To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and Spirit of Global Expansion, 1520-1767

To Overcome Oneself: The Jesuit Ethic and Spirit of Global Expansion, 1520-1767

by J. Michelle Molina

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To Overcome Oneself offers a novel retelling of the emergence of the Western concept of “modern self,” demonstrating how the struggle to forge a self was enmeshed in early modern Catholic missionary expansion. Examining the practices of Catholics in Europe and New Spain from the 1520s through the 1760s, the book treats Jesuit techniques of self-formation, namely spiritual exercises and confessional practices, and the relationships between spiritual directors and their subjects. Catholics on both sides of the Atlantic were folded into a dynamic that shaped new concepts of self and, in the process, fueled the global Catholic missionary movement. Molina historicizes Jesuit meditation and narrative self-reflection as modes of self-formation that would ultimately contribute to a new understanding of religion as something private and personal, thereby overturning long-held concepts of personhood, time, space, and social reality. To Overcome Oneself demonstrates that it was through embodied processes that humans have come to experience themselves as split into mind and body. Notwithstanding the self-congratulatory role assigned to “consciousness” in the Western intellectual tradition, early moderns did not think themselves into thinking selves. Rather, “the self” was forged from embodied efforts to transcend self. Yet despite a discourse that situates self as interior, the actual fuel for continued self-transformation required an object-cum-subject—someone else to transform. Two constant questions throughout the book are: Why does the effort to know and transcend self require so many others? And what can we learn about the inherent intersubjectivity of missionary colonialism?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520275652
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 06/01/2013
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 292
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

J. Michelle Molina is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at Northwestern University.

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To Overcome Oneself

The Jesuit Ethic and Spirit of Global Expansion, 1520â?"1767

By J. Michelle Molina


Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95504-2


The Jesuit Spiritual Exercises

Conquest of the Self, Conquest of the World

As Ignatius declared in the opening pages of the Spiritual Exercises, the variety of mental exercises and sage observations found in the Exercises offered an individualized technique to conquer the self and regulate one's life.

The First Explanation. By the term Spiritual Exercises we mean every method of examination of conscience, meditation, contemplation, vocal and mental prayer, and other spiritual activities, such as will be mentioned later. For, just as taking a walk, traveling on foot, and running are physical exercises, so is the name of spiritual exercises given to any means of preparing and disposing our soul to rid itself of all its disordered affections and then, after their removal, of seeking and finding God's will in the ordering of our life for the salvation of our soul.

The Jesuit Spiritual Exercises offered the individual a program of meditative prayer directed toward spiritual improvement. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatian discourse emphasizes both God's grace and human effort to cooperate with grace. To this day, Jesuits continue to describe the Exercises as a way of opening themselves to God's consoling presence in their lives, with the various techniques and meditations in the Exercises facilitating a heightened attention to God's actions. A Jesuit's deeds (or "good works") constituted an expression of gratitude for what God had done for him. Yet the timelessness of this relatively stable theological discourse belies both the Hellenistic roots of philosophical spiritual exercises more generally, and the historicity of embodied experience more specifically. One of the aims of To Overcome Oneself is to bring theology to the ground of history: What kinds of human efforts were deemed cooperative and which humans could cooperate in which ways? How did historical bodies experience the consolation that the Spiritual Exercises promised? What, in fact, was a consolatory experience? This chapter introduces the Spiritual Exercises and addresses a very particular question: how, born of techniques wrought in monastic seclusion, did the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises promote a notion of worldly mission? Notably, the formalization of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises converged with a historical moment in which Europeans were actively expanding their presence in a world only recently conceived as a globe, thus in this chapter we will begin to see how "the Indies" became an ever more important metaphor for the kinds of good works possible.


