I am delighted to share another beautiful submission for the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Erin Marie Clark’s reflection on conversing with the wisdom of the tarot.
It was towards the end of my time training to be ordained as an Anglican priest that I was tackled by a mischievous and confounding spiritual practice: namely, reading the images and stories in tarot.
Five months before I was due to be ordained, I stumbled on a blog post written by a tarot card reader. The warm, generous, pastoral tone of the post surprised me. It echoed the tone of posts and emails and conversations I had had with spiritual directors, mentors and prayer partners — those who had supported me in my journey of faith. It was, in short, the sort of wise speech I want to develop in my own pastoral work.
But…tarot? I didn’t (and still don’t) think one can or should try to predict anyone’s future. Taking randomly shuffled cards and using them in a process of discernment seemed as foolish to me as opening a Bible to a random page, shutting my eyes, picking a verse and taking it as some kind of sign — a Gideon’s-fleece-style foolishness, not a spiritual practice for sensible contemplatives, trying to live in their own real world monasteries of the heart.
Tarot’s system of imagery kept confronting me, however, as I researched the history, meaning and composition of the cards, discovering the immense riches of creativity of deck-making artists, the deep affirmation of life in its materiality and intangibility. I stumbled across traditional images that depicted chalices and wafers, feasts and famines, royalty and commoners, doves and lambs: so many of the symbols central to my faith. Exploring the tarot, I felt like I was pulling apart an accordion to see how it produced such beguiling music.
I returned to tarot-reading bloggers, trying to figure out their technique. I rolled my eyes when I found what seemed to be blatant nonsense or baseless divination. I nodded at the times where I felt the readers had really caught the spirit of an archetype, of the complexities of a situation, and when their suggestions of action were filled with wisdom. I enjoyed the puzzle of reading and discovering, of thinking about how different images drew on the wisdom of human experience, of religious tradition and of navigating life with intention.
Spending Holy Week in Canterbury that year, I snuck to a shop on the high street which sold tarot cards, feeling highly deviant the whole time for buying a deck in between services at the cathedral. Voices from my childhood hissed, ‘Paganism!’ in my head as I curled up with the deck after the Good Friday liturgy. And yet, when I studied the cards, daring to shuffle them and bringing a question from my life to them, asking, ‘What if these images had something to say to me?’, I felt unencumbered by fear or shame. I was only asking questions, the answers to which were as important, and elusive, as answers gleaned from conversations with holy texts or spiritual teachers.
I keep on reading the cards. Alongside the daily work and joy of prayer and study, leading a church in its word and sacrament, connecting with my parish and all its inhabitants, I read the tarot. I journal about how its symbols appear within my own faith tradition and in the people I meet with their complex needs. Continuing to ask ‘What if…’ of each card that turns up, without relying on them to tell me the future or how to solve my problems, I use them as a tool to more carefully consider my choices and my personal history. I sieve my experiences through the tarot’s symbols, seeking to connect with archetypes in ordinary changes and challenges.
Obviously there is potential conflict between my practice of tarot and my vocation to priesthood, and I have not reached a good way of reconciling the two. Starting up a ‘tea and tarot’ group wouldn’t work in my parish, needless to say! I read for my partner and for close friends whom I trust to ask good questions and call me out when my readings come from rote adherence to symbol rather than intuition and good listening — this is the same calling-out I’d hope I’d get for any shoddy preaching or pastoral work.
As someone whose attempts to live contemplatively and creatively in a fast-paced city, I have found tarot invaluable for its insistence on slowing down, and ‘testing the spirits’: asking what other perspectives there could be on our lived questions. The tradition of card-reading encourages people to create symbolic codes to aid their own spiritual exploration (some of the best examples include the, the , cards, from Christian- and Jewish-informed perspectives, for example). Traditions which give rise to such deeply psychological and deeply faithful creativity have, in my book, the mark of the monk about them.
Erin Clark is a happily uprooted Michigander living in central London, UK. She love to write, run, listen, laugh and travel, and she works as a trainee priest in the Church of England. You can find her on Twitter at @e_m_clark.