Christian Hermeticism

There are at least several reasons why reprinting this text by Valentin Tomberg carries certain risk. Our interest in Hermeticism will without a doubt make some surprised (“Hermeticism, ‘the secret knowledge’: how can serious people deal with such stupid things?”), and others worried or even terrified (“surely it is dangerous, if not sinful!”). Also those our friends who do something with the Hermetic tradition will most likely not be amazed by Tomberg’s discourse. For them it will be too orthodox and “churchly.”

The author dealt with these doubts too. Valentin Arnoldovich Tomberg (1900-1973) was a mystic and religious scholar who practiced international law, Martinism, Theosophy and Anthroposophy. He became involved with the Anthroposophical Society when he was 25 and became an active, prolific and independently thinking member of it. He saw Anthroposophy not as a more or less uncritical repeating of what Rudolf Steiner said, but as plane of independent studies and inquiries.  Unfortunately, at that time such Anthroposophers were not needed in the Society. In 1940 he was thus asked to leave it. During the war he was active in the resistance movement against Hitler and spiritually tried to become closer to Orthodoxy, but was discouraged by the support showed to Hitler by the hierarchy of the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Near the end of the Second World War he obtained his doctorate in jurisprudence at the University of Cologne. At the same time he converted to Roman Catholicism.

The book from which we took the fragment we post, Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism, was published anonymously only in 1985 with the afterword by the great Swiss theologian made a cardinal at the end of his life, Hans Urs von Balthasar. The “Meditations” are an attempt of a representative of the Western Hermetic tradition to face not only Christianity but concretely with its (Roman) Catholic form. Obviously, the latter is problematic for us as well. For example the fragment about the Church of Peter and the Church of John is clearly written from the point of view of a Catholic acknowledging the pope to be the head of the church. Both from the historical and ecclesiological perspective Tomberg’s theses that John submitted to Peter seems to us at least debatable.  The fragment about following the example of St. Anthony the Great brings up mixed feelings in us. We don’t have a problem with the call to learn from others, but the attitude of considering yourself inferior to others may be a source of pathology. It doesn’t change the fact, however, that the general picture Tomberg draws appeals to us very much: Christian Hermeticism as a manifestation and stimulant of inner life of religion and church. Is it a real possibility to reconcile institutional Christendom with the Hermetic tradition, which Prof. Gilles Quispel called one of the pillars of European culture? Perhaps. To achieve this is needed much goodwill of both Christians and Hermeticists, however. The problem is that, for now, they usually prefer to fight one another to cooperation and mutual inspiration.

The mystery is more than a stimulating “ferment”. It is a spiritual event comparable to physical birth or death. It is a change of the entire spiritual and psychic motivation, or a complete change of the plane of consciousness. The seven sacraments of the Church are the prismatic colours of the white light of one sole Mystery or Sacrament, known as that of the Second Birth, which the Master pointed out to Nicodemus in the nocturnal initiation conversation which He had with him. It is this which Christian Hermeticism understands by the Great Initiation.

Hermes Trismegistus

It goes without saying that nobody initiates anyone else, if we understand by “initiation” the Mystery of the Second Birth or the Great Sacrament. This Initiation is operative from above and has the value and the duration of eternity. The ^initiator is above, and here below one meets only the fellow pupils; and they recognise each other by the fact that they “love one another” (cf. John xiii, 34-35).

There are no longer any more “masters” because there is only one sole Master, who is the Initiator above. To be sure, there are always masters who teach their doctrines and also initiates who communicate some of the secrets which they possess to others who thus become in their turn the “initiates”— but all this has nothing to do with the Mystery of the Great Initiation.

For this reason Christian Hermeticism, in so far as it is a human concern, initiates no one. Amongst Christian Hermeticists nobody assumes for himself the title and the function of “initiator” or “master”. For all are fellow pupils and each is master of each in some respect—just as each is a pupil of each in some other respect. We cannot do better than to follow the example of St. Anthony the Great, who subjected himself in all sincerity to the pious men whom he visited and made it his endeavour to learn for his own benefit just how each was superior to him in zeal and ascetic practice. He observed the graciousness of one, the earnestness at prayer in another; studied the even temper of one and the kindheartedness of another; fixed his attention on the vigils kept by one and on the studies pursued by another; admired one for his patient endurance, another for his fasting and sleeping on the ground; watched closely this man’s meekness and the forebear-ance shown by another; and in one and all alike he marked especially devotion to Christ and the love they had for one another. Having thus taken his fill, he would return to his own place of asceticism. Then he assimilated in himself what he had obtained from each and devoted all his energies to realizing in himself the virtues of all. (St. Athanasius, The Life of Saint  Anthony, ch. 4; trsl. R. T. Meyer, Westminster, 1950, p.21)

It is the same conduct which must be applied by the Christian Hermeticist in that which concerns knowledge and science —natural, historical, philological, philosophical, theological, symbolical and traditional. It amounts to learning the art of learning.

