Ignatius on Spiritual Life (1551)

In this letter, Ignatius replies to a number of questions from Antonio Brandão, a Portuguese scholastic who had accompanied Simão Rodrigues to Rome. The original questions dealt with practical questions, some of which Ignatius addresses at the end of the letter by simply noting that they “are more dependent on circumstances.” Of note is Ignatius’s endorsement of “meditation—finding God our Lord in everything”—as an exercise that is “easier than lifting ourselves up and laboriously making ourselves present to more abstracted divine realities.” The replies complement the advice that Ignatius gave to Urbano Fernandes, the new rector at Coimbra, in a letter of the same date as this instruction. It was sent on behalf of Ignatius by Juan Alfonso de Polanco.

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







For Portugal: These are the points on which a scholastic of the Society [Brandão] desires to have information according to Our Father’s mind:

1.     How much should someone studying in a college devote to prayer and how much to conversing with his brethren, supposing the rector sets no limits to either?

2.     Should he omit Mass on some days or say it every day even if it hinders his studies somewhat?

3.     After finishing philosophy, which branch of theology, speculative or moral, should he concentrate on more if he does not think he can devote himself fully to both in the college?

4.     What should he do if he finds himself sometimes having inordinate desires to acquire knowledge?

5.     Should he offer himself for some task without the superior’s asking him, or leave it all up to the superior’s disposing?

6.     On which topics that would be more useful for our vocation should he work preferentially in meditation?

7.     In confession, should a person mention his imperfections in minute detail or only the larger ones, so as to keep the confession short?

8.     In hearing the confession of members of the community, should he question them even about matters not related to sin? In which cases should he ask the penitent’s permission to tell the superior about what was said in confession?

9.     How should he deal with the superior regarding the temptations experienced by others? Should he report them in full even if some of them may be over and past?

10.     Should one correct an imperfection noticed in an individual member of the Society, or leave him with the delusion that it is no imperfection?

11.     If before God one believes that his superior—say, the rector—is wrong about something, should he inform the provincial (and similarly with other subordinate superiors) or should he blind his own judgment?

12.     What rule should be followed as regards writing to externs or members of the Society, not because of need or a command of obedience, but merely out of charity or courtesy?

13.     In dealing with externs or certain members of the Society, should one use language they will find courteous or instead employ a certain religious bluntness?

14.     What rule should be observed in giving a person information about the Society, and how should this be gone about?

15.     In dealing with people outside the Society, may one advise them to enter a particular religious order? And is it proper to counsel an extern, or someone in the house without vows, to take vows?

16.     What considerations enter into using or not using a privilege of the Society in dealing with a penitent?


[The following is placed in the margins:]

In the two margins the following brief replies are given, drawn from a number of things which the same scholastic saw in Our Reverend Father.


[Reply to Question 1:]     The answer to the first of the two parts of the first question is to remember that the purpose of a scholastic at his studies in the college is to acquire knowledge with which to serve God for his greater glory by helping his neighbor. This demands the whole man, and he would not be devoting himself completely to his studies if he gave himself to lengthy periods of prayer. Hence, for a scholastic who is not a priest (barring the intervention of disturbing agitations or exceptional devotion), one hour besides Mass is all that is needed. During Mass he can make some meditation while the priest is saying the silent parts. During the allotted hour he may as a general rule recite the Hours of Our Lady or some other prayer, or else meditate, as the rector determines. For a priest-scholastic all that is needed are the obligatory office of the hours, Mass, and the examens. He could take an additional half hour in case of exceptional devotion.

The second part of the first question will be answered by considering the purpose of conversing with others: to influence for good those with whom we converse. This is hindered by talking either too little or too much. Hence one should avoid the extremes and try to strike a mean.

