I was reading Rachel Pollack’s 78 Degrees of Wisdom the other day, when I came across a statement about tradition in the chapter on the Hierophant.
A statement about tradition in the chapter about the Hierophant?! This should be absolutely no surprise, because the Hierophant is the card of tradition, of education, of orthodox religion, in a word, of institution. There are lots of statements about tradition in any writing about the Hierophant. But this was a specific statement that I’d never read before, asserting an idea I’d never thought about, and it shook me to my core.
The statement was preceded by a discussion about the modern trend of spirituality without religion. That many people in recent years have forsaken a specific religion in favor of a personalized brand of spirituality that accepts all religions, cobbling together aspects from many as they suit the individual. This sounded familiar to me; indeed, this is how I’ve been approaching spirituality for years now.
There are benefits to this, Pollack writes. People who base their spirituality on many systems tend to be more accepting, more open-minded, and generally more understanding of the human condition on a global level. This is all well and good, but there is a trade-off.
It becomes a question of focus. Faith based on many traditions can be superficial. Faith based on a single tradition, regardless of which tradition that is, has the capacity to run very deep. The statement made by Pollack that really drove this home for me was this: “While this idea opens great possibilities, many people have noted its potential for shallowness. The fact is, throughout the centuries, the great mystics have always spoken from deep within a tradition.” (Pollack, p. 56).
I didn’t like reading that. But I could not deny it. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to realize that my own spirituality has been suffering for lack of structure.
I’ve gone through many phases of spirituality throughout my life so far. With the exception of the brief stint I had with Atheism, I’ve always thought faith was very important, and an admirable quality in any person. But I’ve also always been distressed by the problems caused throughout history by people who took their faith too far at the expense of others who held a different faith. This seemed inevitable to me, however, so long as we believed that one name for God was more correct than any other. In other words, so long as we take the Hierophant’s teachings as absolute law, which many people seem to do.
My solution to this dilemma was of course to put my faith in the impersonal Universe – the All that has manifested in the minds of people over time as various gods. To name this power was to limit it, and I thought this was part of the problem. I would study the religions to see what they had to contribute, but to follow a religion itself was to suffocate the indefinable truth. To attempt to name that which cannot be named only led to failure. As I’ve said before, language is our greatest power, but also our greatest limit. Some things just cannot be put into words.
The problem is that faith is an incredibly personal thing, different from one person to the next, even if they follow the same religion. An unnamed, all-encompassing monism is just too difficult to identify with on a personal level, no matter how true it may be compared to a synthetic religious tradition. It’s hard to put your faith in a higher power if you don’t even know how to address it. Our tiny minds just can’t fathom it. For me, it worked for a while, but as the years go on, I’m finding my faith growing thinner and thinner, despite the fact that I think it’s the best way.
I do believe faith is very important. Even if it turns out that the atheists are right, and there is no higher power, faith allows us to feel like there is a purpose to this life, a reason to keep going. It’s a question we all ask, a dilemma we all face at some point in our lives. Kierkegaard, considered by many to be the father of existentialism, solved his existential crisis with the paradox of faith. And it is a paradox. It takes strength to have faith, especially when things are difficult, and especially in this day and age when it has become fashionable to believe in nothing. I feel the existential dread growing daily in my heart, and I wonder if perhaps I wouldn’t find some relief if I just relented and went back to church.
But is church the answer? I still live a virtuous and spiritual life without it, don’t I? At least I try. And what about the other religions? If they’re all true, which one’s the best for me? How could I possibly decide now, knowing what I’ve come to learn through years of building my own spiritual beliefs? Can tradition really be the foundation of a true and deep faith?
It’s not that I think I’ve been wrong to build my own brand of spirituality. It’s just that, without an established tradition to draw from, I am finding it more and more difficult to answer the questions I have. I thought for a moment that I’d just build my own, new tradition. But for it to really fit the definition of tradition, it would have to be much longer in the making than a couple of years. Well, doesn’t everything have to start somewhere? But let’s just say, a hundred or so years after I die, that by some miracle I will have finally succeeded in establishing a new spiritual tradition. With all the benefits of tradition come all the pitfalls that have plagued religions since the dawn on time. It will become subject to dogma, and fail just as every other religion seems to have failed. I don’t want that.
For now, I will remain floating between traditions, keeping my personal faith as best I can. I will continue to study the religions; perhaps one day something will click, and I will have found my religious niche. Until then, I will keep the tradition of the Tarot, such as it is, as my guide through these murky waters of spirituality. And if any card represents this aspect of the Tarot, it is the Hierophant.
These days, the Hierophant seems to get a bad rap. Nobody wants to be associated with the stuffy traditions of our forebears. But he does have a lesson for us: traditions have only been in place for so long because they serve a purpose. Yes, it is possible for a tradition to outlive its purpose, but to trash religion solely because it is an old-fashioned institution is unwise. We are lost, and until recently, religion has been all we had to keep us on some sort of path towards enlightenment. The Hierophant keeps the old secrets that underlie traditions, and we would do well not to forget them. He wants to share his wisdom with us; why can’t we be gracious and accept his advice? We hold the power to decide what to do with it, but we first have to listen.* If we accept the Tarot is a viable spiritual guide, we can only do so because the Hierophant has had a hand in remembering where we came from, so we can figure out where to go. He stands at an integral point along the pathway to enlightenment.
I don’t think tradition and institutionalization is the final answer to my spiritual conundrum – far from it**- but I do think that it is something I must somehow accept and understand before I can move on past it to a greater understanding of the mystery of faith. It’s like the old writer’s maxim: you must understand the rules before you’re allowed to break them. The Hierophant is there right near the beginning to teach you those rules. You can’t hope to move very far past him on the path of the Tarot without heeding his advice.
Now, Mr. Crowley thought that the Hierophant was a symbol of the old age, and that we are on the brink of a new one, with a new spirituality. I believe that he was right, and that this all-inclusive “eclectic” brand of spirituality that Pollack has noted is gaining momentum is quite possibly the beginning phases of Crowley’s New Aeon. But it all means nothing without remembering what the Hierophant stands for. If we forget the traditions of our ancestors, then no matter how accepting of others we have become, it will all be superficial, and our faith will not serve us in our darkest moments, when we need it the most. I believe that we can internalize the lessons of tradition in our personal lives while maintaining a healthy respect for the traditions of others.
With all of his knowledge of the Old, the Hierophant has the unique capacity to direct us towards the New with confidence, because he knows the present only has meaning in the context of the past. If we want to make true progress, we have to remember where we came from, otherwise we’ll just slip up and fall back to where we started anyway. If we want to build our own nontraditional brand of spirituality, we first have to listen to what the Hierophant tells us about the meaning of faith within tradition. After all, he knows more than you do about this sort of thing. He’s been doing it for a long, long time.
*I just realized, oddly enough, that I suggest this exact approach in my post about another card that is normally considered to be the polar opposite of the Hierophant, at least as far as morality is concerned – the Devil. It just goes to show that morality is not set in stone, nor should it be, which is one more reason why I struggle with traditional religion. Context is key.
**My soul will not be institutionalized. I have both consciously and unconsciously rebelled against the Institution my entire life (often to my detriment, I’ve realized in retrospect, but I cannot be barred from who I am). This is largely why Pollack’s comment about the Hierophant was so difficult for me to digest.