Encountering the Tarot

I recently took part in a Tarot workshop called “Exploring the Tarot – A Tool for Insight and Contemplation,” led by Brian Relph. I expected it to be an interesting intellectual exercise. The images on the cards have spoken to people for hundreds of years, and I looked forward to delving into their symbolic meanings. But the workshop turned out to be an experience not primarily of the head, but of the heart.

This card has to do with juggling, keeping things in balance, and play

This card has to do with juggling, keeping things in balance, and play

 

The images came to life as they addressed the ongoing concerns of the workshop participants. We considered the feelings that arose from looking at a card in response to questions such as “What phase of life am I in now, and what awareness would be helpful to me?” or “What supports me in meeting this particular challenge?” Wisdom and insight emerged from considering how the energy and meaning of a card intersected with a particular aspect of life.

Having worked extensively with dreams, exploring images from the Tarot felt somewhat familiar to me. It was noticing that these images sometimes turn up in dream work that inspired me to learn more about the Tarot. These shared archetypal images represent universal patterns of human existence across time and throughout the world. We manifest these archetypes in our individual lives, but each of us lives them out in our own unique ways. The meaning of a dream element, like the meaning of a Tarot image, comes from the intersection of the universal and the particular.

There is ancient Judeo-Christian precedent for seeing dreams as messages from the divine. In both the Old and New Testament, dreams are a way of receiving heavenly insight and guidance. While it may not be common these days for Christians to work dreams as part of their spiritual life, it is part of our spiritual lineage. Tarot, however, is an unfamiliar tool in the Christian theological world view. We may believe that divine wisdom is available all the time through prayer, but if that wisdom arrives in an unfamiliar way it is often seen as suspect. It’s simpler and easier to reject the unfamiliar.

Yet people of faith find many different ways of becoming ever more aware of and attuned to the divine. We rely on the spiritual structures we put in place to encounter the help and guidance that are available to us all the time. Some look for insight conveyed through scripture or in worship. Some invoke the help and protection of the saints, carrying a St. Christopher medal when traveling, for example. Wisdom visits us through signs in the natural world, or a book that suddenly calls for attention, or the sudden resonance within a conversation.

Working with the Tarot is another way of paying attention. It’s not about fortune-telling. This misconception about (or misuse of) the Tarot as if it were for predicting events is similar to a common misunderstanding about the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah and Jeremiah and others were not trying to foretell events that would occur hundreds of years into the future. They were speaking clearly and directly about Israel’s current situation. The prophets were able to do this because they were deeply connected to the wisdom of the divine, able to anticipate the outcome of Israel’s ongoing actions. Yet when later generations look back at their divinely inspired words for guidance, their insights are so keen they offer a lens for interpreting current-day experience and seem to anticipate future events.

In processing my experience of the Tarot with my spiritual director, he asked where I thought the wisdom was coming from, or what it was I encountered through working with the images. The best answer I have for the time being is that the archetypes depicted on the cards open the door to a wisdom that comes from deep within. Yet this insight originates beyond my individual experience; it taps into the universal experience that connects us all. It’s what Carl Jung called the collective unconscious, or what is recognized in the greeting Namaste—the divine in me acknowledging the divine in you. It is the Source of all life, available in every moment, offering itself to us if we will just pay attention.

The Red River Gorge at Nightfall

I had a chance to visit the Red River Gorge over the holidays—a brief but beautiful drive with my family on the return trip from a Christmas visit.

We arrived at dusk, knowing our time was limited but wanting to see all we could before dark. The main road was snow-covered and a new snow had fallen, softening the landscape and offering up each bare tree and dark evergreen in clear contrast against the field of white.

It was immensely quiet there. The trees closed overhead and the light faded as we wound down to the river. As night began to fall, the snow reflected what little light remained. It held off the darkness, creating the sense of a moment outside of time in an otherworldly place.

