Ottonelli’sstorywas a fiction, but the mobile institution of conversion brought by the Jesuits to Venice in the sixteenth century was not. The real-world conversion process of the Spiritual Exercises, which played a crucial role but only received a brief mention in Ottonelli’s narrative, emerges in the present moment from a collage of stitched-together historical records produced by different Jesuits at different times in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Conversion worked by deconstructing an individual’s perception of the self in the world and then reconstructing that individual via an awakening of his or her sense organs, thereby creating the possibility for a new life to emerge through a new sensational grasp of the world and the individual’s place within it. As the primary motor of Jesuit conversion, the Spiritual Exercises instigated an affective turn within those it sought to convert as it guided individuals to a new subjective orientation through a sequence of meditations. Meditation had for a long time played a significant role in the individual’s practice of Christianity. Augustine in the fifth century and Anselm in the eleventh utilized meditation as a means for bridging the realms of the profane (knowledge of earthly things) and the sacred (knowledge of God). Meditation was for devout early Christians a practice used to strengthen faith. Loyola, however, made crucial interventions into this historical lineage of meditation. He removed meditation from the monastery and brought it to the streets; it became available not just to holy figures such as St Augustine and St Anselm but also to the common person.31
Ignatius Loyola defined the Spiritual Exercises in the eponymous text, written between 1522 and 1524:
By the term “Spiritual Exercises” is meant every method of examination of conscience, of meditation, of contemplation, of vocal and mental prayer, and of other spiritual activities that will be mentioned later. For just as taking a walk, journeying on foot, and running are bodily exercises, so we call Spiritual Exercises every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul. (de Loyola 1)
The Arch-Jesuit modeled the Exercises on his own conversion, which had led him into his spiritual life and away from his early days as a soldier in Spain’s Basque country. After receiving a leg wound in a battle, Loyola spent a great of deal of time in recovery and read about the lives of the saints and the life of Jesus Christ. O’Malley has described the point of no return for Loyola, whose battle wounds portended a life within the Church:
In his imagination [... ] he debated for a long time the alternatives of continuing according to his former path, even with his limp, or of turning completely from it to the patterns exemplified especially by Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Dominic. He found that when he entertained the first alternative he was afterward left dry and agitated in spirit, whereas the second brought him serenity and comfort. By thus consulting his inner experience, he gradually came to the conviction that God was speaking to him through it, and he resolved to begin an entirely new life. This process by which he arrived at his decision became a distinctive feature of the way he would continue to govern himself and became a paradigm of what he would teach to others. (O’Malley S.J. 24)
O’Malley’s passage points to the primary importance of inner motion within the Spiritual Exercises, derived from Loyola’s own interior deliberations. The phrase “to govern himself’ also stands out insofar as it points to the underlying theme of the Exercises, namely, the development of a strict self-discipline that could conduct the individual to God.
By the time Loyola refined his personal experience into a technique for others to follow, the Spiritual Exercises had four parts, each occupying roughly one week’s span:
[T]he first part, which is devoted to the consideration and contemplation of sin; the second part, which is taken up with the life of Christ our Lord up to Palm Sunday inclusive; the third part, which treats of the passions of Christ our Lord; the fourth part, which deals with the Resurrection and Ascension. (de Loyola 2)
Thus, the exercitant (he or she who enacted the Exercises) occupied his or herself with a deep contemplation of Christ’s life. The aim was to learn how to represent this life as best one could, to consider the decisions Jesus had to make, and to learn how to make such decisions for oneself. Loyola and all his followers trained themselves how best to imitate Christ and then became the guides who led the exercitants through the four-week program of spiritual renewal.32
To learn how to imitate Christ, the exercitant had to discover a new rationality by way of an emotional reawakening. It was not enough to know of Christ or to know the facts of his life. The challenge of Loyola’s program was to become aware of the movements of the soul and the emotions within the body’s interior. Discerning the movement of the soul would allow an individual to surmount the obstacles of “fallacious reasoning” placed within the individual by evil spirits. O’Malley writes that the text of the Exercises:
manifests that the engaging of powerful emotions like grief, fear, horror, compunction, compassion, contentment, admiration, gratitude, wonder, joy, and especially love is the final and foreseen outcome of its various meditations and contemplations, especially the more climactic ones. The individual should feel bestirred ‘by great feeling’—and at appropriate moments moved even to tears. (O’Malley S.J. 41)
Tears, as mentioned above, were crucial to the process since they became material signs of the stirring of the soul. Thus, through emotional response to specific scenes of contemplation, the individual undergoing the Exercises would begin to awaken a new sense of self and the spiritual guide could follow the process of awakening by monitoring the external signs of the exercitant’s internal movement.
