A reader mentions Fr. Hans Urs von Balthasar and the foreword he wrote for the book Meditations on the Tarot, written by Valentin Tomberg (as "Anonymous", first published in France in 1967), and asks:
Anyone have any helpful information on what on earth the story is there?
I've not read the book (only some excerpts--see below--which I've not yet read closely), so I can only speculate to some degree. The book is, apparently, a detailed work by Valentin Tomberg (1900-1973), who was a Russian Christian mystic who became Catholic in the 1940s. His Méditations sûr les 22 arcanes majeurs du Tarot was a study of the Tarot of Marseilles. Interestingly enough, this book is apparently seen by some esoterics as being hyper-Catholic and even the work of a man under the influence of Jesuits. For example, a book titled The Case of Valentin Tomberg: Anthroposophy or Jesuitism?, by Sergei O. Prokofieff, is described in this way:
Born in 1900 in Russia, Valentin Tomberg was for many years an enthusiastic student of Anthroposophy, the science of the spirit founded by Rudolf Steiner. In 1945, however, he converted to Roman Catholicism and completely turned his back on the former phase of his life. By the time of his death in 1973 he had written two major works, Meditations on the Tarot and Covenant of the Heart, in which he presents much esoteric knowledge, but now under the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church. In these books he also appears as a promoter of Ignatius of Loyola and the Jesuit Order, whom Rudolf Steiner characterized as enemies of true Christianity.
What is the mystery behind Tomberg's life, and why did he arrive at such a dramatic change in his thinking? In this forcefully argued and uncompromising book, intended for serious students of Anthroposophy, Prokofieff suggests that behind the work of Valentin Tomberg lies a clear resolve to unite 'esoteric and exoteric Christianity'. In Tomberg's terms, and those who follow his example today, this means bringing modern esoteric Christianity (Anthroposophy) under the hierarchical and dogmatic structure of the Roman Catholic Church. Furthermore, as Prokofieff demonstrates through his meticulous research, this is the goal of Jesuitism today, that nothing Christian should exist outside the Catholic Church.
Excerpts from the book can be read on this website, which also contains much other info about the book. A page of explanation states:
"The book is written from an orthodox Christian (Roman Catholic) perspective. One of its beauties is the way it draws out the value in many spiritual and cultural phenomena of which Christians have often been wary, without in any way compromising the centrality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The author uses the Tarot images to help the reader deepen his or her relationship with God through prayer and meditation."
An excerpt from von Balthasar's foreword can be read on the same site. A couple of excerpts:
"A thinking, praying Christian of unmistakable purity reveals to us the symbols of Christian Hermeticism in its various levels of mysticism, gnosis and magic, taking in also the Cabbala and certain elements of astrology and alchemy. These symbols are summarised in the twenty-two so-called "Major Arcana" of the Tarot cards. By way of the Major Arcana the author seeks to lead meditatively into the deeper, all-embracing wisdom of the Catholic Mystery. ....
"The first discussions for or against the secret teachings of the Cabbala go back to the converted or non-converted Spanish Jews of the twelfth century. Among those who later endeavored to understand these teachings were Reuchlin in Germany, Ficino and especially Pico della Mirandola in Italy, whilst the extraordinary Cardinal Giles of Viterbo (1469-1552) wanted to explain the Holy Scripture with the help of the Cabbala "with a method that is not foreign, but which is intrinsic (to it)" (non peregrina sed domestica methodo).. Enjoined by Pope Clement VII, this zealous, reform-hungry Cardinal wrote his ebullient dissertation on the "Shekinah", dedicated to Emperor Charles V.. Alongside these few names resounding from the past, a multitude of lesser predecessors and imitators could be mentioned.
"Here the important point is that although this penetration into the secret teachings of pagan and Jewish origin was pursued in the spirit of humanism, in the hope of bringing new life into rigidified Christian theology through collecting such scattered revelation and illumination, no one for a moment doubted that despite the disparities everything could be accommodated into the true Christian faith. That Pico, in particular, did not aim at syncretism, he himself made quite clear:
"I bear on my brow the name Jesus Christ and would die gladly for the faith in him. I am neither a magician nor a Jew, nor an Ishmaelite nor a heretic. It is Jesus whom I worship and his cross I bear upon my body.". The author of these Meditations' could also have affirmed this oath of allegiance."
Tomberg wrote other books that appear to be in (or similar to) the tradition of Russian mystics/theologians/philosophers such as Vladimir Sergeyevich Solovyov and Sergei Nikolaevich Bulgakov (both Eastern Orthodox), often described as "Sophiologists", who wrote much the Wisdom of God, and its relationship to Christ. One of Tomberg's books was Christ and Sophia. A page on the Sophia Foundation of North America provides the following info about this connection:
"Valentin Tomberg (1900-1973) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, into a Lutheran family. Already in his youth he entered upon a serious study of Christian esotericism. He was strongly influenced by the Russian Sophiologist Vladimir Soloviev, and in his early life he was also a student of Rudolf Steiner. He wrote and lectured on spiritual science (Anthroposophy) primarily in relation to Biblical themes. For him Anthroposophy was a bridge to the living Christ. During World War II he joined the Greek Orthodox Church and then the Roman Catholic Church, inspired by the ecumenical ideal espoused by Vladimir Soloviev of the unity of the Christian Church. For the latter part of his life he resided in England, working for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), while pursuing meditation and writing. Valentin Tomberg's writings reveal an extraordinary depth of perception that cannot fail to touch the heart of the meditative reader. His later works were written in the spirit of the great Hermetic tradition of wisdom extending back to Ancient Egypt. These writings, concerning the symbolism of Christian Hermeticism as a fusion of Hermeticism with the Christian tradition, draw not only upon the wisdom of the Bible but also upon many other spiritual and mystical traditions. (An important source work for Christian Hermeticism is Meditations on the Tarot available through the "Bookstore"). Valentin Tomberg is widely acknowledged not only as a leading Sophiologist (teacher concerning Sophia), but also as one of the great mystics of the twentieth century and as the primary inspirer of Christian Hermeticism."
Whether this description of Tomberg's work is entirely accurate or not, I don't know. My limited knowledge of various forms of esoteric belief systems leads me to believe that many folks who embrace such things tend to inflate their claims about ancient history and wide-ranging connections.
It would certainly be helpful to know much more of the story of Tomberg and his connection with von Balthasar (and apparently Pope John Paul II, for that matter). Having said that, I hope the above info might help provide some helpful context, especially since it's not uncommon to read remarks along the lines of "von Balthasar wrote an intro to a New Age book and so he's obviously be a heretic." It seems to me that careful questions should be asked before sending von Balthasar down the proverbial river, including:
• What was the intent of Tomberg's book? Considering the complex history of Tarot cards, which did not not always have occultic connections, how did Tomberg understand them?
• To what degree did Balthasar agree with Tomberg's work? Why did he write the foreword?
• What, exactly, is "Christian Hermiticism," and what did von Balthasar think of it?
• It seems apparent that John Paul II was aware of the book and von Balthasar's foreword to it. What was his view of the book and the foreword?
• Where is the line between studying beliefs that may be incompatible with Catholicism (in some or many ways) and outright syncretism? Did von Balthasar cross that line? If so, how?