Visualizing Easter

24 April 2011

Easter Sunday


An unsigned illustration from Bible Primer: New Testament, by Adolf Hult, Rock Island, Illinois, 1920; this is a book that belonged to my maternal grandmother.

The other kind of visualization

Last year in Virtuoso of Visualization I discussed the innovative visual aids employed by Hans Rosling to better explain complex economic issues. In several other posts I have discussed spatiality, especially in relation to fractals, which also involves the use of visual aids to better understanding (for example, in Fractals and the Banach-Tarski Paradox). In these discussions, visualization means employing geometrical intuition as an aid in the exposition of an idea. We are, after all, highly visually-oriented organisms, so that an appeal through visualization is more likely to be effective that any appeal that neglects the role of images in our thinking.

However, to speak of visualization simpliciter, without further qualification, risks misunderstanding because of the role that visualization has come to have in popular culture. I have been using “visualization” in a sense almost entirely divorced from the significance of the term in popular culture, but today I want to invoke this other sense of visualization.

The other kind of visualization, sometimes called creative visualization, has a book devoted to it, Creative Visualization: Use the Power of Your Imagination to Create What You Want in Your Life by Shakti Gawain, who describes creative visualization in this way:

“Creative visualization is magic in the truest and highest meaning of the word. It involves understanding and aligning yourself with the natural principles that govern the workings of our universe, and learning to use these principles in the most conscious and creative way.”

On a more practical level, the Wikipedia article on creative visualization characterizes it in this way:

“Creative visualization is the technique of using one’s imagination to visualize specific behaviors or events occurring in one’s life.”

The Wikipedia article cites Wallace Wattles (1860–1911) and his book The Science of Getting Rich as am important antecedent to creative visualization as it is known today. However, we can go back much farther than that.

Early modern visualization

We can go back, in fact, to the earliest part of the early modern period in European history, and particularly we should consider the work of Ignatius Loyala, Spiritual Exercises.

Loyala’s Spiritual Exercises is one of the most remarkable texts from the western religious tradition. It is essentially a handbook for spiritual directors to guide the meditations of those of whom they have charge. The Spiritual Exercises have all the concrete detail and specificity that we expect from creative visualization. In the Fifth Meditation of the First Week the saint tells us in detail how to imagine “the length, breadth, and depth of hell.”

I suspect that these spiritual exercises are quite effective if followed faithfully. The saint, before he was a saint, was a military man, and no doubt of a practical, concrete turn of mind. Exercises like this helped him, and those whose spiritual development he influenced, to focus on practical, concrete images of religious devotion. It is a bit like the visions of Julian of Norwich shorn of the mystical accretions.

The religious life of Ignatius Loyola is sometimes referred to as an intensely interior spirituality. He shares this quality with this contemporary, Saint Teresa of Avila. One of her many books is called The Interior Castle, and it too gives detailed, concrete images to religious meditation. These two saints are sometimes treated as exemplars of saintly, selfless piety, but we already see in these texts — the Spiritual Exercises and The Interior Castle — is the emergence of a robust inner life that is the condition for the emergence of individuality — that distinction non-institutional institution of Western civilization.

Descartes, who died almost exactly a hundred years after Ignatius Loyola died, and who is widely seen as a philosophical exemplar of individualism, proving the existence of the world entire on the basis of his subjective assertion cogito ergo sum, attended a Jesuit school. It is tempting to suppose that Descartes, while in school, was directed through a course of spiritual meditation based on the Spiritual Exercises. In the philosophical works of Descartes, especially the early Rules for the Direction of Mind — which we might call, analogously to Saint Ignatius Loyola, Intellectual Exercises — we find the same orientation to interiority and the same careful, methodical approach.

It was the keen, poignant subjectivity of figures like Saint Teresa and Saint Ignatius Loyola that laid the groundwork and made possible the rigorous subjectivity of Descartes. Philosophical individualism has its roots in an intense devotional individualism, conceived selflessly, but individualistic in effect.

A guided meditation on Easter

Ignatius Loyola’s suggestions for the visualization of Easter do not appear until near the end of his Spiritual Exercises, and thus due to its handbook-like character, the instructions are much less detailed than we find in the earlier sections of the book. If we take the earlier part of the book as our guide — which is certainly what its author intended — it is not difficult to fill in the details ourselves. Indeed, the saint himself wrote:

“In the following Contemplations let one go on through all the Mysteries of the Resurrection, in the manner which follows below, up to the Ascension inclusive, taking and keeping in the rest the same form and manner in all the Week of the Resurrection which was taken in all the Week of the Passion.”

So it is the “form and manner” that we derive from the earlier meditations, and if we follow this method — what we might call, analogously to Descartes, Rules for the Direction of Spirit — we will arrive at a concrete and detailed appreciation of the Resurrection no less than of any other events not directly accessible to us.

Descartes is well known for his negative view of history. In his Discourse on the Method for Rightly Conducting the Reason and Seeking for Truth in the Sciences (usually simply called the Discourse on Method) Descartes wrote:

“…I believed I had already given enough time to languages and even to reading ancient books as well, and to their histories and stories. For talking with those from other ages is almost the same as traveling. It is good to know something about the customs of various people, so that we can judge our own more sensibly and do not think everything different from our own ways ridiculous and irrational, as those who have seen nothing are accustomed to do. But when one spends too much time traveling, one finally becomes a stranger in one’s own country, and when one is too curious about things which went on in past ages, one usually lives in considerable ignorance about what goes on in this one. In addition, fables make us imagine several totally impossible events as possible, and even the most faithful histories, if they neither change nor increase the importance of things to make them more worth reading, at the very least almost always omit the most menial and less admirable circumstances, with the result that what is left in does not depict the truth. Hence, those who regulate their habits by the examples which they derive from these histories are prone to fall into the extravagances of the knights of our romances and to dream up projects which exceed their powers.”

It is remarkable how Descartes’ criticism of traditional historiography should take the form of noting the absence of “the most menial and less admirable circumstances,” which is precisely what the recent movement determined to write history “from the bottom up” has attempted to address. The implicit Cartesian historiography that would emerge from addressing Descartes’ criticisms would also presumably embody the interiority and subjectivity that marked Cartesian thought, and which seems to fall in the same tradition as the intense interiority of Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila.

In several posts (for example, The End of the End of the World) I have mentioned Collingwood’s conception of an a priori historical imagination, which is, in Collingwood’s words, an “activity which, bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity.” This exercise of the a priori historical imagination, in a devotional rather than in an historical context, which what Ignatius Loyola was formulating in his Spiritual Exercises, and it embodies the implicit historiography of Cartesianism.

In a more mundane and familiar context, images furnish a point of departure for imagination to provide the individual a window with which to view of the past. Icons are just such images for specifically devotional contexts. Clark in his Civilisation: A Personal View, remarked that the Middle Ages constituted a Civilization of the Image, which was in time superseded in northern Europe by a Civilization of the Word, which began in an orgy of iconoclasm. In the early modern period, Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila still belonged unambiguously to the Civilization of the Image, and it is by way of the appropriation of the image that interiority is directed to the outer world, as it is through the creation of images that world is in turn subordinated to the interiority of the soul.

Interiority and exteriority exist in a relationship of escalating co-evolution, so that subjectivity must supplement the world as much as the world must supplement subjectivity.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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