Proof of the emergence of a new sense of self in the many people who underwent the Exercises comes from the meticulous records kept by Juan de Polanco S.J., Loyola’s secretary and early archivist of the Jesuits’ worldly deeds. His Chronicon yields numerous case studies of interest to the current analysis of the affective force of the Spiritual Exercises. Here is one example, a record from the opening of a Jesuit school at Tivoli in 1550:
There was a woman of a prestigious family and a religious [monk] of the Third Order of St. Francis who gave the Society a garden with a cottage right inside the city. Her name was Lucia Cynthia. A certain nephew of this Lucia got into a quarrel with other people, and his blood relatives wanted to get him out of town, so they brought him to Father Miguel and asked him to try to convert him and keep him at [our] house till the tumult cooled down. Miguel agreed to this proposal and decided to help him through the Spiritual Exercises. In a few days he was so changed into another person that it was regarded as a miracle. (de Polanco 119)
How did the Jesuits perform such miracles? What were the specific steps that led one to the creation of a new self, such as Father Miguel’s exercitant in the passage above?
One procedure at the heart of such “miracles” was the “mental representation of place” that occurred throughout the four weeks of the Exercises. Loyola mentioned this for the first time in the first prelude ofthe first exercise:
Attention must be called to the following point. When the contemplation or meditation is on something visible, for example, when we contemplate Christ our Lord, the representation will consist in seeing in imagination the material place where the object is that we wish to contemplate. I said the material place, for example, the temple, or the mountains where Jesus or His Mother is, according to the subject matter of the contemplation. (de Loyola 28)
When engaged in the mental representation of place, the exercitant practiced the skill of moving a thought or image from the interior of one’s self to the exterior. He or she had to learn to make his or her thoughts materialize in the world. Once out, the thoughts produced a space of imagination (spatium imaginarium) populated by people and objects with which the exercitant interacted.33 If a person was the object of the contemplation, then that person really existed. “The colloquy,” as Loyola called the interaction with these material thoughts, “[was] made by speaking exactly as one friend speaks to another, or as a servant speaks to a master, now asking him for favor, now blaming himself for some misdeed, now making known his affairs to him, and seeking advice in them” (28).
These mental representations of place stimulated the eyes, ears, olfactory systems and senses of taste. In the first prelude of the fifth exercise, one had to “see in the imagination the length, breadth, and depth of hell.” From there the spectator zoomed in to find “the vast fires, and the souls enclosed, as it were, in bodies of fire.” The exercitant had to “hear the wailing, the howling, cries, and blasphemies against Christ our Lord and against His saints.” Then, “[w]ith the sense of smell to perceive the smoke, the sulphur, the filth, and corruption. ” Finally, the goal was to “taste the bitterness of tears, sadness, and remorse of conscience” (32).
Polanco’s Chronicon tallied the successes of this method of self-awakening. Commenting on the achievements of the Exercises in Valencia in 1555, he wrote:
The Spiritual Exercises were presented to so many people that our college was never without someone making them, and sometimes three or four people at the same time. When some people departed, others took their places. Of this number there were hardly one or two who did not set their hearts on entering a more perfect state of life. (de Polanco 388)
As early as 1541, he recorded that:
Father [Pierre] Favre was at Worms and from there traveled to Speyer and finally to Regensburg, accompanying the court of Charles V. He did no preaching, but accomplished so much by the ministry of the sacraments of penance and the Eucharist, by holding private conversations, and, most important of all, by giving the Spiritual Exercises that Germans as well as Italians and Spaniards, even men outstanding for their authority, dignity, nobility, and learning, exerted themselves to change their lives. Some among them helped others through the same Spiritual Exercises. Among the others, [John] Cochlaeus stood preeminent for his fervor. As he used to say, he rejoiced that teachers of affectivity had been found. (9-10)
As “teachers of affectivity,” the Jesuits gained access to numerous cities and many individuals. This was the means by which they accomplished their mission of guiding the flock back into the Church.