Robert Frost’s words kept echoing through my mind: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep.” Gazing into awe, I was humbled by the power and mystery of this life.

The Gorge, a place of dramatic beauty, sits right off the highway. We usually drive by it on our way to somewhere else. But stopping by those woods on that snowy evening was a memory, and perhaps even a glimpse of eternity, to hold for a long time.

Have you had a glimpse of the eternal?

Reflecting the Season’s Light

“Are you ready for Christmas?”

The most recent place I heard this question asked was in a department store, appropriately enough. It’s a conversation opener this time of year, a December version of “How are you doing?” Behind the question looms a checklist of things to accomplish for the celebration to be complete.

A friend with three children looked at her calendar a few days ago and realized that her family had so many scheduled activities there were only two nights free between now and Christmas. She wasn’t complaining, just gearing up for the pace set by the intersection of family and holidays.

Here in the Northern hemisphere the days have grown short, night falls early, and we try to keep too busy to notice. We lean into our Christmas celebrations like plants growing toward the sun. We’re drawn to outdoor displays of light, Christmas trees twinkling, and candles glowing. Ornaments and wrappings made to reflect the light shine out from every corner.

Of course we’re drawn toward warmth, light, and joy. We look forward to the gatherings, performances, and rituals of the season. They dispel the dark. We follow the star this time of year, keenly aware of our need for the Light of the World.

The liturgical year sets aside these weeks leading up to Christmas and gives the season its own name—Advent. It is a season of anticipation.

Advent is not about creating Christmas, it’s a time of preparing for something beyond our ability to bring about. In the darkest time of the year comes a new birth, the renewal of life and of light. We honor it with our celebrations, but that spirit of new beginnings is more powerful than anything we can make. It’s the gift of life and growth, which begins in the depths beneath the surface of the earth, or of our lives.

Our celebrations are like the ornaments reflecting light. We can make the world brighter, better, even more merry. But it’s not up to us to generate the light. It’s good to remember that we only have to reflect Christmas; it’s not our job to create it. Knowing that makes it easier to lighten up.

What brings the season’s light to you?

Return from a Dark Journey

I cannot imagine what the Chilean miners emerging from almost ten weeks trapped underground have been through, and it’s almost unbearable to try. But now they are returning to the world, one at a time, through a long narrow portal that they must travel alone. As some commentators have remarked, they are being reborn.

Alberto Segovia, brother of Dario Segovia, one of 33 miners trapped underground in a copper and gold mine, picks up a rosary as he prays outside the mine in Copiapo

The ingenuity and skill, the expertise and determination, the sheer will and powerful life force driving the rescue efforts are heroic. The images of that first rescue pod reaching the chamber deep underground where the miners waited are a visceral experience. The elemental symbolism in this amazing story holds the archetypal images of life itself, male and female, which have resonated throughout the ages.

Yet even with the images we see from underground, each miner emerges from a mystery. We see the opening of the rescue shaft leading from that dark chamber under the earth, and wonder at where he has been and what he has experienced. He steps out of the Fenix capsule to applause and warm embraces, returning to the life to which he belongs. But surely he is changed.

NASA’s experience in outer space has helped facilitate the care of the miners throughout their confinement, but theirs is an experience of inner space like nothing we’ve known before. The world watches anxiously as each returns, asking if it is possible for yet another man to have made the journey back from such an ordeal. We draw reassurance from every sign that they are intact—physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. And we want to share in some part of their journey, to learn from them.

What does it mean to be given life in this world, to be born or reborn? Saints and mystics have sought answers in different ways for centuries. Seekers on vision quests, walkabouts, or spiritual retreats continue to ask for understanding. These Chilean miners may not have sought to make a trek into the darkness within the earth and within themselves, but they have made the journey forced upon them. Reporters tell us that poetry and music, faith and love, have allowed them to endure and help them to sort out their experience.