To speak of the historical importance of the Spiritual Exercises, one must nod toward the very lengthy history of spiritual practices that made them possible. To begin, Ignatius's Exercises had been adapted from earlier monastic techniques, which themselves had taken cues from Hellenistic modes of self-examination. The Jesuits would not have thought it politic to dwell upon this long history. Nadal reassured his readers that the Spiritual Exercises "contain almost nothing that cannot be found in other books: it is from the will of God that they possess the efficacy we see," asserting that the Exercises had followed "the methods handed down by the holy Doctors." The statement is vaguely apologetic. Attentive to issues of orthodoxy, was he smoothing the feathers of readers worried about "novelty" in Ignatius's guide? We might read this as Nadal's effort to put a decidedly Christian stamp on a series of techniques that had not only monastic but also clear Hellenistic precedent. In his work on the genre of "spiritual exercise," the scholar of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot interprets the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises as directly tied to a pre-Christian past. He states unequivocally that the Jesuit Exercises "are nothing but a Christian version of a Greco-Roman tradition." Scripture alone, concerned as it was with the imminent return of Christ, "could never have supplied a method for practicing these exercises." Hadot's ambivalence about the Christian tradition notwithstanding, he is correct to point out the importance of Hellenistic techniques of "attention to oneself—the essence of prosoche—[which] gave rise to a series of techniques of introspection." Where one can quibble with Hadot is in his conclusions. He ends with a cautionary note about the historical importance of Christian spiritual exercises for everyday Christians: "We must not, however, exaggerate the importance of this phenomenon.... we have said, it manifested itself only in a rather restricted circle: among Christian writers who had received a philosophical education." This is an important point: while Hadot sought to expand our notion of philosophy as a way of life, he nonetheless preferred to keep it segregated from Christian practice. The history of the Jesuit Spiritual Exercises makes this problematic, if not impossible. The Jesuit Spiritual Exercises are philosophically informed Christian practice and, as I argue in later chapters, provided the means and method through which the philosophical imperative to know oneself was taken up as a way of life by Catholic laity across the globe.

Catholic spiritual exercises (broadly construed) did not remain limited to monastic elites or those closely in their circle; scholarship on the Christian Middle Ages makes Hadot's assertion impossible to uphold. In fact, the late medieval period marked the beginnings of a move toward greater introspection and interiority and an increasing investment in now-Christianized spiritual exercises that moved well beyond their monastic beginnings. Rachel Fulton has argued this began when imitation of Christ's passion helped to remedy the disillusionment experienced when, at the end of the millennium, Christ disappointed so many with his failure to return to earth. Transferring the search for Christ inward, Fulton argues persuasively, Jesus would be found in one's heart, marking the advent of an imitation of Christ—feeling and suffering as if with Christ in his passion and death—a critical turning point in Christian piety.

Suffering with Christ became the lynchpin of late medieval imitation of the god-man. To sketch this history in strokes perhaps too broad, we can take the example of the late twelfth-century mystic, Angela of Foligno, for whom knowledge of self was a necessary step toward perfect love of God. Such love moved her, not toward a worldly spirituality, but to a life of seclusion lived as an elaboration of Christ's suffering through, as she described it, "poverty, suffering and contempt." In writing to some of her followers by way of explanation for her lack of correspondence, she made her position clear: "There are only two things in the world that I find pleasure in speaking about, namely, knowledge of God and self, and remaining continually in one's cell and never leaving it. If you leave your cell, you should strive to return to it with sorrow and true contrition. I believe that anyone who does not know how to stay put and remain in a cell ought not to go anywhere; it is not for them to seek out any other kind of good, and they ought not to probe into things which are above them." Striking a similar tone, the fifteenth-century Dutchman Thomas a Kempis developed a notion of interiority as disavowal of the world. Silence equaled safety, while words bound one to the cares and distractions of the world. Kempis's Imitation of Christ (1418) remained crucial "suggested reading" for those undertaking the Jesuit exercises well into the eighteenth century, as both Kempis and Ignatius advocated imaginative reflection on Christ's passion and death. Yet members of late medieval religious orders were often torn between vocations to be of active service in the world or to remain living in cloistered contemplation.

