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On Aspects of the Spiritual Life

 Rome, June 1, 1551

summary | text of letter  | footnotes

          When Simão Rodrigues, Portuguese provincial, travelled to Rome in the last months of 1550 to be present at the discussions on the Constitutions, Antonio Brandão1 was one of the Jesuits who accompanied him. The group, however, only arrived in the Eternal City on February 8, 1551, a week after the discussions had come to an end. While in Rome Brandão, who was a priest-scholastic at the time, took the opportunity to leave a list of fifteen questions with Polanco, Ignatius' secretary, with the request that Ignatius give his opinion on those points. Brandão and Rodrigues left Rome in the spring to return to Portugal, but it was not until June 1 that Ignatius sat down to answer his questions. The queries dealt with practical aspects of the spiritual life: prayer, Mass, confession, fraternal correction, and so on. Ignatius' answer is a description of the way he thought scholastics ought to be trained. The thoughts expressed are those of Ignatius, but the response was written by Polanco in Spanish [Ep. 3:506-513].


          Instructions given by our Father Ignatius, or under his direction, for those living outside Rome, as well as on other points worthy of notice and which should not be forgotten.

For Portugal

          A scholastic of the Society wishes to have our Father's directives on the following points:

          1. How much time should be given to prayer by one still in studies, and how much time should he spend conversing with his brothers, supposing that the rector has set no limits to these activities?

          2. Should Mass be celebrated daily, or only on certain days, even when it seems a hindrance to study?

          3. After finishing philosophy should one give more time to speculative or to moral theology, the supposition being that one does not give oneself entirely to both these subjects in college?

          4. What is to be done when one finds oneself entertaining an inordinate desire for knowledge?

          5. Should one offer oneself to the superior before being asked to do a certain task, or should one leave the entire matter in his hands?

          6. What method of meditation, more in keeping with our vocation, should be followed?

          7. In confession, should one get down to particular imperfections or, for the sake of brevity, be satisfied with mentioning the more general faults?

          8. If confession is made to a member of the community and the confessor questions the penitent, even though there is no question of sin, in what instances should the confessor ask the penitent's permission to inform the superior of the content of the confession?

          9. What attitude should one take in speaking with the superior concerning the difficulties of others? Should he make a complete revelation of them, even though some of them have ceased to be troublesome?

          10. Should one correct an imperfection noticed in a member of the Society, or should it be allowed to pass, allowing the individual to be deceived into thinking that it is no imperfection?

          11. If, before God, one believes that the superior—the rector, for instance—is wrong in a certain matter, should the provincial be informed, and the same of other subordinate superiors, or should one close one's eyes?

          12. What rule should be followed in writing either to externs or to ours, when there is no real need, nor having been commanded to do so, but merely out of motives of charity?

          13. In dealing with externs or Ours, should they use language which might appear to them to be mere civility, or should they avoid all forms of flattery?

          14. What should one do about volunteering information concerning one of the Society, and how should it be done?

          15. Would it be lawful to counsel an extern, or one of the house without vows, to take vows?

          What should they do about using or not using the privilege of the Society in dealing with a penitent?

          The first question has two parts, and the answer to the first part is to remember that the purpose of a scholastic at a college is to study, to acquire that knowledge with which he can serve God's greater glory and be of help to his neighbor. This is a task which demands all that a man has, and he will not give himself completely to his studies if he also gives a large amount of his time to prayer. Hence it will be sufficient if scholastics who are not priests (supposing there is no interior trial or exceptional feeling of devotion), give one hour to prayer over and above Mass. During Mass the scholastic should make a short meditation while the priest is at the secret parts, but during the hour of prayer he would ordinarily recite the hours of our Lady or some other prayer, or meditate, should the rector judge this to be better. If the scholastic is a priest, it will be enough for him to say his office, celebrate Mass, and make the examens. Should his devotion move him, he could add another half hour.

          The second part of the question will be answered if we consider the goal of conversing with others, which is to influence for good him with whom we converse. This edification is hindered by excess in either direction, and we should therefore avoid extremes and try to hold a middle course.

