Jan 27 2014 – Spaces of Conversion and the Conversion of Space


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“Here Begins the Life of Llocllay Huancupa. In What Follows, We Shall Also Write about Its End”

Huarochiri Document

Ignatius of Loyola “Autobiography”

Loyola Autobiography


  • Read chapter 3 of Ignatius of Loyola’s Acts, aka “Autobiography.”
  • Read chapter 20-1 of the Huarochirì manuscript.
  • Besides the major differences, try to identify – if possible – the analogies between these narratives of self-transformation by keeping some of the following questions in mind:

What is the role played by the Serpent or the huaca Llocllay Huancupa in the lives of Ignatius and Cristobàl respectively?

How is the role played by this “supernatural character” supposed to be interpreted? What are the traditional (e.g. Scriptural) and/or folkloric sources of these episodes?

What other kind of characters intervene in the process of transformation endured by Ignatius and Cristobàl respectively? How is the selection of these characters supposed to be interpreted?

What role do places play in these conversion narratives? How is the process of conversion linked with the displacement of the main characters?

What is the point of view of each narrator in retelling their experience of conversion and potential apostasy?

If constantly threatened by external demonic forces, how is the process of conversion characterized in these two narratives?

How are the two stories told? Who is the narrator and what is this narrator’s point of view? From which perspective is the story told?

What is the language used to retell the experience of conversion? What kind of affiliations (e.g. intellectual, political, religious) does the word-choice betray?

What kind of movements or physical gestures are associated with the process of transformation? What do these choices entail?

Is there a similar “spirituality” behind the conversion narratives of Ignatius and Cristobàl? How can these analogies be explained?

What does the case of textual narratives of self-transformation teach us about conversion in general?


(Hopefully) Inspiring quotations:

  1. “To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold upon religious realities. This at least is what conversion signifies in general terms, whether or not we believe that a direct divine operation is needed to bring such a moral change about”.

William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience, 164

  1. “In short, I hold that there is no privilege to myth or other religious materials. They must be understood primarily as texts in contexts, specific acts of communication between specified individuals, at specific points in time and space, about specifiable subjects”.

Jonathan Z. Smith. Imagining Religion, xiii

  1. “Ritual relies for its power on the fact that it is concerned with quite ordinary activities placed within an extraordinary setting, that what it describes and displays is, in principle, possible for every occurrence of these acts. But it also relies for its power on the perceived fact that, in actuality, such possibilities cannot be realized”.

Jonathan Z. Smith. To Take Place, 109

  1. “But it is also true- and this is the process I want to investigate in this book – that a particular identity may be acted out in the very performance of the conversion narrative. In other words, I want to suggest that the conversion works in much the same way any ritual works: a ritual creates a particular social reality; in the case of the conversion the social reality is a particular identity”

Peter G. Stromberg, Language and Self- Transformation, 16

  1. “La conversion en tant qu’elle est “spirituellement” vecue est, et n’est pas autre chose que l’articulation, dans une dialectique de l’heteronomie et de l’autonomie, de l’ “etre converti” et du “se convertir”, des multiples determinations qui la provoquent et dont la formulation meme du phenomene produit l’unification”.

Pierre-Antoine Fabre, “Sciences Sociales et Histoire de la Spiritualitè Moderne”, 41

More (hopefully) inspirational quotations.

‘Thinking about conversion as a passage, and about passage as more than syncretism or breach, suggests a further dimension to conversion, a quest for human belonging.’

– Diane Austin-Boos Intro Anthropology of religious conversion.

‘The temples in that nation ought not to be destroyed; but let the idols that are in them be destroyed… For there is no doubt that it is impossible to efface everything at once from their obdurate minds; because he who endeavours to ascend to the highest places, rises by degrees or steps, and not by leaps’.

– Pope Gregory I to Abbot Mellitus proselytizing still pagan Britain in 7th

‘This violence of landscape, this cruelty of climate, this continual tension in everything, and even these monuments of the past, magnificent yet incomprehensible because not built by us and yet standing round us like lovely mute ghosts; all those rulers who landed by main force from every direction who were at once obeyed, soon detested, and always misunderstood, their only expressions works of art we couldn’t understand and taxes which we understood only too well and which they spent elsewhere: all these things have formed our character, which is thus conditioned by events outside our control as well as by a terrifying insularity of mind.’

– The Prince of Salina in Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The Leopard

‘…indigenous people who performed the dramas, playing the parts of sacred beings and interpreting Christian narratives for their fellow Nahuas. This was a very different mode of behaviour from passively listening to a priest’s homilies or uttering prayers in home or chapel. Theatre engages two realities simultaneously: the pretend world of the characters and script, which in religious theatre mirrors a world of gods and saints who to the believers are very real, and the everyday world beyond the stage, from which actors and audience are partially and fleetingly removed. Juxtaposed in this way, these two realities cannot help but enter into dialectical relationship: the world within the theatrical frame is seen in terms of the world outside, and vice versa. As Victor Turner states, ritual and theatrical performances ‘act as a reflexive metacommentary on the life of their times, feeding on it and assigning meaning to its decisive public and cumulative private events’. The audiences of colonial Nahuatl plays surely interpreted what they saw not only with respect to the imported Christian stories but also with respect to their own lives and the events of their time.’

Theatre of Conversion: Holy Wednesday: Nahua drama from early colonial Mexico -Louise M. Burkhart, university of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.