Jesuit writings reflected a corporate identity as an order of "pilgrims" and "apostles" who must minister to "the Turks or any other infidels, even those who live in the region called the Indies, or ... any heretics whatever, or schismatics, or any of the faithful." This is quite different from the monastic tradition. Monks were certainly called to be active in the world. St. Gregory, for example, descended from his hilltop monastery to assume the office of pope (590–604). Yet in contrast to an enthusiastic engagement with the world, Gregory has been characterized as "the contemplative condemned to action." Ignatius presented the choice as clear. There would be no Jesuit monasteries, as one Jesuit writer often proclaimed: "We are not monks! ... the world is our house."

But who was this figural monk against whom the Jesuits positioned themselves? Here it is important to acknowledge the mendicants (also known as friars) as the unacknowledged missing link in Jesuit discourse. The mendicants offer an example that falls between the retreat-from-world of pure monasticism and the Jesuit form of worldly Catholicism. Late medieval Christianity has been characterized by the multiplicity of devotional options for lay and religious alike. Following the formation of the Franciscan and Dominican orders, these mendicant brotherhoods took the first steps in distancing themselves from traditional monasticism. The Franciscans, for example, were an order of brothers dedicated to a life of itinerant poverty in imitation of Christ's passion. Their ministries moved them into urban and rural spaces outside monastery walls. Along with the Dominicans, a spiritual brotherhood dedicated to preaching, these mendicant orders initiated the worldly trend in the thirteenth century. In the century that preceded the formation of the Jesuits, the lines between contemplation and worldly action became increasingly blurred.

Yet in comparing the Society of Jesus with the mendicant orders, we must bear in mind that it was the conventual life of the friars that made worldly activity possible. Franciscan monasteries, for example, were situated in urban locales to allow access to the laity but—and this is critical—the monastery enabled the friar's return to this stable locale to renew himself as a brother (frere), where he expressed his primary dedication to communal life by singing the Divine Office. Bert Roest reminds historians not to get "carried away by the astounding development of the Franciscan order as a major pastoral taskforce." To emphasize the mendicants' work in the world tells only half the story. "For ultimately," Roest contends, "all 'worldly' activities (begging, handicrafts, teaching and probably even preaching) had to be subservient to it [contemplation]." To compare Franciscans with the more hermetic monastic lifestyle that preceded them, we can rely upon Elizabeth Rapley's very succinct and helpful description of the primary aims that differentiated monastics and mendicants: "Monasteries, as expressions of the aspirations of the medieval world, had been built on the principle of flight from the world; friaries, responding to the changing spirit of the high Middle Ages, were built within the world, but also served as sanctuaries to which their members could withdraw, though temporarily, from its entanglements. Divine office and community life were seen as antidotes to the contamination that came from association with the world." Praying the Divine Office was a labor of love that consumed many hours of the day. The thirteenth-century Spanish friar Lopez de Salinas outlined a devotional life that placed friars together, praying the Divine Office, between six and nine hours per day, longer on Sundays and feast days. The friars would follow these prayers with another hour and a half of mental prayer, while still in community. The Villacreceans, an extreme example of mendicant contemplation, gave approximately two hours per day to manual labor.

In his study of Spanish mysticism, Melquiades Andés Martín describes early sixteenth-century Spanish devotional life as dominated by the Franciscans and, particularly, the practice of recogimiento or withdrawal. This spiritual environment produced Ignatius, yet ultimately the Jesuits were compelled to distance themselves from Franciscan mysticism. Following the alumbrado crisis of the 1520s and 1530s, Ignatius had several run-ins with Spanish inquisitors who were very skeptical about his Spiritual Exercises. The alumbrados were a group of laypersons who had been condemned for Lutheranism in Spain in the 1520s, charged with denigrating confession and the saints. Notably, the alumbrados had pursued a quiet relationship with the Divine and sought to be alumbrado—illumined—from within. The group eschewed both clerical intermediaries and external or bodily expressions of divine ecstasy. In light of that controversy, the Spanish Inquisition regarded Ignatius and his Exercises with suspicion, which in part explains why Ignatius found it expedient to leave Spain and take up his studies in Paris at the Collège de Montaigu (and later at the Collège Sainte-Barbe). But after Ignatius's death, when the Jesuits had recently established their new corporate identity based upon worldly activism, they ran into difficulties among themselves as members of this international order of men held conflicting ideas about the value of contemplative withdrawal. At the leadership level, the Society had distanced itself from Spanish mysticism. Yet a group of Spanish Jesuits had vociferously advocated recogimiento in order to facilitate an infused contemplation. This was worrisome to the Jesuit Provincial of Aragon, Diego de Avellaneda, who warned in a series of letters to the Jesuit General Everard Mercurian that this trend could pose a serious threat to the Spiritual Exercises and thus to the very foundation of Jesuit devotional life. Mercurian moved to quash what came to seen as an internal spiritual rebellion, especially when Jesuits intent on seclusion formed a spiritual circle in the new Jesuit college in Gandía. Recogimiento was a spiritual trend that so dominated the sixteenth century that, as Andrés Martín points out, "Today it is difficult to ignore the fact that [the first Spanish Jesuits] Borja, Nadal, Plaza and perhaps even Polanco practiced and defended a contemplation that had characteristics similar to those of Cordeses [a Jesuit accused of promoting an overly recollect form of devotional life]."

