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Becoming a New Self: Practices of Belief in Early Modern Catholicism

Becoming a New Self: Practices of Belief in Early Modern Catholicism

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Becoming a New Self: Practices of Belief in Early Modern Catholicism

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Oct 12, 2017


In Becoming a New Self, Moshe Sluhovsky examines the diffusion of spiritual practices among lay Catholics in early modern Europe. By offering a close examination of early modern Catholic penitential and meditative techniques, Sluhovsky makes the case that these practices promoted the idea of achieving a new self through the knowing of oneself.

Practices such as the examination of conscience, general confession, and spiritual exercises, which until the 1400s had been restricted to monastic elites, breached the walls of monasteries in the period that followed. Thanks in large part to Franciscans and Jesuits, lay urban elites—both men and women—gained access to spiritual practices whose goal was to enhance belief and create new selves. Using Michel Foucault’s writing on the hermeneutics of the self, and the French philosopher’s intuition that the early modern period was a moment of transition in the configurations of the self, Sluhovsky offers a broad panorama of spiritual and devotional techniques of self-formation and subjectivation.
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Oct 12, 2017

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Becoming a New Self - Moshe Sluhovsky

Becoming a New Self

Becoming a New Self

Practices of Belief in Early Modern Catholicism

Moshe Sluhovsky



The University of Chicago Press, Chicago 60637

The University of Chicago Press, Ltd., London

© 2017 by The University of Chicago

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations in critical articles and reviews. For more information, contact the University of Chicago Press, 1427 E. 60th St., Chicago, IL 60637.

Published 2017

Printed in the United States of America

26 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18 17    1 2 3 4 5

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-47285-0 (cloth)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-47299-7 (paper)

ISBN-13: 978-0-226-47304-8 (e-book)

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226473048.001.0001

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Names: Sluhovsky, Moshe, 1958– author.

Title: Becoming a new self : practices of belief in early modern Catholicism / Moshe Sluhovsky.

Description: Chicago ; London : The University of Chicago Press, 2017. | Includes bibliographical references and index.

Identifiers: LCCN 2016045900 | ISBN 9780226472850 (cloth : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780226472997 (pbk. : alk. paper) | ISBN 9780226473048 (e-book)

Subjects: LCSH: Devotional literature—History and criticism. | Catholic Church. | Christian life.

Classification: LCC BX2177.5 .S59 2017 | DDC 248.4/6088282—dc23 LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2016045900

This paper meets the requirements of ANSI/NISO Z39.48-1992 (Permanence of Paper).

In Memoriam

My paternal grandparents Mowszy and Liba Słochowski,

their daughters and son (my aunts and uncle),

and their grandchildren (my cousins),

annihilated by the Nazis,

November 1942–February 1943, mostly in Treblinka




1.  Introduction

2.  Directing Souls

3.  Spiritual Exercises

4.  General Confession

5.  Examination of Conscience






This book took a very long time to write, as administrative responsibilities at my university spirited me away from it time and again. During these many years of digestion I have accumulated many debts, and it is a pleasure to recognize the contributions of individuals and institutions to Becoming a New Self. The Shelly Davis Center for Historical Research at Princeton University and the Advances Research Initiative at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York offered me two years of uninterrupted time and financial backing to write most of the book. I thank Phil Nord and Don Robotham, the directors of these research centers respectively, as well as the fellows who read versions of chapters or heard me discussing my ideas. Audiences at Duke, Columbia, Brown, Princeton, and Tel Aviv Universities, and at the Committee for the Study of Religion at the Graduate Center, generously shared their opinions, as did participants in the 2008 annual meeting of the American Historical Association and the 2011 meeting of the Renaissance Society of America. I thank Brian Stock and John O’Malley for their generous comments during these sessions. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem has always been generous with both time and money. I have never stopped marveling at the intellectual rigor and sophistication of my colleagues and students at the Hebrew University.