In connection with this second part, Our Reverend Father mentioned the great importance that should be given to obedience. His wish was this: Just as individual saints have preeminences that others do not, it is the same with religious orders; he wanted the Society to have one outstanding characteristic that would put it on a par with any other religious order, even though other orders might have characteristics that our Institute cannot have (although in some things, like poverty, we might well be able to equal them). Our Reverend Father wanted our outstanding feature to be obedience. He said that we have a greater obligation in this regard because of the fathers’ extra vow of obedience to the Supreme Pontiff and because they are not allowed to decline carrying out any command of obedience. He also said that this obedience cannot be perfect unless the subject’s understanding is completely conformed to that of the superior; otherwise, he will have a continual purgatory and cause for instability.

[Reply to 2:]     To the second question Our Reverend Father answered that, considering the purpose of the studies of one of our men, in cases where (1) obedience,  (2) the common good, or (3) exceptional devotion do not dictate otherwise, it suffices to say two Masses a week besides Sundays and feast days.

[Reply to 3:]     As to the third question, preference should be given to speculative theology, since after his time in the college, he will be forced to spend time on moral theology, needing it for talks and other situations, whereas speculative theology is more suited to the classroom, where truths and their underlying grounds are examined.

[Reply to 4:]     The fourth question will be answered with the sixth.

[Reply to 5:]     The fifth. It is good for a person to place himself once and for all at the superior’s disposal for our Lord’s greater glory, leaving all concern about it to him as one who holds the place of Christ our Lord on earth, and not making frequent representations to him unless something occurs that might especially move the person to do so.

[Reply to 6:]     The sixth. In view of the end of our studies, the scholastics cannot engage in long meditations. Over and above the exercises for growth in virtue (daily Mass, an hour for vocal prayers and the examen of conscience, weekly confession and Communion), they can practice seeking the presence of our Lord in all things: in their dealings with other people, their walking, seeing, tasting, hearing, understanding, and all our activities. For his Divine Majesty truly is in everything by his presence, power, and essence. This kind of meditation—finding God our Lord in everything—is easier than lifting ourselves up and laboriously making ourselves present to more abstracted divine realities. Moreover, by making us properly disposed, this excellent exercise will bring great visitations of our Lord even in a short prayer. In addition, one can practice frequently offering to God our Lord his studies along with the effort that these demand, keeping in mind that we undertake them for his love and setting aside our personal tastes so as to render some service to his Divine Majesty by helping those for whose life he died. We could also make these two practices the matter of our examen.

To these exercises may be added that of preaching in the colleges. For after the example of a good life, one of the things that afford most help to the neighbor (which is the Society’s special purpose) is preaching. Our Reverend Father thought that considerable benefit could be derived from the scholastics’ getting practice in preaching: they should preach on Sundays on a subject of their own choosing; moreover, by way of practice, so as not to lose study time, two or three of them could declaim at supper the formula of the “tones” that they had been taught, starting off with the formula we use in Rome, so that, after working it through, they could more easily go on to a different one, adding to or subtracting from the Roman formula in accord with local practice. The advantages of this excellent exercise are very great, but for brevity’s sake are omitted here.

[Reply to 7:]     On the seventh point, to avoid being misled, he should notice from which side the enemy attacks and tries to make him offend our Lord God. If the enemy is making mortal sins easy for him, he should strive to weigh even the least imperfections of that species and confess them. If the enemy tries to bewilder him by making sin out of what is not sin, the person should avoid going into details and mention only his venial sins—and of these only the more important. And if by God’s grace the person has reached peace with our Lord, he should confess his sins briefly without going into detail but striving to feel confusion for his sins in God’s presence by reflecting that since the one against whom venial sin are committed is infinite, this imparts infinite gravity to the sins themselves, but that through God our Lord’s sovereign goodness they are venial and can be forgiven by using holy water, striking one’s breast, detesting them, etc.

[Reply to 8:]     Regarding the first part of the eighth question: The confessor sometimes may and should ask questions about venial faults, for in this way mortal sins are brought to light and the penitent manifests his conscience more fully and is thus more benefited.