These first Jesuits adapted: in the 1550s, Nadal spent six hours in sleep and two hours engaged in mental (silent) prayer, one in the morning, the other in the afternoon. Yet by the 1560s, in the wake of accusations that the Company "was the source of those dejados and alumbrados," Nadal weaned himself of this habit and limited himself to one hour of prayer, a tenet that was incorporated into the Jesuit Constitutions. The case of the Jesuit Baltasar Alvarez also demonstrated the necessity to transform the prayer habits of early Jesuits. Alvarez spent sixteen years praying and meditating according to the Spiritual Exercises before he reached a state of infused contemplation, after which he became a strong proponent of this style of prayer. Chastised by Jesuit leadership, he responded using language that precisely summarized the way in which the Jesuits were moving beyond their spiritual roots. His letter argued quite logically that to restrict the spiritual life of the Society of Jesus to the mode of prayer taught in the Spiritual Exercises would be to reject one of the paths that Ignatius himself had followed. He valued Ignatius's guide to meditation, Alvarez wrote, "but there is another position, different and higher ... that is the way of silence."

The response? Firm. He should use no method that differed from the Spiritual Exercises. Another Spanish Jesuit, Diego Alvarez de Paz (1560–1620), was described as following a mode that was "more hermetic and akin to a friar [frailero]" and decidedly not in keeping with the Jesuit way of proceeding. In his capacity as visitor, Miguel de Torres described Alvarez de Paz in similar terms but offered an even more definitive statement: His prayer life posed an obstacle to the Jesuit way of proceeding:

He is a good friend to the solitary life and quite enveloped in prayer which he communicates with the Fathers and Brothers, [but as such he is] not attempting to conform himself to the Exercises that the Compañía uses. In my humble judgment, it seems that this prayer attempts to unite the soul with God, which although this is very good, peaceful, and delightful to those who know to give over to her [saben dar a ella], but it does not extend itself very well to those exercises of the active life, it is not appropriate to the Company, whose end is this [the active life], nor does such prayer allow one to reach the purity and perfection of obedience, she is such a substantial column; and to think that only with this prayer one can reach the proper mortification of the passions does not apply very well to the action of the ministries of the virtuous active life; finally, this prayer has, in my view, many occasions for illusions and deceptions.


Excerpted from To Overcome Oneself by J. Michelle Molina. Copyright © 2013 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations, ix,
Acknowledgments, xi,
Introduction: "To Overcome Oneself", 1,
1. The Jesuit Spiritual Exercises: Conquest of the Self, Conquest of the World, 24,
2. Women's Devotional Labor, 50,
3. Consolation Philosophy: Or, How Prayer Moved People in an Age of Global Expansion, 67,
4. Evangelization and Consolation: Or, Philosophy in the Mission Field, 104,
5. Facts: Houses, Books, and Other Remains, 131,
6. Colonial Indifference? Another Approach to the Colonial Other, 150,
7. A Heart-Shaped World, 171,
Conclusion: Re-membering the Past, 197,
Notes, 211,
Bibliography, 255,
Index, 271,

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