Chapter 4 is a much-revised version of an article I originally published in the collection Religion and Knowledge in Early Modern Europe: Studies in Honor of Michael Heyd, edited by Asaph Ben-Tov, Yaacov Deutsch, and Tamar Herzig (Brill, 2013). This is the opportunity to recall Michael Heyd’s immense contribution to my intellectual development. Like all who knew and studied with him, I miss him tremendously. A different version of chapter 3 was published in the Catholic Historical Review. I thank Brill and the Catholic Historical Review for the rights to incorporate sections from the published versions in this book.

James N. Green read numerous versions of the entire manuscript, while Tamar Herzig, Robert A. Maryks, Julia Smith, and Susan Whyman commented on specific chapters. I am extremely grateful to Jonathan Garb and Wietse de Boer, who were kind enough to take time off from their work and administrative duties and read the penultimate version of the book. Their wise criticisms and helpful suggestions improved the final version immensely. Michelle Molina and another reader for the University of Chicago Press offered valuable insights and convinced me to fine-tune some of my arguments. Conversations with Peter and Betsy Brown, Natalie Zemon Davis, Dagmar Herzog, Nimrod Levin, and Guy Stroumsa have enriched me a great deal and in their own mysterious ways became absorbed into this book. I also thank Guy Evron-Yadin for his assistance, Sara Tropper and Barbara Norton for their careful editorial work, Eitan Gavson for his meticulous indexing, and Doug Mitchell and the staff at the University of Chicago Press for escorting the book through the publication process. The book was published with the support of the Israel Science Foundation.


Chapter One


Becoming a New Self: Practices of Belief in Early Modern Catholicism offers close examinations of a number of early modern Catholic penitential and meditative techniques and posits tight ties between these practices and the project of self-formation as a subject. The practices the book discusses, namely the examination of conscience, general confession, and set of meditations known as spiritual exercises, promoted and cultivated a sense of becoming a new self by way of knowing oneself: acquiring comprehension of the practitioner’s unique past, the content of one’s interiority, and his or her ability to set individual future goals. The fruit of this labor was one’s true self or truth. Taking part in this enterprise of discovery in turn enabled a growing number of early modern Catholics, including laymen and -women, to experience in new ways their subjecthood as well as their connection with fellow Christians and with God.

Despite the burgeoning interest in such practices, we ought not to exaggerate their scope. Only a small minority of Catholics were ever practitioners of spiritual exercises of belief. Furthermore, they were likely to be urban rather than rural, educated rather than unlettered, middle- and upper-class rather than peasants. And yet, it was spiritual and devotional dedication rather than social, economic, or political status that determined participation in this elite group.

Practitioners achieved these complex transformations of the self by acquiring skills of imagination and enacting procedures of scrutinizing their thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences. Self-transformation specialists, known as spiritual directors and spiritual advisors, helped the practitioner to actualize St. Paul’s dictum (Ephesians 4:22–24): "put off your own self [hominem], which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires . . . put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness."

The early modern period saw many forms of self-cultivation. In this volume I engage with techniques that consciously did not consider the self as an endgame. The goal of these practices was not to acquire self-knowledge either for its own sake or for the sake of self-mastery. My inquiry will be directed toward procedures that assisted the practitioner to act in accordance with divine love as it was discovered and experienced within his or her self. This work of the divine love within the human self was understood as the key to salvation, and it was experienced affectively rather than as an intellectual endeavor (cognitio Dei experimentalis). Knowing one’s self meant constructing life in Christian terms; shaping one’s life to conform to a set of propositions about the world. Such work, which we might call conversion—or, better, self-conversion—led not to transcending this world and finding consolation in a mystical union with God, but to knowing God’s love experimentally in this world; as Jean Gerson articulated in the early fifteenth century, to feel is to know.¹ God, in his charity, supplied human beings with the ability to enhance their participation in his gift of love by means of devotional practices. Becoming a New Self addresses not only early modern Catholic notions of selfhood and subjecthood, but also subjugation and the place of agency and desire in early modern Catholic imaginations. And since its focus is the early modern era and changes in theology, the book also contributes to the ongoing discussion about the beginning, legitimacy, and characteristics of modernity.

