Ignatius on Perfection (1547)

Ignatius addressed this “Letter of Perfection” to the flourishing scholasticate at Coimbra, in Portugal. Though the scholasticate prospered with vocations and zeal, the latter was at times quite indiscreet. Concerned observers felt that Simão Rodrigues, the Portuguese provincial, was too compliant in allowing the scholastics to become “fools for Christ,in such manifestations as self-flagellation and half-nude preaching on the streets at Coimbra and loud nocturnal summonings of the population to penitence. Pierre Favre and Antonio de Araoz had noted the situation with concern. Rodrigues finally sought a letter from Ignatius, whom, on his part, would have preferred to have called Rodrigues to Rome. The situation produced this long and well-crafted letter, probably drafted by Juan Alfonso de Polanco but still expressing Ignatius’s own views. The letter urges the scholastics to advance towards perfection by conveying to them the excellence of the vocation and gifts they have received, the value of fervor, and the great need of souls. However, it exhorts them to avoid indiscreet zeal and to hold to the guidance of obedience. The letter concludes by indicating ways in which they can serve God during their time of preparation and studies.

For more sources from Ignatius, please visit the Letters of Ignatius of Loyola.




May the grace and eternal love of Christ our Lord be always our protection and help. Amen.

Through letters of Master Simão and also of Santa Cruz, I regularly receive news of you; and God, from whom descends everything that is good, knows what consolation and joy it gives me to see how he is furthering you in your pursuit of both learning and virtue—the good odor of which encourages and edifies many people even in places distant from your own land. And if every Christian ought to be glad at this because of our common obligation to love the honor of God and the welfare of his image that has been redeemed by the blood and death of Jesus Christ, I have good reason to be especially glad in our Lord, bound as I am to have a particular affection for you in my soul. May our Creator and Redeemer be always blessed and praised for all of this, since it is from his infinite generosity that every good and every grace flows. And may it please him to open wider every day the fountain of his mercies so as to increase and further what he has already begun in your souls. I have no doubt that his supreme goodness—so supremely disposed to communicate his goods and that eternal love by which he is far more eager to bestow our perfection upon us than we are to receive it—will indeed do this. Otherwise Jesus Christ would not encourage us to aspire to what we can get only from his hand, when he tells us, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” So it is certain that on his own part he is ready, provided that on our part there is a vessel of humility and longing to receive his gifts, and that he sees us making good use of the gifts we have received and praying diligently and earnestly for his grace.

On this point I will not fail to put the spur even to those among you who are already running. For I can assure you that you must make enormous strides in studies and virtue if you are going to come up to the expectations that so many people have of you, not just in your own kingdom but in many other regions as well—persons who, when they see what helps and advantages of every kind, both interior and exterior, God gives you, justifiably anticipate a quite extraordinary result. No commonplace achievement will satisfy the great obligation you have of doing well. Examine the nature of your vocation, and you will see that what would not be slight in others would be slight in you. God has not only called you out of darkness into his marvelous light and transferred you into the kingdom of his beloved Son, as he has done with the rest of the faithful. Rather, to ensure that you better preserve your purity and possess a more single-hearted love in the spiritual matters of his service, he thought it good to draw you out of the perilous sea of this world, so that your consciences would not be imperiled amid the tempests raised there by the wind of desire for possessions, honors, and pleasures—or, on the other hand, by the fear of losing all these.

He has done this also in order to keep these base things from occupying, or from dissipating and scattering, your mind and love, so that you might single-heartedly turn and dedicate yourselves to what God created you for: his own honor and glory, your own salvation, and the help of your neighbor. While all institutes of Christian life are directed to these ends, you have been called by God to this one, where, not with a mere general intent, but with an investment therein of your whole life and all its activities, you are to make yourselves a continual sacrifice to the glory of God and the salvation of the neighbor, towards which you are to cooperate not just by your example and earnest prayers but also by the other outward means ordained by his divine providence for our helping each other. From this you can realize what a noble and royal way of life you have taken up: for not only among human beings but even among angels, there is no nobler activity than that of glorifying their Creator and bringing his creatures back to him to the extent of their capacity.

Therefore, study your vocation, so that on the one hand you can give many thanks to God for this great favor, and on the other beg him for special help so that you can respond to it and strive onward with the great courage and diligence which you so badly need for the achievement of these goals. Slackness, tepidity, and lethargy in studies and in your other activities for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ, these you must recognize as sworn enemies of your goal.

