentration without effort is.
It is from this place of profound silence that all mystical experience grows, and hence why the Magician is the first Arcana that we explore. This silence opens up to us the whole realm of esoteric and mystical experience.
But with the invitation of the Magician, so too is there a warning, with which the Unknown Friend concludes this letter:
May the first Arcanum of the Tarot be always present before us as a kind of ‘guardian of the threshold’; may he invite us to cross the threshold of work and effort in order to enter into activity without effort, but may he at the same time warn us that the more we go beyond the threshold, the more work, effort and experience on this side of the threshold will be indispensable for the attainment of real truth.
In other words, we have to work hard to attain the mystical experience and to make sense of it, and we do so with the resources that science, religion and philosophy give to us. If we fail to do so, we will be nothing but charlatans, and our profound experiences beyond the threshold of work will just be wisps of cloud, lacking substance.