          With respect to the last clause of this question, our reverend Father made some remarks on the great esteem we should have for obedience. Some saints have excellences that are wanting in others, and the same is true of religious orders; and therefore it was his desire that in the Society there be an excellence, which would put it on a footing with any other religious order, even if they had excellences which we could not aspire to equal, though we might well make the attempt in some things—poverty, for instance. But our reverend Father wished that our excellence be obedience; we have a great obligation to excel in it because of the extra vow of obedience which the fathers have to the sovereign pontiff, which takes away every excuse we might have for not carrying out an order to obedience. And he also said that this obedience could not be perfect until the understanding of the subject was in complete conformity with the understanding of the superior. Without this conformity life would be a continual purgatory, and with little hope of stability.

          To the second question our reverend Father answered that, considering the purpose one of Ours should have in his studies, he could be satisfied with two Masses a week, over and above Sundays and feast days, supposing that none of the three following reasons urge otherwise (1) obedience, (2) common good, (3) exceptional devotion.

          To the third question, preference should be given to speculative theology, because, after finishing college, one has to devote oneself to moral theology, since that is necessary in speaking with others, and speculative theology is proper to class work where one studies fundamental truths.

          The fourth question will be answered with the sixth.

          The fifth. It would be good to offer oneself once for all to the superior for him to direct to the greater glory of God our Lord, leaving all care of oneself to him who has the place of Christ our Lord on earth, seldom making any representation unless something occurs which might especially require it.

          The sixth. Considering the goal of our studies, the scholastics can hardly give themselves to prolonged meditations. Over and above the spiritual exercises assigned for their perfection—namely, daily Mass, an hour for vocal prayer and examen of conscience, and weekly confession and Communion—they should practice the seeking of God's presence in all things, in their conversations, their walks, in all that they see, taste, hear, understand, and in all their actions, since His Divine Majesty is truly in all things by His presence, power, and essence. This kind of meditation, which finds God our Lord in all things, is easier than raising oneself to the consideration of divine truths, which are more abstract and which demand something of an effort, if we are to keep our attention on them. But this method is an excellent exercise to prepare us for great visitations of our Lord, even in prayers that are rather short. Besides this, the scholastics can frequently offer to God our Lord their studies and the efforts they demand, seeing that they have undertaken them for His love to the sacrifice of their personal tastes, so that to some extent, at least, we may be of service to his Divine Majesty and of help to the souls for whom He died. We can also make these exercises the matter of our examen.

          To these exercises we may add that of preaching in the colleges. After the example of a good life, one of the most efficient means of helping the neighbor, and one which is especially fitting to the Society, is preaching. Our reverend Father was of the opinion that no little fruit could be gathered if the scholastics did some preaching. He thought that they should preach on Sundays, on subjects of their own choosing, and as an exercise that involves no loss of time, two or three of them could, during supper, recite the tones2 which they had been taught, using, in the beginning the formula that is in use here in Rome. Then as things evolve another could easily be adopted which could develop according to local customs. The advantages of this exercise are very great, but for brevity's sake we omit mentioning them here.

          The seventh deals with confession. To avoid any mistake, we should notice from which side the enemy begins his attack and tries to make us offend our Lord. If he aims at getting us to commit mortal sins easily, the penitent should weigh well even the least imperfections which lead to that sin, and confess them. If he finds himself drawn to doubts and difficulties, seeing sin where there is no sin, he should not descend into minute details, but only mention his venial sins, and of these only the more important ones. If by God's grace the soul is at peace with God our Lord, let him confess his sins briefly, without going into detail. He should try to feel shame for them in God's presence, considering that He who is offended is infinite, which imparts a kind of infinity to the sin. But by the sovereign goodness of God our Lord they are venial, and are forgiven by using a little holy water, striking one's breast, making an act of contrition, and so forth.

          To the first part of the eighth, questions may and sometimes should be raised regarding certain venial faults, for they may be the means of revealing mortal sins and help the penitent to a clear manifestation of his conscience, by which he may be further helped.