To urge himself on, each of you should keep his eyes, not on those he considers of lesser caliber, but on those who are most ardent and energetic. Do not let the children of this world outdo you by showing greater care and zeal for temporal things than you do for eternal ones. It should shame you to see them running towards death more eagerly than you do towards life. Think poorly of yourselves if a courtier renders more attentive service for the favor of an earthly prince than you do for that of the heavenly King, or if a soldier trains and fights more bravely for the glory of victory and a bit of booty than you do for a victory and triumph over the world, the devil, and your own selves, as well as for the kingdom and eternal glory.

And so for the love of God do not be slack or tepid. For, as they say, if tautness breaks the bow, idleness breaks the soul; whereas Solomon says that “the soul of those who work shall become fat.” Try to maintain a holy and discerning ardor in working to acquire both learning and virtues. In either of these, a single intense act is worth a thousand listless ones; an energetic person achieves in a short time what a lazy one fails to attain in many years.

In studies there is a clear difference between the hard-working and the negligent, but the same is true in overcoming the passions and weaknesses to which our nature is subject, and in acquiring the virtues. It is certain that the listless, by not struggling against themselves, only late in life or even never attain peace of soul or the full possession of any virtue, whereas the energetic and hard-working make great strides in both areas.

Experience shows that any satisfaction in this life belongs not to the slack but to the fervent in God’s service—and rightly so; for by making every effort on their own part to overcome themselves and get rid of self-love, they thereby rid themselves of the roots of all passions and anxieties; as they acquire the habits of virtue, they become able to act in conformity to these naturally, with ease and alacrity.

And in relation to God, our most merciful consoler, these persons thereby dispose themselves to receive his holy consolations, for “to the one who overcomes I will give the hidden manna.” Lukewarmness, on the other hand, keeps a person living in constant anxieties, for it prevents him from getting rid of their cause—self-love—and makes us undeserving of God’s help. So you should summon up great courage to work hard at your praiseworthy exercises; for even in this life you will experience the value of holy fervor, not only in the perfecting of your souls but also in your peace of mind during this present life.

For if you look to the reward of eternal life, as you should frequently do, St. Paul will easily convince you that “the sufferings of this time are not worth comparing with the future glory that will be revealed in us,” for “our present momentary and light tribulation achieves for us above all measure an eternal weight of glory on high.”

If this is true of every Christian who serves and honors God, you can understand what your own crown will be if you live up to our Institute, which not only [calls you] to serve God yourselves but to draw many others to work for his service and honor. Regarding such persons Scripture says, “Those who instruct many to justice will shine like stars of the firmament for all eternity.” This should be applied to themselves by those persons who strive to do their duty with earnestness and diligence, both later in the battle itself and during the time of preparation for it. From elsewhere it is clear that merely engaging in actions that are intrinsically good does not suffice. Jeremiah tells us, “Cursed be whoever does the work of the Lord negligently;” and St. Paul says, “Do you not know that many run in the race but one receives the prize?”—that is, the one who strives hard—and, “Only he gets the crown who competes legitimately”—that is, who strives hard.

But above all I want you to be stirred up by the pure love of Jesus Christ, by a longing for his honor and for the salvation of the souls he has redeemed. For you are his soldiers in this company, enjoying a special title and special wages. (I say “special” because there are numerous other more general motives which strongly oblige you to seek his honor and service.) His wages are everything that you are and possess in the natural order, for he gave to you and preserves for you your being and life, with all qualities and perfections of body and soul and all exterior goods. His wages are the spiritual gifts of his grace with which he has so generously and lovingly anticipated you, and which he goes on giving even as you oppose and rebel against him. His wages are the incalculable blessings of his eternal glory which, without his being able to benefit thereby, he has promised and prepared for you, giving you a share in all the treasures of his happiness, so that you, by a sublime participation in his divine perfection, may be what he is by his essence and nature. Finally, his wages are the entire universe and every material and spiritual reality that it contains; for he has placed at our service not only everything under the heavens but his entire high celestial court as well, exempting not even one of the heavenly hierarchies, who are “all ministering spirits for those who will receive the inheritance of salvation.” And as though all these wages were not enough, he has made himself our wage, giving himself to us as a brother in our flesh, as our salvation’s price on the cross, and as the support and accompaniment of our pilgrimage in the Eucharist. Oh, what a poor soldier he would be for whom such wages were not enough to make him toil for the honor of such a prince! For there is no doubt that it was to oblige us to desire and labor for his honor with greater eagerness that His Majesty chose to anticipate us with these priceless and costly favors—his all-perfect felicity, in a sense divesting itself of its own goods so that we might share them, and taking on all our miseries so that we might be freed from them; choosing to be sold for our redemption, dishonored for our glorification, made poor for our enrichment; and accepting a disgraceful and painful death to give us a blessed and immortal life. How excessively thankless and hardhearted would a person be if after all this he failed to acknowledge himself deeply bound diligently to serve and seek the honor of our Lord Jesus Christ!

