In the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, the composition of place is a specific component in contemplation. In reflecting on a scriptural passage or event, one first imagines the scene in concrete detail, and then places oneself in the scene, and then attends to the thoughts and feelings that arise. The composition of place also works as a general meditative technique. You ask yourself, Where am I? Really locating oneself takes time and unfolds across many scales—one’s immediate context and surroundings, rippling out to the neighborhood, town or city, country and so on out to the cosmos. This is also a process of slowing oneself down to address authentically and deeply, literally, where you are. The closer we examine the question, the more detail and complexity enters the picture, until we discover infinite riches and depths in the place we compose. Ignatius stresses that you should work to be surprised by where you are—that the intimacy necessary to prayer demands openness to surprise.
For Pierre Jardin, rock-gardening is a sort of literal implementation and embodiment of the Ignatian composition of place. Each day’s work in the Petriverse begins with a contemplative composition of place. Pierre enters the space; he moves and looks around slowly; touching stones, he pauses to think about the processes that gave form to and resulted in these rocks being made. He traces the patterns on the rocks and the patterns made by placing rocks. Composing place in the Petriverse also induces Pierre to reflect on the relations between rocks and other material around them—the living tissue of plants, the wood of trees and bark, and so on. Contemplation becomes environmental tuning, becoming attentive to the forces flowing through materials, becoming aware of how the environment changes with each movement through it.
In the composition of place, to look at the Petriverse is also to inject oneself into that world. For instance, Pierre used blue aquarium pebbles to evoke a stream running through the gravel path in the garden. He then placed groups of five, seven, and three rocks along the stream, consciously echoing the numerology of Zen Buddhist gardens such as the famous one at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto. The juxtaposition of stones and stream was designed to evoke the interplay between rocks and water central to Chinese and Japanese traditions.
Contemplating the stream and the concentrically whorled stones arranged alongside it, Pierre performs a kind of fractal zoom to project himself onto a miniature scale—the three-inch wide stream becomes a river of time; the stones are gigantic boulders or geological formations bordering the river; he floats down a canyon cut through the stones. This mental magnification in spatial scale has the immediate effect of slowing time down. The composition of place becomes a decomposition of time….