Ignatius and the Senses
Leo R. Ocampo
At first glance, the Letters of Saint Ignatius of Antioch seem to betray a man with an absolute contempt of “the world”. Indeed, with his urgent and intense desire for martyrdom, one may acquire the impression that he was someone who completely despised the material and saw goodness only in the spiritual, in the fashion of the dualist worldview of Gnosticism that was becoming increasingly popular during his time. A truly keen reader, however, would not fail to notice his abundant use of concrete sense-perceptions to apprehend and demonstrate abstract spiritual realities—revealing his implicit yet profound appreciation of the goodness of all matter, especially as an instrument for spiritual comprehension. In these letters, Ignatius of Antioch generously proposes spiritual insight to his readers derived from and delivered through the senses. As a matter of fact, Ignatius’ use of sensory perceptions does not only address the faculty of sight, most commonly appealed to by authors, but all of the senses, as we shall see in the following samples.
He heard his chains as a song in praise of the Churches (Magnesians 1: 2) and the unity of the local Church as a harmonic chorus of love (Romans 2: 4) produced by the faithful together with their clergy whose communion with the bishop he likened to the harmony of strings properly linked to the lyre (Ephesians 4: 2). He smelled the sweet fragrance of Christ, the “odor of incorruptibility” which he breathes into the Church, contrasting it sharply with the “bad odor of the doctrine of the prince of this world” with which, he strongly forbids, we must never be anointed (Ephesians 17: 1-2). As a true and seasoned connoisseur of spiritual delicacies, he advises us against tasting the deceptive “deadly drug in sweet wine” (Trallians 6: 2) of the heretics and veers us away from the “bad leaven, which is old and stale” of the Jews in order to direct us instead toward Christ, the “new leaven” by whom we need to “be salted, lest we lose savor” (Magnesians 10: 3-4). One marvels at this man’s exceptionally incisive and intuitive sense-perception.
Indeed, the sense-perception of Ignatius was so powerful that even before having actually endured torment and suffering, one already finds him, spiritually undergoing martyrdom, as it were, feeling it in graphic detail while writing on the way to Rome as in this emphatic passage: “Fire and cross and battling with wild beasts, the breaking of bones and mangling of members, the grinding of my whole body, the wicked torments of the devil—let them all assail me so long as I get to Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5: 8 also more famously found in Romans 4) This autobiographical account then, regardless of whether he actually suffered it in the flesh and whether in this exact manner or not, truly stands out as a uniquely personal and authentic witness for future generations of a martyr’s courage and love for Jesus Christ, thanks to his detailed and heartfelt narration of what was happening to him interiorly while already in the process of martyrdom.
One also discovers that the Letters of Ignatius contain some of the most vivid, memorable and original illustrations ever to be born of the Christian imagination. In just a single paragraph of his Letter to the Ephesians, he draws in quick succession three highly evocative images of the Christian community as seedbed, temple edifice and procession (Ephesians 9). While the first two images, namely that of seedbed and temple edifice, which we also find in the Gospel and in Saint Paul, and which are fairly sacred or at least neutral, may not seem so remarkable, the last image is certainly novel and audacious in that he sees and points out to us in a parade of idol-bearing pagans, a figure of the Church in pilgrimage, bearing Christ and the symbols of his Lordship in the sight of the world.
Truly, we find in these Letters a man able to see his chains as “spiritual pearls”(Ephesians 11: 4) and even find “joy in the wild beasts” (Romans 5: 1-2). He was a true visionary who had eyes that were not only perceptive but also open to notice truth and goodness even in the most unlikely of places. Indeed, Ignatius’ sense-perception was true spiritual contemplation, so deep and piercing, that he invites us to listen with him even to the “silence” of Jesus (Ephesians 15: 2) showing his evident mastery not only of the physical but even of the spiritual senses.
Truly these letters, as Quasten described, “give us a glimpse into the very heart of the great bishop-martyr and breathe forth a profound religious enthusiasm that catches us up and fires us.” (p. 64) Before the other Ignatius, who will only come much later after him, would invite his exercitant to the “application of the senses,” our Ignatius of antiquity would already “find God in all things,” leaving us with a precious and copiously illuminated manuscript that is as engaging as it is inspiring. †