Spiritual Exercises A Christian Pedagogy

Wim Wenders's film In weiter Ferne, so nah! (Faraway, So Close), which won the Grand Prix du Jury at Cannes in 1993, opens with a quotation from Matthew's Gospel: 'if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light; but if your eye is unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness' (6.22). The film narrates the story of one angel's experience, Cassiel's. So concerned is he with humankind that he asks to become human, and his wish is granted. Separated from his angelic state and angelic company he experiences the nature of being human. He sinks into drink and despair. He prays to his angelic friend Raphaela: 'We humans are confined by what is visible, Raphaela! Only what we can see matters. It is all we believe in. Invisible things don't count. Only the things we touch truly exist for us.' The film offers a beautiful and imaginative critique of materialism along the lines of Walter Benjamin's belief that 'Materiality — but here soulless materiality' is the home of the satanic.1 Benjamin calls for a reassessment of allegory as a form of cultural critique countering that materiality which is 'emancipation from what is sacred'.2 Wim Wenders suggests something similar: we have to learn to see things otherwise — we have to remythologise.

The title for this essay bears the traces of its genealogy. With the association of allegory and spiritual reading I am interweaving my text with those medieval forms of interpretation which, drawing upon the exegetical methods of the Alexandrine School, systematised a fourfold reading of Scripture: the historical, the allegorical, the topological, and the anagogical.3 The central division was between the literal and the spiritual senses. As Aquinas

1 The Origin of German Tragic Drama, tr.John Osborne (London: New Left Books, 1977), p. 230.

2 Ibid.

3 The definitive, and exhaustive, study of this tradition belongs to Henri de Lubac. See Exégèse médiévale, les quatre sens de l'écriture, IIe partie, livre I (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1961), livre II (Paris: Aubier-Montaigne, 1964).

notes, and here he is only following in the wake of a pronounced tradition, 'Of these four, allegory alone stands for the three spiritual senses.'4 It is important for what I wish to argue for here — a Christological (and Trinitarian) understanding of materiality or phenomena — that allegory as such was intimately connected in the medieval mind with a doctrine of creation. The second discourse my title is associated with is the set of meditations composed for the training of the Jesuits by their sixteenth-century founder St Ignatius Loyola. These meditations, entitled The Spiritual Exercises,5 employ imagination as a methodical principle. The Scriptures, particularly the Gospels as they relate to the life of Christ, are not simply read: they are internalised as prayer. Reading here is not a process of decipherment and the Biblical text does not stand as an object before a subject. Reading here is a spiritual exercise; it is a form of 'touching, as being touched,' to cite the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy.6 Subject and object both possess permeable membranes, and the reading effects a displacement and a trans-positioning (in the full, rich meaning of that word). The third discourse my own text is in dialogue with is the work of the Dutch-American literary critic and theorist, Paul de Man. De Man, in 1979, published an influential volume on the work of Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke and Proust entitled Allegories of Reading.7 With the work of Paul de Man we move towards postmodern understandings of allegoria: an allegoria which returns to a reappraisal of the ancient and medieval practices of allegorical composition and interpretation after the Enlightenment and Romantic denunciation of allegory in favour of the symbolic. What I wish to argue for in this essay is a turn from the stasis of analogy and symbol (important categories for modernity) to the dynamism and semiosis of allegory. But, importantly, the semiosis of allegory is read theologically as concomitant with a doctrine of creation. For outside of such a theological reading semiosis in itself simply announces an aesthetics of nihilism — an announcement encountered many times with poststructural accounts of the free-floating sign. But the move from static atemporal discussions of analogy and symbol to allegory will lend itself to a rather different model for the hermeneutical task, one that is founded upon narrative, representation and participation and one which presents a more dynamic view of the relationship between revelation (the event of Christ), disclosure (a participation in that event), mimesis and knowledge.

4 Summa Theologiae, I.Q.1.10.

5 Tr. Thomas Corbishley S.J. (Wheathampstead: Anthony Clarke, 1973).

6 The Birth to Presence, tr. Brian Holmes et al. (Stanford University Press, 1993), p. 198.

7 Allegories of Reading: Figural Language in Rousseau, Nietzsche, Rilke, and Proust (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1979).

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