Loyola’s “Autobiography”

Dr. Matteo Soranzo

January 27 2014

Spaces of Conversion and Conversion of Spaces in Loyola’s “Autobiography”

“There is, then, a sacred space, and hence a strong, significant space; there are other spaces that are not sacred and so are without structure or consistency, amorphous. Nor is this all. For religious man, this spatial non-homogeneity finds expression in the experience of an opposition between space that is sacred – the only real and really existing space – and all other space, the formless expanse surrounding it”.

In 1959, three years after his arrival at the University of Chicago and at the peak of his career as a philosopher, fiction writer and historian of religion, Mircea Eliade published the English translation of The Sacred and the Profane. The Nature of Religion – an influential book, tinged with subtle existential nuances, which defines the experience of the sacred as the object of academic research in the history of religion. Since the year of its publication, Eliade’s work has been the object of countless and often pertinent critiques, which regarded the author’s rare use of field research to his peculiar form of ethnocentric essentialism, that detractors often ascribed to a dubious political past. The quotation which I chose to start off this afternoon’s conversation, however, is meant to be an invitation to think about “conversion”, and of “religion” in general in a way that challenges the doctrinal, confessional and disciplinary boundaries often used to frame these concepts and their scholarly investigation. Whether we share his conclusions or not, I believe, Eliade’s discussion of how different cultures convert shapeless, profane spaces into sacred places is a bold attempt at coming to terms with problems that – as the picture illustrates – still haunt our modern, industrialized and secular societies; even our own city! Eliade’s controversial notion of “the sacred”, in this sense, somehow epitomizes the direction and the problems that Ben, Jose Juan and myself have embraced and encountered as a group, warning as it does against drawing sharp boundaries between topics as disparate as early modern spirituality, colonial identities in Peru and Mexico, and the art of porcelain.

The reason why I decided to share a chapter from Ignatius of Loyola’s so-called “Autobiography” with the group today is the way this text constructs conversion both as a narrative account and a concept. Personally dictated toward the end of Ignatius’ life, partially edited by one of his closest collaborators and printed only in recent times, the Acts – as Ignatius referred to his account of how God’s actions manifested in his life – this text is organized into a series of sections, each corresponding to a place that defined a phase in the protagonist’s life. From Pamplona to Manresa, from Jerusalem to Paris, from Salamanca to Rome, Ignatius’ spiritual development unfolds against a series of places, which play an active role in shaping the protagonist’s soul together with the reader’s understanding of his story. Each place, moreover, provides a sort of dramatic scene for the series of transformations that form Ignatius’ conversion narrative, from the first, life-changing moment after the siege of Pamplona, to the series of trials and tribulations Ignatius had to endure on his way to Rome, and thus spiritual perfection. In other words, the structure of Ignatius’ narrative of spiritual transformation– I would like to suggest – is centered on a series of precise places, thus recalling the central technique taught in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises, that is, the “composition of place”. The reader of the “Autobiography”, in other words, is asked to project Ignatius’ deeds against the backdrop of existing places, much like in the Spiritual Exercises the director asks the retraitant to visualize the physical setting of Scriptural episodes. From a narrative point of view, to sum up, Ignatius’ autobiography consists of a list of precisely designated places, which the reader progressively populates with the crucial moments in the protagonist’s spiritual growth.

At a more abstract level, moreover, the text – as I hope our conversation will be able to further disclose – tells us something about conversion in general. Rather than taking place once and for all, for example, Ignatius’ “Autobiography” constructs spiritual transformation as a lifelong battle against omnipresent angelic and demonic spirits, which intermittently haunt, support, deviate, guide and generally require Ignatius – and thus the reader – to disentangle a knot of coexisting contrasting forces. Instead of the solitary, individual “experience” taking place in the self so beautifully discussed in William James’ Varietis of Religious Experience, moreover, Ignatius’ conversion and the constant work of “discernment” (discretio) it entails result from the dialogue between God and the protagonist, the narrator and the reader – a dialogue that mirrors the complementary figures of director and retraitant inscribed in the Spiritual Exercises. Also – and this is an aspect that our conversation will hopefully explore – conversion always takes place some-where. In other words, Ignatius’ transformations seem to take place in sacred places (e.g. Jerusalem), while other places are sacred because of Ignatius’ transformations (e.g. Manresa) – a relationship that is too complex to be left open to chance, and that might inscribe a more systematic “spiritual geography” consistent with the technique of “composition of place”.

Conversion, space, spiritual exercises, texts, sacred places, spiritual geography, religious experience, spirituality –clusters of words form and dissolve around Ignatius’ text and its pivotal role in Early Modern cultural history. And given the multidisciplinary focus of our group, I have found myself thinking about where my questions and interests belong; in other words, and to paraphrase Ignatius’s Exercises, what is the place that I need to compose to situate my interpretation of a text dealing with spiritual conversion. Rather than precise places, however, all I was able to envision are two sort of directional roadsigns.