One of the rescued miners, Mario Sepulveda, said of the experience that it wasn’t a matter of being tested by God, because that’s not how God works. But that life holds difficult experiences, of which this has been the most difficult for him. Yet he was glad it had happened to him, because of how he has been affected by it. “It was a time to make changes,” he said. “I was with God, and I was with the devil. And God won.” He said that it was God’s hand that he took, and that was how he made it through.

What are we learning from the journey we’re sharing with them?

Photo by Ivan Alvarado of Reuters http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/38587487

Responding to Beauty

Early in his life, Leonard Cohen prayed to be able to make some response to beauty. I’ve been dwelling in the richness of that statement for days.

To utter such a prayer is to already have the grace of appreciating beauty, of having one’s eyes open to its presence in the world. And to ask for a way to respond is an enlightened longing. It does not seek to possess what is beautiful, to claim beauty for oneself. It measures value according to something beyond what serves an individual life. It asks for the power not to claim creation, but to participate fully in it.

The power and complexity of Cohen’s work, the ability of his music and lyrics to break open the heart, is a testament to his answered prayer. He looks hard at life, all of it, and makes of it something mysteriously, achingly beautiful. His work makes me want to live in poetry, even though he says of poetry that when your life is burning well, poetry is just the ash.

If his poetry is ash, then his life has burned like the bush Moses encountered.

The Holy Spirit moves in wonderful ways, including through friends who put amazing things into my hands. The film, I’m Your Man, is such a gift. It’s a moving film, featuring interviews with Leonard Cohen and performances of his music by various artists.

His breathtaking song, “Hallelujah,” has been performed by many talented people. Jeff Buckley’s rendition is wonderful. And there is nothing like its powerful performance by Cohen himself.

What shall we pray for? And how shall we respond to beauty?

You might be interested in reading my Love Letter to Leonard Cohen.

Beyond Personal Growth: Trusting the Mystery of Transformation

It took a long time to make much progress through John O’Donohue’s Anam Ċara: A Book of Celtic Wisdom. I mean that in the best of ways. The Gaelic term, anam ċara is literally “soul friend,” and if books can be friends, this is such a one. Most pages hold something rich enough to send me off thinking about it for a while. I’ve kept returning through about two-thirds of it now, and today this is the passage on my mind:

Spirituality is the art of transfiguration. We should not force ourselves to change by hammering our lives into any pre-determined shape. We do not need to operate according to the idea of a predetermined program or plan for our lives. Rather, we need to practice a new art of attention to the inner rhythm of our days and lives. This attention brings a new awareness of our own human and divine presence.

A willingness to grow is a good thing, but the programs and plans available to encourage our development are overwhelming. Bookstore shelves teem with personal growth books, religious and secular, as if we can’t stop flagellating ourselves with agendas for self-improvement. And yes, I’m familiar with these store displays because I’m irresistibly drawn to them. It’s hard to pass up some bit of wisdom that will make me more capable, more fulfilled, more deserving. When an article promises to share Five Steps to Happiness, I can’t help but read it.

I want to grow, but I’d prefer to do it without all the messy uncertainty and annoying unpredictability of not knowing the way. I would love to learn what to do and just do it. But O’Donohue spells out what’s lacking in such a prescribed approach:

It is far more creative to work with the idea of mindfulness rather than the idea of will. Too often people try to change their lives using the will as a kind of hammer to beat their life into proper shape. The intellect identifies the goal of the program, and the will accordingly forces the life into that shape. This way of approaching the sacredness of one’s own presence is externalist and violent. It brings you falsely outside yourself, and you can spend years lost in the wilderness of your own mechanical, spiritual programs. You can perish in a famine of your own making.

Creating, growing, transforming—these are all mysterious processes. They happen underground, in the depths, in the dark. Paying attention while a process unfolds that we can neither control nor rush is a counter-cultural way of life. It can be hard to learn and harder to trust.