I should like to clarify, however, that the practices I consider here were not early modern inventions. All were in fact inherited or reconfigured from earlier spiritual practices, mostly but not exclusively Christian. But unlike Stoic exercises of self-care, which attempted to achieve autonomy through mastery over the body; the spiritual and physical regimens of rigorous exercises that characterized monks and nuns; humility and obedience to authority (human as well as divine) as means for overcoming the self; or even the Cartesian philosophical cultivations of self-exploration, which aimed to acquire mastery over the world, the practices discussed in this book aspired to design a self that submits, without recourse to human (i.e., priestly) mediation, to the divine. And unlike medieval and early modern mystical methods of spiritual self-transformation, which desired to transcend the created world and achieve perfection by annihilating the self altogether, these exercises were meant to help practitioners find consolation and active repentance (metanoia) here on earth.

The traditions upon which early modern practices of belief and of becoming a new self drew had been around for over a millennium. Typically, however, such traditions had been acquired and practiced as separate techniques, serving different goals and pursued by different individuals—though almost always by members of religious communities. Nonetheless, each and every activation of a tradition involves adopting and adapting, choosing and rejecting, and above all reinterpreting. I suggest that the reinterpretation of traditional techniques in the cultivation and transformation of practices of belief in early modern Catholicism entailed such a significant broadening of the spectrum of practices and of their availability to new and growing segments of the population that one can justifiably speak of a new stage in the history of Christian methods of self-formation and subjectivation.² Importantly, as we shall see, the popularization and growing diffusion of these practices were accompanied by controversy and debate. Clerical authorities debated the making of such practices available to women or to the laity at large, the supervision of practitioners, and ways to ensure that the self being formed would not escape its mandatory submission to direction.

From Jacob Burckhardt and Max Weber on, philosophers and historians of modern selfhoods have claimed that the Renaissance and the Protestant Reformation either created or witnessed the birth of the modern self. There are many portrayals of this modern (and in fact always implicitly Protestant-and-always-already-becoming-secular) self in the scholarly literature. And as is the case with every historical topic, historians disagree as to the precise characteristics and genealogy of this self. Yet we might describe it as an entity that is unique, self-possessive, and self-conscious (by means of introspection) of its uniqueness. This Western self has been often described as possessing a unique degree of self-reflection and being cognizant of its cognition. It also possesses innate attributes and psychological depth. Politically, this self is autonomous and able to make and remake itself at will while also always being subjected to societal, political, judicial, and psychological rules. This individual modern self claims, on the basis of its own self-legitimization and self-creation, sovereignty over many of its activities in both the public and the private spheres, a right to privacy (in both the psychic and the social domains), and a right to pursue its own goals. In return, this individual recognizes the same rights in others and assumes responsibility for his or her actions. Charles Taylor summarized the configuration of these features of the modern person as somebody who possesses a notion of the future and the past, can hold values, make choices; in short, can adopt life-plans.³

One major additional characteristic of this modern self is its continuous trajectory toward liberation from social and metaphysical restrictions and the ties that bind its predecessors (and other formations of selfhood in other cultures) to social networks and/or theological cosmologies. This last element I challenge in this book. The early modern Catholic self (and this was equally the case with early modern Protestant selves), was, I argue, part and parcel of the reconfiguration of modern selfhoods. And for this new self the process of subjectivation, of acquiring a sense of unique selfhood, did not necessitate the dissolution of ties with other persons or with God. On the contrary, for the devout early modern elites I discuss in this book the cultivation of a sense of selfhood and the practices of self-formation analyzed below were means of getting closer to God, enhancing the awareness of one’s lack of autonomy, and fine-tuning one’s desires to follow a prescribed set of behaviors, practices, and beliefs that connected the person to larger frames of reference. Sovereignty, for devout early modern Catholics, meant sovereignty to submit to subjugation. The way to achieve this autonomy/subjection was by acquiring, exercising, and mastering devotional practices.