Dear Unknown Friend, Christian Hermeticism therefore has no pretension to rival either religion or official science. He who is searching here for the “true religion”, the “true philosophy”, or the “true science” is looking in the wrong direction. Christian Hermeticists are not masters, but servants. They do not have the pretension (that is, in any case, somewhat puerile) of elevating themselves above the holy faith of the faithful, or above the fruits of the admirable efforts of workers in science, or above the creations of artistic genius. Hermeticists are not guarding the secret of future discoveries in the sciences. They do not know, for example, just as everyone at present is ignorant of it, the effective remedy against cancer. Moreover they would be monsters if they were to guard the secret of the remedy against this bane of humanity without communicating it. No, they do not know it, and they will be the first to recognise the superiority of the future benefactor of the human race, that savant who will discover this remedy.

Likewise they recognise without reserve the superiority of a Francis of Assisi — and of many others—who was a man of the so-called ‘ exoteric” faith. They know also that each sincere believer is potentially a Francis of Assisi. Men and women of faith, of science and of art are their superiors in many essential points. Hermeticists know it well and do not flatter themselves to be better, to believe better, to know better or to be more competent. They do not secretly guard a religion, which to them is appropriate, to replace the existing religions, or a science to replace the current sciences, or arts to replace the fine arts of today or yesterday. That which they possess does not comprise any tangible advantage or objective superiority with regard to religion, science and art; what they possess is only the communal soul of religion, science and art. What is this mission of conserving the communal soul of religion, science and art? I am going to reply with a concrete example, as follows:

St. Anthony the Great

You know without doubt, dear Unknown Friend, that many— and several of them are writers —in France, Germany, England, and elsewhere, promulgate the doctrine of the so-called “two churches”: the church of Peter and the church of John, or of “two epochs’—the epoch of Peter and the epoch of John. You know also that this doctrine teaches the end —more or less at hand —of the church of Peter, or above all of the papacy which is its visible symbol, and that the spirit of John, the disciple loved by the Master, he who leaned on his breast and heard the beating of his heart, will replace it. In this way it teaches that the “exoteric” church of Peter will make way for the “esoteric” church of John, which will be that of perfect freedom.

Now, John, who submitted himself voluntarily to Peter as leader or prince of the apostles, did not become his successor after his death, although he outlived Peter by many years. The beloved disciple who listened to the beating of the Master’s heart was, is, and always will be the representative and guardian of this heart —and as such he was not, is not, and never will be the leader or head of the Church. Because just as the heart is not called upon to replace the head, so is John not called upon to succeed Peter. The heart certainly guards the life of the body and the soul, but it is the head which makes decisions, directs, and chooses the means for the accomplishment of the tasks of the entire organism — head, heart and limbs. The mission of John is to keep the life and soul of the Church alive until the Second Coming of the Lord. This is why John has never claimed and never will claim the office of directing the body of the Church. He vivifies this body, but he does not direct its actions.

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. They cannot do otherwise than live as guardians of the life and communal soul of religion, science and art. They do not have any privilege in any of these domains; saints, true scientists, and artists of genius are their superiors. But they live for the mystery of the communal heart which beats within all religions, all philosophies, all arts and all sciences —past, present and future. And inspired by the example of John, the beloved disciple, they do not pretend, and never will pretend, to play a directing role in religion, science, art, in social or political life; but they are constantly attentive so as not to miss any occasion to serve religion, philosophy, science, art, the social and political life of humanity, and to this to infuse the breath of life of their communal soul — analogous to the administration of the sacrament of Holy Communion. Hermeticism is — and is only — a stimulant, a “ferment” or an “enzyme” in the organism of the spiritual life of humanity. In this sense it is itself an arcanum — that is to say the antecedent of the Mystery of the Second Birth or the Great Initiation. This is the spirit of Hermeticism.

Source:  Tomberg V., “Meditations on the Tarot: A Journey into Christian Hermeticism”, trans. Powell R., New York 2002, p. 4-7.

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