But if we lose faith and limit ourselves to the kind of processes we can control, we banish ourselves to the wilderness O’Donohue describes. Will power is hard work, and doesn’t make for a very joyful life. Maybe it’s trust power I need to work on.

What kind of power keeps you moving forward?

Holy Week: What We Learn from Looking into the Dark

It’s Holy Week, a time in the liturgical year that draws Christians into and through great darkness. But there is plenty of darkness in the world—why do we need to invite more? I don’t relish the thought of entering into the stories of betrayal and fear, of manipulation by people in power and humanity’s willingness to extinguish a light. It would be easier to take if that had all changed now, but we know it isn’t so. Even knowing that this story has a good ending, it’s not an easy one to engage with.

I approach this week thinking, “not again.” Why is this, of all weeks, the one labeled “holy?” It’s a week filled with unholy actions as well as holy moments, like all of life. Why is its suffering and desolation what we choose to lift up?

Nonetheless, it comes ‘round every year. And like any observance that occurs with that regularity, it brings a chance to look at a familiar ritual from the slightly different perspective that another year of living brings.

This year, I’m noticing that the story shows how quickly things turn around: from celebration and adoration to arrest and death; from horror at the crucifixion of a beloved teacher to wonder at the empty tomb. The first Easter morning wasn’t yet a triumph, but it brought hope wrapped in mystery. What the disciples thought was over was made open-ended. Despair was replaced with questions that led them to a new place.

In this week of reversals we celebrate the consistent thread running through all of them. Jesus knew who he was and what he was about, regardless of how the world around him shifted. Reality wasn’t determined by the crowd’s response, good or bad, but by his certain connection with God.

He knew his time was limited and he knew what was important. When the world was growing dark he washed his disciples’ feet and shared a meal in a way that remains in our memory today.

Holy Week shows us that everything in the world comes to an end. But we can endure it, knowing that life moves beyond the endings we can see, and that darkness does not have the final word.

Do you find light in this week of darkness? What do you do with Holy Week?

Naming the Ineffable

Names for God: Part 2 of a Series

Woven into the fabric of Hebrew tradition is the wise teaching that the name of God is never to be uttered. The powerful and mysterious name, given in the story of Moses’ encounter with God in the form of a burning bush, is usually translated “I Am What I Am.” It’s the designation of something more than we can grasp, not to be treated lightly. A reader of the Hebrew substitutes adonai, or “the Lord,” when reading scripture aloud.

Any other name denotes an individual we can know, someone with particular characteristics and habits, whose existence necessarily means limitations, a being among other beings. But this name is different, one that we cannot wield with understanding, a name beyond names.

I’m drawn to that mystery, but if God is beyond what can be named, it’s hard to know where to begin. How can I even think about, much less have a relationship with, the unfathomable source of life?

A sense of divine presence is somewhere to start, or the longing to experience it. The Psalms speak to that kind of knowing: As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. We can’t claim the stream, or apprehend its course; but we know our need for it and the experience of being refreshed by its waters.

And we have not only our own individual experience to draw on, but that of countless generations who have gone before. Many left their mark on the world’s faith traditions. When we find a line of liturgy or scripture or interpretation that resonates, we have a guide who helps us prepare for our own experience of the divine. We have gifts of poetry, art, and music that can open our hearts and point the way. The earth itself speaks eloquently of divine beauty, renewal, and creativity.

The unutterable name of God is spelled out everywhere, if only we can learn to read.

I’d love to hear about your experience. What stirs in you a sense of divine presence, or longing? Is it something you seek out in the rituals and routines of your life, or something that takes you by surprise?

You might also be interested in:

Part 1: Post Cards from the Divine

Part 3: The Kaleidoscope of Divine Names

Post Cards from the Divine

Names for God: Part 1 of a Series

I had seen reproductions of Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings long before visiting the d’Orsay in Paris, so I expected that viewing his work would be an encounter with something familiar. It never occurred to me that the originals might hold so much more than those reproductions could show.

