Return to the WoF index
Israel, June 2001

Reuven Tsur and Motti Benari
"Composition of Place", Diffuseness, and the Meditative Poem

Louis Martz characterizes Jesuit meditation as the "practice of the presence of God". We regard meditation as an altered state of consciousness, meditative poetry as the verbal imitation of an altered state of consciousness. We will focus, mainly, on the praeludium called "composition of place". The seventeenth-century Jesuit Dawson claims that "on the well making of this Preludium depends both the understanding of the mystery, and attention in our meditation". The twentieth century scholar Louis Martz calls it a "brilliant Ignatian invention, to which the Jesuit Exercises owe a large part of their power". According to William James, in all mystic experiences, "the mystic feels as if his own will were in abeyance"; this holds true of meditation as well. Accordingly, meditation requires its practitioners to switch voluntarily to a state of consciousness in which their will is in abeyance.

We claim that the composition of place has such an overwhelming importance in Jesuit meditation because it helps to solve this paradox: the orientation mechanism activates an information-processing mode of the brain that typically characterizes altered states of consciousness as well. Both orientation and meditation are right-hemisphere activities. The right hemisphere is said to processes information more diffusely than does the left hemisphere, and seems specialized for holistic mentation. These structures characterize the mental processes underlying both orientation and meditation. We suggest that imagining oneself in a certain place activates the orientation mechanism. This proves to be an effective means to induce an altered state of consciousness in the meditative situation, as well as to generate a nonconceptual quality in a verbal imitation of it, that necessarily uses conceptual language.

This can also explain why, according to Rudolf Otto and William James, numinous and mystic experiences are ineffable. We claim not that the relevant features are inaccessible to language, but their diffuseness. Louis Martz suggests that some of the outstanding pieces of romantic nature poetry belong to the genre of meditation. Surprisingly, some romantic nature poetry conforms better with the present analysis of the "composition of place" than some of Donne's Holy sonnets, quoted by Martz as prototypic examples.

Reuven Tsur
Hebrew Literature
Tel Aviv University

Motti Benari
Hebrew Literature
Tel Aviv University







Maintained by Francis F. Steen, Communication Studies, University of California Los Angeles