It is within these boundaries of affectivity and action that the theatrical dimension of the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises becomes intelligible. The four- week program begins with an entrance that the individual exercitant performs by turning in on himself or, rarely, herself, toward a spiritual retreat. The entrance deposits the subject in an abyss that begins to gain texture through a gradual refashioning of the senses. Each sense acts like a searchlight with which the exercitant trawls the abyss. The lights detect movements in the dark and, once illuminated, each movement reveals a type of terrain in which objects, figures, and scenarios dance about. Through the mental representation of place, those terrains and their inhabitants (the same terrains and inhabitants that ostensibly populated Christ’s life) reveal the dark abyss as a navigable geography where the exercitant can hold conversations (the colloquy) and meditate on the new space taking shape. Each dialogue and meditation adds detail to the geography of the exerci- tant’s interior, and by exploring that space the individual will eventually discover a new self, one that has been locked away in the abyss and deprived of light. This discovery marks the end of the exercises and the beginning of the next trial during which the exercitant returns in the form of the new self discovered during internal examination. If the individual becomes disoriented in the outer world or led astray by the powerful force of, say, popular theatrical representation, he or she can return to the interior theatre and reorient himself or herself. The interior space of the retreat is a stage on which to rehearse exterior action in the theatre of the world.
What one does not find when charting the inner abyss is equally as important as what one finds. That is, the Spiritual Exercises reveal the superfluity of certain objects, figures, and scenarios that unfold in an individual’s daily life. Those objects are superfluous if they do not also appear in the interior. This is the meaning of Ignatius Loyola’s statement that the Spiritual Exercises is a way of “preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments” (de Loyola 1). Just as the terrestrial world becomes displaced as an exterior in relation to the interior of the Church and the interior of the theatre of the world, the spiritual retreat instigates a further displacement. When the interior of the soul has been mapped and the senses trained to all of its movements, that map is superimposed on the outer world. If the maps do not match, then the individual has to trim the excesses from the exterior map in order to make it harmonize with the inner geography discerned through the Exercises. The theatre of the world and the theatre within the individual must at all times bear strict resemblance.
Is this what Ottonelli had in mind when he stated that, “life was decided upon to be something like a scenic Representation, or a theatrical spectacle, something one might call a play” (la vita humana fugiudicata esser tale, che paragonar si poteva ad una scenica Rappresentatione, e spettacolo theatrale, con appellarla Comedia)? To answer this question, it is necessary to re-translate “Comedia” so as to replace the all-encompassing “play” with the more specific “comedy,” as in the humorous genre historians might trace back to the Ancient Greek кюц 5^a. In other words, an unintentional consequence rendered by the perspective of a virtuous actor within the theatre of the world described above is that life becomes a comedy. The distinction of genre does not point to a binary opposition of comedy/tragedy, but rather to a distinction between comedy and shame. Life is a comedy for those who, like his scenic priest, have confronted the error of their ways and have created for themselves a new character of truth. The man or woman who has successfully transformed his or her subjectivity through the help of the Spiritual Exercises, like all of the people recorded in Polanco’s Chronicon, can live a life free of shame knowing that he or she is acting in accordance with God.
Slavoj Zizek and his discussion of the “comedy of incarnation” in The Parallax View provide further explanation:
Thus comedy is the very opposite of shame: shame endeavors to maintain the veil, while comedy relies on the gesture of unveiling. More to the point, the comic effect proper occurs when, after the act of unveiling, we confront the ridicule of the nullity of the unveiled content: in contrast to the pathetic scene of encountering, behind the veil, the terrifying Thing, too traumatic for our gaze, the ultimate comical effect occurs when, after removing the mask, we confront exactly the same face
as the one on the mask. (Zizek 109)
Zizek’s definition of comedy relies on a parallax shift in the play between difference and sameness. The properly comical occurs when, “instead of a hidden terrifying secret, we encounter the same thing behind the veil as in front of it, this very lack of difference between the two elements confronts us with the ‘pure’ difference that separates an element from itself” (109).
