If I ask you what comes to mind when you think about tarot, there are a number of clichés you could conjure up: secret societies steeped in mystery; seedy psychic shops in strip malls of small towns with neon signs flashing “fortune teller”; teenagers slinging cards in their bedrooms and trying to figure out who they’ll marry someday; an old woman draped in shawls and smelling of incense, promising you that good fortune is just around the corner.

Many people are skeptical about tarot. But I have found a power in it that has nothing to do with popular culture’s depictions of tarot as a divinatory device or source of occult wisdom. Tarot changed my life, but I have a different story to tell.

I grew up in a Christian home, but it wasn’t a particularly settled sort of Christianity. My family often moved around, and nearly every time we moved to a new town we also moved to a new denomination. As a kid, I spent time in Presbyterian, Methodist, and Southern Baptist churches. This spiritual restlessness continued until my family made an abrupt conversion to Catholicism when I was 13 years old.

My family’s conversion to the Catholic faith was a profound spiritual turning point in my life. I fell in love with the solid rootedness of Catholicism’s tradition, and I spent my teenage years as a devout Catholic. I went to daily Mass, I read works by Augustine and Aquinas for fun, and I even considered becoming a nun. Catholicism is where I first found God, and it became the cornerstone of my spiritual life.

That cornerstone wasn’t particularly sturdy, though. As soon as I went off to college, I had a heart-shattering crisis of faith, a crisis that wasn’t even prompted by anything in particular. I simply started, for the first time in my life, to wrestle with the same questions of faith that people have wrestled with since people first started to believe in God.

I didn’t know how to hold all of these unanswered questions and still be Christian, and so I left organized religion. I stopped going to Mass on Sundays, I stopped praying, and I stopped engaging in questions of faith. It was freeing, but it was also frightening. Christianity had been the thing around which my whole life had been ordered, and I missed the absence of its gravity.

Brittany Muller with Tarot Cards
Brittany Muller with her tarot cards. Muller bought her first deck in 2015, Melanie Applegate

I bought my first tarot deck in 2015 because I was bored and restless and felt like I was spiritually drowning without that gravity of faith. I was 25 years old and mothering two sons under the age of two while my husband was busy in law school. I was struggling with the perceived loss of self that often accompanies the first years of motherhood. I also bought a tarot deck because I was, at the time, an ex-Christian who missed the intentionality of prayer but wasn’t yet ready to return to organized religion.

I quickly fell in love with how tarot scratched my itch for the ritual of religion, and how it made me feel seen. I never used tarot for divination, because I’ve never believed in divination. But I loved creating a quiet space to pull cards and sit with them. I loved getting to know characters like the Fool and the Hermit, Death and the Sun and the World. I loved registering my ever-changing reactions to these images and seeing myself, good and bad, reflected in them. Tarot helped me to know my spiritual self again. I found it was also a fine substitute for prayer, until it slowly became no longer the substitute but the substance.

The sneaky thing about tarot—the thing about tarot that folks rarely talk about—is that it’s filled with Christian imagery. This Christian imagery was something I couldn’t really ignore, given my Catholic upbringing. During a time in my life when I wanted nothing to do with Christianity—I simply refused to read Scripture, attempt prayer or to talk to a priest—I was pulling a tarot card every day and engaging with deeply theological images.

I would pull Temperance and journal about the presence of that Christian virtue in my life. I would pull the Hierophant, a Pope-like figure, and meditate on the joys and sorrows of my relationship with the institutional church. I would pull the Devil and reflect on the nature of my own particular vices. Tarot helped me to see myself more clearly, and I believe it also showed me the God-shaped hole in my life.

I returned to Christianity, specifically the Catholicism of my youth, but I did not abandon tarot. Tarot was one of the things that led me back to God, and it seemed unthinkable to leave it behind. To my mind, tarot and Christianity are a natural pair, even though their marriage might seem strange at first glance. I simply integrated tarot into my prayer practice, a seamless process that involved pulling cards with morning prayer and finding connections between the images and Scripture.

This is still how I use tarot these days. Every morning, I wake up and make coffee and pray from the Liturgy of the Hours, the universal prayer of the Catholic Church. I also pull a tarot card or two. And then I sit and reflect on how the cards I pull and the readings from my daily prayer play off each other and play off me. I might read the passage from First Corinthians about how “if any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool, that he may be wise,” and then pull the Fool, a card that, for me, symbolizes a letting go of worldly attachments to fall into the abyss of God’s love.

Or I might pray through the readings for Saint Joseph’s feast day, and connect his quiet courage and care for Mary and Jesus to the slow and steady Knight of Pentacles. Doing this every day, interpreting the tarot through the lens of Christian theology, continues to bring a welcomed contemplative intentionality into my life.

Tarot might be for occultists and fortune tellers and New Age practitioners, but I believe it is also for Christians. Tarot gave me images for my feelings when I didn’t yet have the words for them. Slowly and carefully, and almost unconsciously, it led me back to a life of faith. And it still does this, day after day, as I pull cards and pray.

Brittany Muller is the author of The Contemplative Tarot, which is out now.

All views expressed in this article are the author’s own.

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