When viewed from the vantage point of modern secularity, the modern self that I identify in the texts and practices examined in this book is full of contradictions. But by incorporating the Catholic route to modern selfhood into existing narratives of subjecthood and self-formation in the modern era, my goal is to widen the scope of potential configurations of modern selves, and in so doing to remind ourselves that modern selfhoods (in the plural) are less unique and less secular, and that their trajectories have been less teleological, than one might gather from the literature. With its focus on practices, this book is also part of an ongoing shift in the humanities and social sciences from metaphysics to (French) phenomenology, from examination of norms to examination of practices lived, and from prescriptive texts to people’s experiences. Within the field of religious studies this shift has involved a major challenge to traditional assumptions about the relations between belief systems and creeds on the one hand, and actual experiences of the self and the divine on the other. But while practices are at the center of the following discussions, a main argument of the book is that devotional practices cannot be disconnected from the beliefs they sustain, enhance, and—most important—embody. By foregrounding belief I call into question the prevailing prioritizing in anthropology, the sociology of religion, and religious studies of practice over belief, as well as the position, which has gained popularity over the past twenty years or so, that belief exists only as embodied practices and results only from practice.

This volume employs a rich lexicon of philosophical, theological, and psychological terms, and in this introduction I offer working definitions of some of them. However, two caveats are in order. First, I use terms such as self, modernity, subjectivity, subjecthood, agency, desire, imaginations, and so on, in a heuristic and pragmatic sense rather than an analytical one. Here, they are the tools of the cultural and social historian and not those of the intellectual historian, philosopher, psychologist, or theologian. Scholars in other fields will certainly put the same terms to different use and elucidate their meanings more precisely.⁴ Secondly, this book and my working definitions alike are marked by an unavoidable tension, namely that which exists between two distinct historical and temporal settings: the one I describe and analyze, and the one in which I am situated. Thus, metaphorically speaking, the book is bilingual. It speaks both the language of the disengaged twenty-first-century historian of religion and the language of the early modern exercitants of the spiritual practices that are the focus of the book. Put differently (and using terminology that mixes both lexica), two distinct desires operate in the following discussion: the desire of early modern devout individuals to introspect and then transform themselves in order to experience God’s love within their selves and to better themselves, on the one hand; and my desire to comprehend their efforts in my own postdevotional, postmodernist, and post-Freudian world and language, on the other. As Steven Justice has pointed out, bracketing the matter of the protagonists’ beliefs regarding what they were doing and what they were thinking they were doing is simply to opt out. One ought to respect the protagonists’ experiences of belief whether one shares or rejects their cosmology and belief system.⁵ Making sense of practitioners’ commitment to God and to self-transformation requires that we respect the ways in which they configured their universe and relations among humans, the world, and God.

Reading the French philosopher Michel Foucault’s engagement with self-formation as a religious subject in both early Christianity and early modern Catholicism, one cannot but be struck by the relative absence of God from his discussion. As will become clear, Foucault’s theorizing of subjecthood, subjection, and subjectivation, his attempt to write a genealogy of spiritual direction, and his lifelong research on modes of confession in the West have all shaped my own attempt to discuss practices of self-formation in early modern Catholicism. There is simply no way to think outside Foucauldian articulations of relations between power and knowledge, truth and subjecthood, autonomy and subjugation. And yet, by relegating God, Satan, and the human condition in the prelapsarian age to the margins of his discussion, Foucault obscured rather than clarified some crucial facets of the process of self-formation, among them the place of anxiety and desire in early modern practices of belief. In order to make sense of early modern Catholic embodied practices of devotion, I suggest, one must also (and perhaps first of all) grasp the belief system that shaped and was shaped by these practices. This being said, selfhood, desire, interiority, consolation, spiritual abandon, and subjectivity are for me forever framed in philosophical and psychological post–early modern (and post-Christian) configurations; the self outside of Freud, Lacan, and Foucault is impossible to imagine.⁶ Hence the language of this work shifts back and forth between early modern cosmologies, ontotheologies, anthropologies, and topographies of the self and contemporary articulations of the same concerns. In the rest of this introduction, therefore, I explicate how my engagement with early modern Catholic practices of enhancing belief also applies to different late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century theoretical and historical scholarly concerns.