The second part of the eighth question: For greater clarity, Our Father stressed the importance of the superior’s being aware of everything that is going on in his subjects, so that he can provide for each according to his needs. In this way the superior will not, being ignorant of his subject’s affliction, place a person experiencing temptations of the flesh next to the fire by assigning him, say, to hear women’s confessions, etc.; he will not put someone lacking in obedience into a position of authority. To prevent such things, Our Father reserves certain cases to himself, namely, all mortal sins and strong temptations against the Society’s Institute or head and against perseverance. In view of this, the confessor, discreetly and taking into account the matter and particular circumstances, may ask permission to tell the matter to the superior, from whom there is reason to believe the afflicted person will receive more help in the Lord than from any other source.

[Reply to 9:]     The ninth: The answer to the ninth may be gathered from the foregoing: the superior ought to be fully informed about everything, even things over and past—provided that ill will plays no part and that due charity toward the neighbor is maintained.

[Reply to 10:]     The first part of the tenth question, on the correction of another: Success in this matter depends largely upon the authority enjoyed by the person giving the correction, or upon his love and the perception of this love. Lacking either of these, the correction will produce no effect of amendment. Correcting others is thus not for everybody. Moreover, no matter how a person gives an admonition, deeming that it will lead to the person’s amendment, it is better not to state things too forthrightly, but indirectly under some pretext; for one sin can engender another—the sin originally committed may incline a person not to accept the alms of correction well.

As to the second part of the tenth question—on whether a person ought to leave another under the false impression that something is no imperfection—Our Reverend Father said that for the person’s own good this was the best course, and that the more one attends to others’ faults, the less likely he is to dwell within himself and look at his own faults, and so the less progress he will make. However, when a person is becoming more perfect and has his own passions under control and in good order, and our Lord enlarges his heart to help others as well as himself, that person may well correct another’s fault, observing the procedure indicated in number 11 below.

[Reply to 11:]     In response to the eleventh question, Our Father recounted what he had told the first fathers after six of them had made their profession together. He told them that there were two ways they could help him perfect his own soul: first by their own perfection, and secondly by drawing his attention to anything they judged was not according to God. However, they should follow this procedure: their admonition should be preceded by prayer; then, if they still thought and judged the same in the presence of the Lord, they should tell him about it privately—a procedure he himself follows now. To do this well, Our Reverend Father said that it would be a great help if the superior entrusted this duty to certain of his subjects—the priests, for example, and persons who give edification. A person concerned only to benefit himself would do well to blind the eyes of his judgment. If someone has to express his opinion, he should take care first to place himself before our Lord, so as to know and decide what he ought to do; then he should courteously tell the person if he deems it will do him good; if not, he should tell the person’s superior. Here Our Father mentioned the great advantage of having an admonitor to report things to the superior; also of having one or two men who would function as vice-rectors, one under the other, to assist the rector. In this way the rector can be of much greater help to different persons and be more loved by his subjects, who will see him as someone they can turn to if in some matter they feel ill-used by the vice-rectors.

[Reply to 13:]     I found Our Father’s reply to the thirteenth question quite striking; namely, that in dealing with another we should do as the enemy does when he wishes to draw a person to evil: he goes in by the way of the one he wishes to tempt to evil, but comes out by his own. Similarly, we may accommodate ourselves to the inclinations of those we deal with, adapting ourselves in our Lord to everything, only to come out later with the good we were laboring for. Our Father made another remark about how to break free from a person whom there was no prospect of helping: talk to him vigorously about hell, judgment, and the like. The person will then not come back—or, if he does, it will presumably be because he has felt himself touched in some way by the Lord.

The third thing he mentioned was to adapt oneself to the temperament of the person being dealt with (whether phlegmatic, or choleric, etc.)—doing so with moderation.

The remaining questions are more dependent on circumstances that those discussed here.



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 Father Antonio Brandão, by commission, Rome, June 1, 1551,” pg. 339–345.

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