Pierless Bridges

The Joan and Ralph Lane Center for Catholic Social Thought and the Ignatian Tradition

May 2020 Contemporary Experience with Tradition

Show, Not Tell

By Kimberly Rae Connor

“The story, on the whole, does not have enough ‘composition of scene’ to borrow a phrase from St. Ignatius of Loyola. It is not well enough located in time and place.”
—Caroline Gordon in a letter to Flannery O’Connor

Although he is author of one of the most enduring and influential works of spirituality, by all accounts, St. Ignatius was a reluctant writer. A contemplative in action, he was either in meditation or on the move. Writing, which occupies a space somewhere in between, does not seem to have come easily. St. Ignatius settled himself to write down the Spiritual Exercises he had been developing and sharing for years only when he was obliged to be disciplined and entered the University of Paris for formal academic training. Written down between 1522–1524, the Spiritual Exercises are an example of an author who, despite the advice he gives to seekers on how to apply their imagination as a tool for growth, himself avoided the narrative dictum “show, not tell.” The document was a manual to follow, not a text to inspire.

A generous and thoughtful letter writer throughout his life, St. Ignatius did not commence another major writing project until he wrote the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus sometime between 1547 and 1550. Again, the nature of the composition did not lend itself to the application of imagination encouraged in the Exercises nor offer itself to the kinds of flexibility around choice that is also characteristic of a seeker’s imaginative trajectory. Formalizing both the Exercises and the Constitutions, however, did provide Ignatius with skills that are foundational for writers — how to submit to a disciplined routine, structure content, and organize materials to communicate your ideas effectively.

After the Constitutions were adopted in 1553, St. Ignatius’ health was failing, and it was unlikely that he would undertake another major writing project. But over the course of several years, until just before his death in 1556 and with considerable prodding on the part of Father Louis Gonzalez, he eventually agreed to the use of an amanuensis to whom he could dictate his life story. With Father Louis’s help, St. Ignatius “composed” his autobiography. Despite its manner of creation and translation, in his autobiography, St. Ignatius does show, not tell. He recalls his life with startling and detailed lucidity. As Father Louis observed in his preface to the autobiography, “The method followed by St. Ignatius is so clear that he places vividly before our eyes the events of the past.”

Indeed, one could read the autobiography as an extended act of imagination as composition — of “composing a place,” a form of contemplation that St. Ignatius developed and described in the Spiritual Exercises. Rather than using this method to engage a scriptural setting as he advises seekers, in composing his autobiography, St. Ignatius applies the same technique to explore his own experience. Emerging from a simple Examen to a more developed contemplation, this act of imagination provides grounding for the entire formation process and a method for exercising our reflective capacity in ways that lead to “finding God/Good in all things.” It also offers salient guidance for writers of compositions who appreciate the power of the affective dimension of storytelling — how to show, not tell — and who seek to invite others to accompany them on their narrative journeys.

Or as St. Ignatius writes, 'Love ought to show itself in deeds more than in words.' The goal of the contemplations in the exercises is the same as the goal of a writer: to engage in the composition of a place where we can meet God/Good and others through story.

In “Rules for Discernment of Spirits” for the Second Week of the Exercises, St. Ignatius offers seekers advice on how to deepen their relationship to God/Good that hones their skills of recollection and perception in order to engage their imaginations. At this point, a seeker is prepared to engage more deeply because she has done the hard work required in the First Week, the research and excavation necessary to understand where she stands. The First Week trains a seeker to achieve the freedom to tell her own story, one that comes after honest self-assessment and acceptance, just as a writer first begins to tell a tale by exploring her background, verifying events, recognizing weaknesses in her exposition, and moving toward a theme that she will evaluate by applying multiple imaginative resolutions. In other words, after the First Week, one is poised to be a reliable narrator because she has practiced discernment.

And so in the Second Week, the seeker, like the writer, starts to fill in details when she undertakes a composition of place contemplation. In so doing, she recognizes the patterns and themes that emerge, the physical and temperamental characteristics of the main and supporting actors, how the setting shapes the course of the plot and leads to startling climaxes and unexpected outcomes, what images emerge as symbolic, and how all is directed by a dialogue that carries the weight of a chorus and the intimacy of prayer.

How she does that throughout the Spiritual Exercises is guided by these rules for discernment set forth by St. Ignatius. The rules are steps that move a seeker from mental meditation to imaginative contemplation as a distinguishing feature of the many forms of prayer that animate the Spiritual Exercises. These rules are also good rules for writers, neatly summed up as both spiritual advice for seekers and practical advice for writers: show, not tell. The goal of the contemplations in the Exercises is the same as the goal of a writer: to engage in the composition of a place where we can meet God/Good and others through story.

To escape the discursive tell, a particular weakness for academics, St. Ignatius guides us as a rhetoric teacher might, drawing attention particularly to the people in the story and what they do and what they say in order to “draw profit,” from the imagination’s composition. Ignatius instructs seekers on how to show up in their narrative, how to make their characters round and their plots sensible, their settings animated and each seeker’s point of view distinct. Applied to telling a story, St. Ignatius’s advice for how to use the imagination becomes a kind of editorial Examen that leads us to a coherent and insightful narrative. It also supports our credibility as narrators of experience, where we come to occupy a role in spiritual direction St. Ignatius describes as “Office of Consoler” — leading others away from the deceptions of desolation and toward the truths of consolation.

The rules even follow the classic form of a story: beginning, middle, and end. A seeker begins by setting an intention and committing herself to a particular course of action that avoids “using specious reasoning, subtleties, and persistent deceits.” In the middle of active discernment, the seeker weighs what the imagination arouses, moving toward consolation and away from desolation by considering “the whole train of our thoughts,” so that finally, “If the beginning and the middle and end of this course of thoughts are wholly good and directed to what is entirely right, it is a sign that they are from the good angel.” Using this method, the moral that results as our stories unfold is the one that will have avoided the worst traits of living and writing.

The exercise of the imagination as a tool for achieving moral clarity is tied to the Ignatian tradition of Eloquentia Perfecta, the joining of knowledge and wisdom with virtue and morality. Early in the Exercises, St. Ignatius establishes a practice that promotes the moral purpose of communication when he offers seekers the Ignatian Presupposition:

“It is necessary to suppose that every good Christian is more ready to put a good interpretation on another’s statement than to condemn it as false. If an orthodox construction cannot be put on a proposition, the one who made it should be asked how he understands it. If he is in error, he should be corrected with all kindness. If this does not suffice, all appropriate means should be used to bring him to a correct interpretation, and so to defend the proposition from error.”

Applying this method, seekers and writers both emerge with stories that are guided toward moral outcomes but also created in an ethical manner.

Jesuit rhetoric, like Jesuit spirituality, revolves around cultivating a person as a whole, as one learns to write for and to become part of the common good. It shows love in deeds more than words and offers us a way to get there in our lives and in our stories.

KIMBERLY RAE CONNOR, PhD, is professor of ethics in the School of Management at the University of San Francisco. She is also Lane Center’s Faculty Chair for Mission Integration. She is a student in the Pierre Favre program in Ignatian Spiritual Direction at El Retiro Jesuit Retreat Center.