Now, if you recognize this obligation and long to engage in promoting this honor of his, you are certainly living in times that require you to show your desires in action. Ask yourselves: Where is the Divine Majesty honored today? Where is his infinite greatness venerated? Where is his wisdom known, where his infinite goodness? Where is his most holy will obeyed? See instead, with profound sorrow, how his holy name is everywhere unknown, despised, blasphemed. The teaching of Jesus Christ is rejected, his example ignored, the price of his blood in a sense wasted on our part because so few take advantage of it. See your neighbors also—images of the Most Holy Trinity, capable of possessing the glory of him whom the whole universe serves, members of Jesus Christ redeemed by him with so much pain, opprobrium, and blood—see how wretched is their state, in such deep darkness of ignorance and amid such storms of desires, vain fears, and other passions; assailed by so many visible and invisible enemies; in danger of losing, not their property or temporal life, but the kingdom and eternal happiness, and of falling ,into the unbearable misery of everlasting fire.

To sum up my meaning in a few words: If you thought carefully about how deeply you are bound to defend the honor of Jesus Christ and the salvation of your neighbor, you would see how much you are obliged to dispose yourselves for every toil and labor to make yourselves apt instruments of God’s grace for this purpose, particularly nowadays, when there are so few real laborers, so few persons who seek “not the things that are their own but the things that are Jesus Christ’s;” you need to strive all the harder to make up for what others fail to do, since God is giving you such a special grace in this vocation and resolve.

What I have said so far in order to arouse the sleeping and spur on those who linger and loiter on the way should not be taken as an occasion for going to the opposite extreme of indiscreet fervor. Spiritual illnesses arise not just from chilling causes like tepidity but also from hot ones like excessive fervor. “Yours should be a rational service,” said St. Paul, for he knew the truth of the Psalmist’s words, “The king’s honor loves judgment,” that is, discretion; and of what was prefigured in Leviticus where it says, “With every work of yours you shall offer salt.” Thus, as St. Bernard says, the enemy has no more effective device for robbing a person of genuine charity of heart than by getting him to proceed therein heedlessly and without spiritual reasonableness. We should always observe the Philosopher’s adage, “Nothing in excess”—even in justice itself, as you read in Ecclesiastes, “Do not be overly just.” Without this moderation, good turns into evil and virtue into vice; and numerous bad consequences ensue, contrary to the intentions of the one proceeding in this way.

The first is that it makes a person unable to serve God over the long haul. If a horse is exhausted in the early stages of a trip, it usually does not complete the journey; instead, it ends up making others have to care for it.

Second, gains made too hastily in this way usually do not last; as Scripture says, “Substance got in haste will be diminished.” It is not only diminished, it causes a fall: “Whoever is hasty with his feet shall stumble;” and the higher he was, the more dangerously will he fall—not halting until he comes to the bottom of the ladder.

Third, there is disregard of the danger of overloading the vessel; for while it is dangerous to sail a vessel empty, since it will be tossed about by temptations, it is even more dangerous to load it so heavily that it sinks.

Fourth, in crucifying the old man, the new man is sometimes crucified as well and becomes too weak to practice the virtues. St. Bernard tells us that this excess causes four losses: “The body loses power, the spirit devotion, the neighbor good example, and God honor.” He thence infers that anyone mistreating the living temple of God in this way commits a sacrilege and incurs the· guilt of the above-mentioned losses. Bernard says that these persons deprive the neighbor of good example: one person falls, this produces scandal, and so on. Givers of scandal to others, says Bernard, are destroyers of unity and enemies of peace. Moreover, one person’s fall scares off many others and makes them lukewarm in advancing spiritually. The persons themselves run the risk of pride and vanity by placing their own judgment above others’, or at least by arrogating what does not belong to them and setting themselves up as judges in their own case, of which their superior is the rightful judge.