The first sign points toward texts, conversion and experience. The structure of Ignatius’ “Autobiography” replicates social relations that are inscribed in the Spiritual Exercises, and mirrors “actual” social exchanges such as those between director and retraitant. How do these experiences relate with the text? And how can we talk about this relationship? Seminal works on conversion, in my view, dealt with this questions only naively. Take, for example, a classic such as Arthur Nock’s Conversion: the Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine of Hippo. While the selection of texts discussed in this book is impeccable and the historical narrative it offered is still inspiring, Nock addresses conversion – in light of William James’ philosophy of religion – as an “experience” and take texts as reliable representations of that experience.[1] Scholars, of course, have covered a lot of ground since Nock’s groundbreaking volume and developed new and more sophisticated approaches to conversion and its written codifications. A radical product of the “linguistic turn” in scholarship on conversion, for example, is Peter Stromberg’s Language and Self-Transformation – a fascinating book indeed that, based on a quantitative analysis of conversion narratives produced by born again Evangelicals argue that conversion narratives and the experience of conversion are one and the same thing, as their recitation allows the subject to situate him/herself within the canonical language of the newly embraced faith.[2] Pace Nock, therefore, it seems that most of scholars nowadays would agree with the post-structualist assummption that there is no experience outside of discourse, and that, with or without Stromberg, this also applies to conversion. But what about the kind of social relation that Ignatius’ texts assume and elicit? How can these social dynamics be brought back into the study of conversion?

The second sign points away from, or toward but after a long detour from, spirituality– a controversial term, which has often been used loosely and is finally become the object of scholarly scrutiny. Leaving aside seminal works such as Henri Bremond’s Histoire litteraire du sentiment religieux en France, which for its length and complexity would deserve a special treatment, it can be said that spirituality has been generally addressed in three distinct ways. The first, which can be observed – for instance – in works such as le Dictionaire de spiritualité printed between 1931 and 1995, is rooted in, and limited to, the texts produced within a specific religious confession and theological tradition.[3] The second, which can be observed – for instance – in the Dizionario degli Istituti di Perfezione printed in 2003, focuses on the institutional and administrative aspects of, for example, congregations and monastic orders with scarce interest for a “spiritual dimension”, which is tacitly deemed as precluded to scholarly investigation. A third and less easily identifiable approach is found in works of scholars such as Marc Fumaroli, whose interests are animated by a personal and widely erudite fascination for Catholic spirituality, rather than clearly stated scientific premises. It is in response to these three trends, however, that a fourth and promising avenue of inquiry has emerged from the work of Pierre-Antoine Fabre, who has recently set the stage for a theoretically informed social history of spiritual practices. Fabre’s directives are proving particularly relevant for the kind of material that I have been examining and for the broader purposes of my investigation.[4]

In a nutshell, Fabre has started his project of a social history of spirituality precisely from an investigation of Ignatius’ “composition of space”. According to Fabre, Ignatius’ instruction for the composition of space are intentionally puzzling: the retraitant is asked to freely compose a place disconnected from people who, however, must inhabit it because of the authority attributed to Scriptures.[5] This aporia, according to Fabre, cannot be resolved within the text and – as Ignatius himself states in the brief “Presupposition” that opens the Exercises – calls for a spiritual conversation between director and directed; a “spiritual scene”, that is, which is taken to epitomize a broader problem articulated into two questions, that is, 1. through what kind of form of thought the same individuals were able to develop their own genius, while subjecting their conducts to a set of given rules? 2. How this form of thought can be taken away from what has traditionally been called “spirituality” and merged into a broader inquiry into the formation of Early Modern subjectivities?[6] These questions, which are also relevant for the “Autobiography”, call for an investigation of spirituality in the broader context of early modern cultural practices, which would allow me to compare my findings with those discussed by Benjamin and, as you will see in a minute, Jose Juan.

Let me thus get to a brief conclusion. In 1982, in the introduction of his groundbreaking Imagining Religion from Babylon to Jonestown – a book that is also an intelligent critique of Eliade and his legacy – Jonathan Smith has summarized his approach to religious history; an approach that has innovatively, and self-critically shifted the focus from Eliade’s study of religion as the understanding of the “experience of the sacred”, to the rational investigation of human activities, which historical agents and scholars alike have ascribed to a domain that, under specific circumstances, is envisioned as religious. As Smith himself has put it:

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.


Personally, I have found Smith’s teachings essential for bringing my interest in Ignatius’ take on spiritual transformation in a dialogue with the work of Jose-Juan and Benjamin. If taken as “acts of communication between specified individuals”, I believe, the spaces of conversion and the conversion of spaces inscribed in Ignatius’ “Autobiography” can be productively taken away from traditional views of spirituality and discussed in the context of a broader history of early modern subjectivities as that indicated by Pierre Antoine Fabre. At this point, however, I would like to hear your input on this.

[1] Nock, Arthur D., The Old and the New in Religion from Alexander the Great to Augustine (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1933).

[2] Stromberg, Peter G., Language and Self-Transformation. A Study of the Christian Conversion Narrative (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1993).

[3] Fabre, Pierre Antoine. “Une somme de spiritualité. Sur le Dictionnaire de spiritualité (1932-1995). ” Critique 608-9 (janvier-février 1998).

[4] Fabre, Pierre Antoine. “Histoire de la spiritualité et sciences sociales. Perspectives de recherche.” Recherches de sciences religieuses 97.1 (2009): 33 – 51.

[5] Fabre, Pierre Antoine. Ignace de Loyola. Le lieu de l’image, Paris, Vrin, 1992.

[6] Fabre, Pierre Antoine. “Lire une méditation écrite. Direction spirituelle et littérature de spiritualité à travers quelques texts de Louis Richeòme (1544-1625).” Annali dell’ Instituto storico italo-germanico  de Trente (2004).