Returning one last time to the scenic priest, I argue that his production of a true character (personaggio di vero) is properly comical. The moment of doubt that arises within Ottonelli’s scenic priest when he receives illumination from God and becomes aware that he has strayed from his proper path can therefore be captioned with the question: How am I not myself? How has it come to be that I, a priest, have become something other than my true self? The process of spiritual conquest that the priest undergoes to solve this riddle reveals the pure difference structuring his own self. After he retrains his senses through the affective turn of the Exercises and lifts the veil on himself, he does not find a different person behind that veil and within the darkness of the abyss. The priest lifts the veil and finds himself, his true self, and he begins to embody his own self anew by means of the true character that appears on the pulpit in front of the congregation. After all, both before and after the experience of the Spiritual Exercises, Ottonelli refers to him as the “Sacerdote scenico.” The realization of the difference between the scenic priest before the Exercises and the scenic priest after the Exercises is the revelation of the pure difference within the priest, the fact that the priest sees himself to be himself and not himself. Ultimately, God will mark the correct self, as Barthes makes clear: “In the Ignatian system, paradigms are given by the discernment, but only God can mark them: the generator of meaning, but not its preparer, He is, structurally, the Marker, he who imparts a difference.” That is, the exercitant must not elect one or the other self but, instead, “offer for the divine mark a perfectly equal alternative.” As such, he will proceed through the comedy of life with this divided self (Barthes 72).
Herein lies the dialectic of discipline and excess within the Jesuit process of conversion epitomized in the Exercises and demonstrated in Ottonelli’s parable. When the individual enacts a spiritual retreat and begins the process of charting the interior abyss, and when he leaves the old self for the new, the vanquished self never goes away completely. Ottonelli’s priest cannot completely excise his past as a lover of theatrical representations and an occasional amateur actor. Instead, the priest has to keep that part of his self on hand as an excess of self that perpetually reminds the priest of the reason for his renewed self-discipline. When the priest takes to the pulpit and performs his dramatic transformation of subjectivity, he lifts off the mask as scenic priest to reveal the face beneath it as ... a scenic priest. This true character is that to which the priest returns, but his virtuous acting will always prove itself by, at each moment of the day and on the occasion of each case of conscience, never lapsing into the bad, mimic representation that characterized the priest before his conversion. Here the final meaning of “scenic priest” announces itself. Once inside the theatre of the world and once acting upon the stage as a virtuous actor, the priest performs for an audience of One. That audience member, God himself, views the priest enscened within the world. The priest sees himself from this perspective as an actor whose role is to walk well clear of the line between bad (mimetic, charlatan, lascivious) actor and good (virtuous, true) actor, fully ensconced within the teatro del mondo, knowing that he acts for the pleasure of his One audience member. The discovery of his true character is a discovery of being seen or discerned by God.
For all those who have strayed, the Spiritual Exercises presents an opportunity to develop a true character. This character emerges from an act of unmasking the self to reveal the (true) self, that self that can act in accordance with God instead of acting out(side) of the Jesuit teatro del mondo. How am I not myself? In two ways. First, realizing I am not myself is the pivotal moment that instigates the folding into retreat. Second, after conversion, I am not myself by choosing to be this true character, which includes the responsibility of keeping my old self on hand as the example of how not to act. I vanquish the self in order to cultivate the self within the theatre of the world: here one senses the logic, or disjunctive syllogism, supporting Jesuit conversion. The comedy unfolds within the Jesuit theatre for the benefit of its One audience member. The cast is a complex unity of virtuous actors, culled from the stray sheep that wandered away from the flock but each on its own accord has refolded into the interior of the Church.
Ottonelli’s Della Christiana Moderatione reveals that Jesuit theatre is in actuality an ethical code of living in accordance with the Church: “That with which God is concerned [... ] is that it is not the character we represent, but how we represent it and that we represent it well. This is our obligation” (Ottonelli 356). For all the dramatic flair in the story about the scenic priest, the true character the priest discovers is less important than the life he will produce from the moment of his conversion to the moment of his death. The “excesses” that Ottonelli mentions in the subtitle to his book (Per avvisare agni Christiano a moderarsi dagli eccessi nel recitare [In order to advise each Christian to moderate the excesses of recitation]) refer to the excesses of the self that become visible through the enactment of the Spiritual Exercises and that one always keeps on hand as a reminder of the improper mode of life. It is the job of each Christian to moderate these excesses of the self. Far from decrying the obscenity of all theatrical representations, Ottonelli sets guidelines for cultivating a true representation that will bring the sheep back within the flock (thus revealing the terrestrial world as literally ob-scene [exterior to the true scene in the theatre of the world]) each sheep acting in unison and following the Jesuit exhortation to depart from desolation in order to dwell in the Consolation of Christ’s Love.