Over the Christmas break I had time to do a little Jesuit-themed reading.
The more scholarly of the two books I read is Trent Pomplun’s Jesuit on the Roof of the World (2010). It chronicles the life and travels of Ippolito Desideri, an eighteenth century Jesuit missionary to Tibet. Born in Pistoia, Tuscany, Desideri entered the Society of Jesus in 1700 and realized his dreams of becoming a missionary in a region almost completely unknown to Europeans. His detailed accounts of Tibetan religion, culture, and politics have led some to consider him the father of “Tibetan studies.”
Desideri’s career involved harrowing sea voyages, bouts of snow-blindness in the Himalayas, and fleeing from invading Mongol armies. Of his fourteen years outside of Italy, he spent six in Tibet and the rest of the time in transit—or trying to avoid superiors who might send him back home.
Desideri was a man of immense courage, intellect, and faith, but his mission was not ultimately successful. He finished his career as a missionary embroiled in ecclesiastical litigation with the Capuchins over which religious order had rights to the Tibetan mission. At times hotheaded and vain, Desideri launched an ill-considered lawsuit against the Capuchins, which ended his own missionary career and forced his return to Rome. His account of Tibetan life was published only after his death at the age of forty-nine.
Pomplun, a young professor of theology at Loyola Maryland, does an admirable job of contextualizing and explaining Desideri’s actions and opinions. In fact, Jesuit on the Roof of the World, his first book, represents what one hopes will be a positive trend in scholarship on the early Society of Jesus.
In his introduction Pomplun notes that previous centuries of Jesuit history books are often tainted either by overly-pious hagiography or the anti-Jesuit (and anti-Catholic) stereotypes of the English-speaking Protestant world. But Pomplun also argues that much late-twentieth century scholarship on the Jesuits “seems to protest too much against hagiography” and suffers from a tendency to view history as a means of advancing various modern political and social causes. As with accounts of the “historical Jesus,” historical attempts to “rediscover” Ignatius and companions often tell us more about who’s writing them than they do about Ignatius. With tongue-in-cheek Pomplun writes of a “new hagiography of the progressive, humanistic, business-savvy Jesuit.”
It is, of course, unfair to try to fit an eighteenth century man like Ippolito Desideri into twentieth century categories, and Pomplun avoids doing so even if it means that at times we wince at some of Desideri’s words and actions. (The missionary refers to one of his Capuchin rivals as a “warlock” in a legal brief.) One of the best sections of Pomplun’s book is his lengthy account of the Spiritual Exercises and his explanation of how Desideri’s desires and approach to the Tibetan mission would have been grounded in his experience of the Exercises. His account of the various ways that scholastic theology grappled with the theological issues raised by the encounter with non-Christian religions is also excellent; Pomplun avoids the condescending and superior tone towards previous centuries’ missionaries one sometimes finds in more recent scholarship. In fact, one develops a real respect for the complexity and seriousness of the theology of Desideri and his contemporaries. Desideri was opinionated to be sure, but he was neither bigoted nor naive.
Pomplun also steers the reader through the complexity and violence of the Tibetan politics that Desideri encountered and of which he was no neutral observer. Desideri was particularly scathing in his critique of the sixth Dali Lama, a political puppet known for his sexual excesses. Tibet may no longer seem to be the peaceful Shangri-La of popular imagination, but perhaps that makes Tibetan history that much more interesting.
Well-researched but decidedly less scholarly in tone, is The Lost Painting (2006) by Jonathan Harr. Though non-fiction, The Lost Painting reads like a detective novel as it details the twists and turns involved in the 1990 rediscovery of one of Caravaggio’s lost masterpieces, The Taking of Christ, in a Jesuit house in Ireland. The focus of the book is not the Jesuits, but the episode it describes is nonetheless one of the more improbable in recent Jesuit lore.
The setting for The Lost Painting is the complex world of art history and restoration—less violent than early modern Tibet, to be sure, but just as full of feuds, plots, and intrigue. The action ranges from the churches and museums of Rome through the moldering archives of the Italian aristocracy and finally to a Jesuit residence in Dublin, where a painting from the community dining room catches the eye of a visiting art-restorer. “Oh yes,” the Jesuit superior tells him. “We’ve always thought it to be the best work in the house.”
While The Lost Painting offers no particular theological insights, it is a great read. For those interested in the painting itself, you don’t have to be invited for dinner at the St. Ignatius Residence in Dublin anymore. The Taking of Christ is now on permanent loan from the Irish Province to the National Gallery of Ireland.