It left me completely unprepared for the experience I stumbled into. I was stunned by the vibrancy, riveted by the color. The skies he painted came at me like a physical force.

Maybe it was having recently enjoyed the saturated blues of Mediterranean evenings; maybe it was the mindset of a traveler taking in everything new. I don’t know what opened me to the power of Van Gogh’s canvasses, I only know that I have never experienced color the way I did standing before his paintings. I have never had a sky brought to life and emblazoned on my mind in the same way. For twenty or thirty minutes I couldn’t take in anything else. I was left with an image, or more specifically a color, that overtook everything. That blue.

I bought post cards before leaving the museum—replicas of some of the paintings I had seen. They were pale imitations; the colors were wrong, the depth flattened out, the life drained. The reproductions were just reminders of what I had seen, nothing like standing in front of the real thing. But nonetheless I’m glad for the mementos. Years later, the post cards help me remember the experience of taking in the works of art and being moved by them.

I framed one of the Van Gogh cards and placed it on my desk. I love the image, the color, the conveyance of light, the sense of shelter. It gives me pleasure. I enjoy the framed post card, but it only hints at the power of the original. It doesn’t begin to reveal the divine inspiration Van Gogh conveyed on canvas. And I suspect that even his amazing painting would have fallen short of fully capturing the inspiration he felt, as works of art tend to do.

The words we use to talk about God are a lot like that framed post card. Our names for God are accessible, we can make them part of our lives, they hold meaning and beauty. We fit them into frames on our desks—in readings and hymns, conversation, worship and prayers. But we miss out when we confuse those names with the real thing. We cut ourselves off from the experience of the divine when we think that the little image in the frame is the object of our longing or the expression of our desire.

We need names for God, yet any name for God is a placeholder, a reminder of what will not fit in the frame, what cannot be named.

Is “God” a name that suggests the ineffable for you? What name are you drawn to using?

You might also be interested in:

Part 2: Naming the Ineffable

Part 3: The Kaleidoscope of Divine Names

Opening to the Sacred

In The Case for God, Karen Armstrong talks about “this hinterland between rationality and the transcendent.” It’s the place where our thought, ideas, and intellectual life have taken us as far as they can, and we need a different kind of knowing in order to experience God.

The intellect is part of our spiritual path. It carries us past the limited notions of God that constrict our assumption of what religious life entails. It brings the fresh breeze of new ideas, which prepare us to see what we have missed. It shows the limitations we have put on God, and the experience of God, of which we were unaware.

But we can’t live into a new faith, or any faith, by intellect alone. An expanded idea of God doesn’t have much impact on who we are or how we live unless we develop a connection to God—asking, seeking, waiting, inviting, listening. In Armstrong’s words, “Religious insight requires not only a dedicated intellectual endeavor to get beyond the ‘idols of thought’ but also a compassionate lifestyle that enables us to break out of the prism of selfhood. . . . It require[s] kenosis, ‘negative capability,’ ‘wise passiveness,’ and a heart that ‘watches and receives.’”

Armstrong’s book mirrors this process. It summarizes and analyzes a long and complex history of how people have understood God. She places our current theological thinking in the context of history, the better to see how we arrived in this place and how best to move forward. Yet her work points to an understanding of God beyond definition or certainty, experienced in mystery, expressed in poetry and in love. It’s a book about what cannot be expressed in books.

Ideas are important; I thrive on them. Yet at a certain point ideas no longer satisfy. It’s like driving to the mountains to go hiking. At some point, you have to get out of the car.

I experience another kind of truth in the light turning gold as the sun rises, the purr of a cat under my hand, the voice of a loved one. These are openings to the sacred, to the sense of being deeply and truly alive.

I’m asking myself whether I’ve spent too much time reading theology and not enough reading poetry. Where is the balance between intellect and experience? Do you see one as more credible, or trustworthy, than the other?