What is Belief? What Does it Mean to Believe?

Over the past fifty years praxis and practices have emerged as a central topic of philosophical, sociological, anthropological, and historical inquiry.⁷ My discussion has been shaped to a large degree by French theoreticians of practice, first and foremost Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Michel de Certeau, and Pierre Bourdieu, as well as by the incorporation of these (and other) theories of practice into the anthropological study of religion in the works of Talal Asad, Webb Keane, and Saba Mahmood, among others. The latter scholars have made an incontrovertible contribution to a full-scale reconsideration of religious practices and their relations to religious beliefs. Yet, in the rush to prioritize embodied experiences over prescribed theologies and practice over belief, along with a parallel (and closely related) move to provincialize Europe, to use Dipesh Chakrabarty’s provocative yet apt term, there has also developed a move away from—or at least a cautious stance toward—using the Christian paradigm as a model for understanding religious phenomena in other contexts. This has led some scholars to be too quick to dismiss or diminish the notion of belief.⁸ In the following pages I engage with the recent transition from belief to practice and then explain my return to a notion of belief as a precondition for its own embodiment. Crucially, I here refer only to Western Christianity. I have neither the expertise nor the intention to discuss other religious cultures.

What do we mean when we say we believe in something? What do we mean, for that matter, when we use the word belief? For Ludwig Wittgenstein the answer was clear: the expression of belief . . . is just a sentence, and the sentence has meaning only as a member of a system of language. Echoing Wittgenstein, the philosopher Rodney Needham stated that ‘statements of belief’ are the only evidence for the phenomenon; but the phenomenon itself appears to be no more than the custom of making such statements.⁹ This line of argument does not, however, take us very far in making sense of what believing people actually feel or experience. For earlier generations of anthropologists such as William Robertson Smith, Edward B. Taylor, and Edward E. Evans-Pritchard, and to philosophers such as Ernst Cassirer, it was manifest that religion is first and foremost a set of intrinsic beliefs. For them, rites, which often accompany belief, are nothing but the external expressions of the modes of apprehension we call belief.¹⁰ The past fifty years, however, have seen a total collapse of the alleged self-evidence and universality of this notion of belief and of the primacy (both temporal and metaphysical) of belief over practice. Following in the footsteps of his uncle, Émile Durkheim, who argued in The Elementary Forms of Religion (1912) that religion is a social phenomenon and that the cult is derived from the beliefs, yet it reacts upon them, the anthropologist Marcel Mauss asserted the crucial importance of habitus, the embodied performance that shapes beliefs. Working in the mid-twentieth century, Mauss was also among the first scholars to talk about technologies of the body as basic mechanisms of control, self-control, and subjecthood.¹¹ Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological approach to the body further emphasized the degree to which emotions and cognitive process are always embodied. It is only through our bodies, he contended, that we experience ourselves and others. Our subjectivity is always situated within social norms, concepts, and practices and is therefore always historical, political, and conditional. Mauss’s concept of habitus was reworked and popularized by Pierre Bourdieu.¹² For Bourdieu, habitus is a mechanism that produces the social unconscious and lays the ground for rule abidance. It functions by inculcating societal rules and inscribing them through bodily gestures and practices to such a degree that these modes of action become natural. Speaking explicitly of religious beliefs, Bourdieu argued that belief is not a ‘state of mind,’ still less a kind of arbitrary adherence to a set of instituted dogmas and doctrine (‘beliefs’), but rather a state of the body.¹³ Belief is acquired through a bodily familiarity with our social surroundings and is always grounded in social practices. We acquire belief by imitating the people around us, and we learn to experience belief as an inner feeling as part of our communication with them.

