I recently read through Ignatius of Loyola’s Spiritual Exercises. I did so much too quickly: I spent a few hours rather than the prescribed four weeks. And yet, I find them nevertheless very enriching. I especially like Ignatius’ idea that we should meditate very concretely on particular scenes in scripture. Try to picture the place, think about who is there. Apply each of the senses: try to hear the sounds, smell the air, feel the ground beneath one’s feet, see the people and the scenery.
This technique, which appears in different ways in each of the exercises, seems to have had a profound impact on many theologians. I wonder if Rahner’s insistence on Aquinas’ doctrine of “conversion to the phantasm” in Spirit in the World has something to do with his practice of this sensory form of Ignatian meditation. Likewise, Balthasar’s project of rewriting theology from the point of view of aesthetics may very well be inspired by the aesthetic quality of this form of Ignatian prayer. Ellacuria’s turn to the concrete reality of the historical Jesus, which is followed and developed by Sobrino, also points to the depth of their Jesuit training in this sensory method.
As influential as it has been in theology, it strikes me that this spiritual exercise is not totally unlike the form of phenomenological reflection developed by Husserl (only to be expanded and revised by Heidegger and others). In both cases, the method is to take sensory intuition and to vary it imaginatively, in order to sense and understand it from every angle. Just as in Ignatian prayer, so too in phenomenology, one distinguishes profiles of experience in order to appreciate more clearly the ways in which they compose one whole. The difference, in short, is that for Ignatius and the theologians who follow him, Christ is the phenomenon par excellence.
Perhaps Jean-Louis Chretien, in his synaesthetic approach to phenomenology and theology, in works such as The Call and Response, has been the one most perceptive of this continuity between spiritual and philosophical practice.