          The second part of the eighth question. For greater clarity on this point, our Father insisted on the importance of the superior's being in touch with all that concerns his subjects, so that he could provide for each one according to his needs. Thus, if he knows that one is undergoing temptations of the flesh, he will not station him near fire by assigning him, for example, to hear the confessions of women, and so forth. Nor will he entrust government to one who is lacking in obedience. To guard against anything like this happening, our Father usually reserves certain cases to himself; all mortal sins, for example, and vehement temptations against the Institute, the superior, and other forms of instability. Keeping this in mind the confessor, according to the circumstances of each case, may discreetly ask leave to make a manifestation to the superior. There is reason to believe that, in this way, a troubled conscience will be helped more in the Lord than in any other.

          The ninth. The answer to the ninth may be deduced from the preceding, and it is that the superior should be wholly informed about everything, even of things past, always taking for granted one's good will, and with every precaution for the due observance of charity toward the neighbor.

          The part of the tenth concerns correcting another. For this to be successful, it will help much if the corrector has some authority, or acts with great affection, an affection that can be recognized as such. If either of these qualities is absent, the correction will fail; that is, there will be no amendment. For this reason it would not be proper for everybody to undertake such correction. But in whatever manner it is done, and if one is reasonably certain that it will be well taken, one's admonition should not be too forthright, but toned down and presented without offense. Since one sin leads to another, it is quite possible that, once committed, the sin will not dispose the sinner to accept even a well-intentioned correction in the right spirit.

          To the second part of the tenth, as to whether one should be left under the false impression that there is no imperfection, our reverend Father says that it might be better for the person's progress to do so. The more one attends to the faults of others, the less he will see of his own and, thus, make less progress himself. But if one is really advancing with his passions well under control and in good order, with our Lord expanding his heart so that he is a help to others as well as to himself, such a one may correct him who is in error, provided the manner suggested in number eleven be followed.

          As an answer to the eleventh question, our Father recounted what he told the first fathers after the six of them had made their profession together, namely, that they could help him toward perfection in two ways: the first was their own perfection; the second was to call his attention to whatever they thought was contrary to this perfection in him. He wanted them to have recourse to prayer before they corrected him and, then, if in the presence of God our Lord there was no change in their understanding and judgment, they were to tell him privately, a procedure which he himself follows now. Our Father said that it would be a great help to success in this matter if the superior entrusts this duty to some of his subjects—priests, for example, and others who are respected. He who wishes only to benefit himself would do well to close the eyes of his judgment. If anyone should have something to say, let him first carefully place himself in the presence our Lord, so as to know and make up his mind what he ought to do. Second, he should find some acceptable way of telling the delinquent if he thinks that he will accept the correction. But if he thinks that he will not accept it, let him tell the superior. Our Father thought it would be a great advantage to have a syndic to make these things known to the superior. Besides, he would have one or two as vice-rectors, one subject to the other, to help the rector, and with this arrangement the rector would be better able to be of greater help to one or the other and would keep the affection of his subjects, since they could look upon him as a refuge if they thought themselves severely dealt with by the vice-rectors.

          Our Father gave an answer to the thirteenth which seems rather striking to me; namely, that in dealing with another we should take a cue from the enemy who wishes to draw a man to evil: he goes in the way of the one whom he wishes to tempt, but comes out his own way. We may thus adapt ourselves to the inclinations of the one with whom we are dealing, adapting ourselves in our Lord to everyone, only later to come out with the good accomplished to which we had laid our hand. Our Father made another remark as to how to free oneself from one whom there was no hope of helping. He suggests talking to him rather pointedly of hell, judgment, and such things. In that case he would not return; or if he did, the chances are that he would feel himself touched in our Lord.

          Finally, one should accommodate oneself to the character of him with whom one is dealing, whether he be phlegmatic, choleric, and so forth. But this should be done within limits.

          The remaining questions depend more on the circumstances of individual cases, which, in this instance, were not given.


1 Brandão did not long remain a Jesuit. After returning to Portugal he was assigned (1552) to the Portuguese mission in Africa. On his way to the port in Lisbon he decided he really did not want to go to the Congo and so he abandoned the Society.
2 The tones was an exercise in declamation, a fixed formula meant to exemplify different emotions. The purpose of the exercise was to teach the young Jesuits the various modulations of voice necessary to carry a variety of emotions. It likewise indicated the type of gestures demanded by the different types of oratory. The text of the tones, as used in the Roman College, may be found in Regula Societatis Iesu (1540-1565) (MHSI) 254-255, note 9.