Besides these harms, there are also others: weighing oneself down with arms one cannot handle, like David with the armor of Saul; or using the spurs instead of the reins on a naturally impetuous horse. Thus discretion is needed here to hold a person’s virtuous practices between the two extremes. St. Bernard well advises, “Goodwill cannot always be trusted; it needs to be bridled, it needs to be regulated, especially in beginners.” Otherwise a person who wants to be good for others may prove bad for himself: “If a person is bad for himself, for whom is he good?” And if you think discretion is a rarity and hard to come by, at least make up for it by obedience, whose counsel will be sure. A person who prefers following his own opinion should listen to St. Bernard’s words: “Anything done without the spiritual father’s approval or consent should be put down to vainglory and not to one’s credit.” And he should remember that according to Scripture “it is the crime of idolatry not to submit, the sin of witchcraft not to obey.” Consequently, if you want to preserve the mean between the extremes of tepidity and indiscreet fervor, consult the superior and stay close to obedience. If you have a yearning for mortifications, use it to break your own will and submit your own judgment to the yoke of obedience, rather than by enfeebling your bodies and afflicting them without due moderation, particularly now during your studies.

From all that I have just written, I would not want you to think that I disapprove of what I have been told about some of your mortifications. I know that saints have made good use of these holy follies and others like them, and that they are helpful for overcoming oneself and getting further grace, particularly at the beginning. But for a person who already has a certain mastery over his self-love, I consider what I have written above about returning to a discerning moderation and not deviating from obedience to be the better course. I particularly urge obedience, and along with it that virtue, the sum of all the virtues, which was so stressed by Jesus Christ, who called its precept his own commandment: “This is my commandment, that you love one another.” I want you not merely to maintain this unity and uninterrupted love among yourselves but also to extend it to all persons, striving to enkindle in your souls lively desires for your neighbor’s salvation, weighing the value of every soul by the price of the blood and life of Jesus Christ that was paid for it; so that, as you acquire learning on the one hand and grow in fraternal charity on the other, you will become perfect instruments of God’s grace, and collaborators in the sublime work of bringing God’s creatures back to him as their highest end.

And do not imagine that during this interval of studies you are not being useful to your neighbor. Over and above the advantage to yourself (which is demanded by well-ordered charity: “Have pity on your own soul, fearing God”), you are serving God’s honor and glory in many ways.

First, you are doing so by your present labors along with your intention in undertaking and directing them all for your neighbor’s upbuilding. When soldiers are busy furnishing themselves with arms and munitions for the expected campaign, no one would say they are not working in their prince’s service. And even if death were to cut someone off before he began dealing outwardly with the neighbor, he would nonetheless have served him in the labor of preparation. Moreover, besides this intention for the future, he ought to offer himself to God on his neighbors’ behalf every day: through God’s deigning to accept this offering, the man might well be as much an instrument for helping the neighbor as he would through preaching or hearing confessions.

The second way is by becoming very virtuous and good; this will enable you to make your neighbor the same as yourselves. The process that God wills to prevail in material generation he wills analogously in spiritual generation. Natural philosophy and experience teach you that for the generation of a human being or an animal, in addition to such general causes as the heavens, there is needed another immediate cause or agent which is of the same species, so that it will possess the same form as the one it wishes to transmit into another subject. (Hence the saying, “Man is begotten by the sun and by man.”) Similarly, to impart to others the forms of humility, patience, charity, and so on, God wills that the immediate cause which he uses as instrument, such as a preacher or confessor, should himself be humble, patient, and charitable. In this way, as I was saying, while you personally advance in every virtue, you are also greatly serving your neighbor. For you are preparing a no less fit instrument, but even a fitter one, for imparting grace to others by means of a good life than by the acquisition of learning (although both are required for a perfect instrument).

The third way of helping the neighbor is by the good example of your life. In this regard, as I already mentioned, your good odor has by God’s grace spread abroad and given edification even in places outside your own kingdom. And I trust in the Author of all good that he will preserve and increase his gifts in you, so that you may advance in perfection daily, and so that—without your seeking it—your good odor and the edification that ensues from it may increase.

The fourth and very far-reaching way of helping your neighbor consists in holy desires and prayers. While studies do not leave you time, for long prayers, the time can be made up for by desires when a person turns all his activities into a continual prayer by undertaking them solely for the service of God. However, for this and all other matters you have persons with you there whom you can consult in detail. And while for that reason I need not have written all this to you, nevertheless, since I so rarely do so, I decided this time to take consolation in you by writing at length.

That is all for now, except that I pray that as God our Creator and Redeemer has deigned to bestow such a great grace on you by calling you and giving you a firm resolve to employ yourselves totally in his service, he may also graciously continue and increase his gifts in you all, so that you will steadily persevere and grow in his service, to his great honor and glory and the help of his holy Church.



[Yours in our Lord,





Original Source (English translation):

Ignatius of Loyola: Letters and Instructions, ed. John W. Padberg, et al. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996, “To the Fathers and Scholastics at Coimbra, Rome, May 7, 1547,” pg. 165–174.