Working in a different tradition, Clifford Geertz reached similar conclusions. Religion, he asserted, is a symbolic system of meanings acquired through ritualized performances.¹⁴ As such, it is social before it is personal. This dismissal of belief as a mental concept that is a primary mover of practice has come to dominate the anthropological study of religion. Talal Asad denied the applicability of the notion of belief to most religious systems other than Western (Protestant and Protestantized) Christianity and traced the precise historical setting that created them to the uniquely Western Christian notion of religion as an abstract set of propositions to which believers [give] assent. He and Malcolm Ruel, and their students and followers, have proposed that acts and practices not only precede belief but constitute it. Thus, Saba Mahmood argues in her discussion of contemporary female Islamist piety in Egypt that "it is the sequence of practices and actions one is engaged in that determines one’s desires and emotions. In other words, action does not issue forth from natural feelings but creates them."¹⁵ One comes to experience belief only by engaging in devotional practices. Rebecca Lester concludes as much in her analysis of nuns in twentieth-century Mexico.¹⁶

An argument might be made that these scholars are echoing Christian tradition, which maintained a distinction between religio and fides or doctrina, or between faith as a state and faith as an activity. The seventeenth-century Jansenist author and philosopher Blaise Pascal, not known as either a posthumanist or a postmodernist, was one among many theologians to try his hand at explaining the relations between the two. He claimed in his famous Wager that practices beget belief, and that the imitation of other practitioners is as sure a way as any to acquire belief: "Follow the way by which [other believers] began. That is, in acting entirely as if they did believe, in taking holy water, in having Masses said, and so forth. Naturally enough, this will make you believe and will derationalize you [vous abêtira]."¹⁷ Together with modern anthropologists, the Jansenist philosopher seems to argue that belief is a disposition that ought to be cultivated by means of practices, and that there is no belief prior to its embodiment in cultural and ritualized actions, first and foremost bodily techniques of self-discipline. Pascal and twenty-first-century critics of Western-centric normalizing theories seem, then, to agree that practice precedes belief. However, this is not the case. Pascal is in fact heir to a long tradition of debate within Christian theology on the relations between belief and practice. The doctrine of implicit belief, according to which fulfillment of the church’s rituals and obligations could lead to salvation, maintained a tension between the two components that tends to be obscured in contemporary scholarly discussions. Pascal does not argue that practice forms belief or that belief is achieved through practices. His is not the fake it till you make it pop-psychology approach. If God existed, he tells us, he would reward humble and charitable practices with the gift of belief. This is a traditional understanding of the difficulty of acquiring belief. Belief is a divine gift and at the same time an effort, a practice. The act of believing is an understanding act that asserts divine truth by the empire of the will, moved by God through grace, explained Aquinas in the Summa (II-II, q. 2, a. 9). Belief demands an activity, namely human assent to a truth that had already been set in the mind by divine grace. Faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8, 9), but it requires a human response of assent and trust (Aquinas II-II, q. 6, a.1). This approach has been referred to as volitionalism.¹⁸ The consent to believe in the truthfulness of specific creeds materializes in acts and utterances, first among them the statement I believe (in), which cannot be judged by any evidentiary exterior form but only by outward practices, which demonstrate the alleged inward state of belief. People are therefore both receptive and active in their acquisition of and adherence to belief; and since, alas, we do not have windows into people’s hearts, the church has always maintained that implicit faith, namely following the liturgy and obeying the church (performing and practicing religion), is as good as faith itself. As we have seen, Pascal follows in this tradition.

The performance of religious practices requires, I submit, a preexisting set of propositions, assumptions, and social imaginations (beliefs) about the constitution of the world, the existence of divine powers, and the ability or willingness of these powers to participate in mutual relations with the practicing human who performs acts of devotion. This is especially the case in Christianity, a religion that continuously understands itself in relation to a past that can be comprehended only by means of hermeneutics, of textual interpretations. Admittedly, at the very core of Christianity lies a mystery that is beyond any empirical truth and cannot be proven; it is a shared social and cultural conviction whose veracity the people who hold to it take to be self-evident.¹⁹ As shared imaginations, the core beliefs of Christianity are always social activities, socially learned and socially absorbed. And it is indeed the case that for a large number (maybe a majority) of practitioners, the sedimentary process

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