To the Members of the Society in Portugal

On Perfect Obedience Rome, March 26, 1553

summary | text of letter  | footnotes

          This letter on obedience is Ignatius' most celebrated and most widely-read letter. As early as 1545 Ignatius heard of certain shortcomings among the Jesuits in the Portuguese province with regard to obedience; the news that his sons were acting in a manner entirely foreign to the spirit of the Society brought him great distress. The sad condition in Portugal was largely due to the easy-going style of government of its provincial, Simão Rodrigues. So popular was he among some that the province developed into factions, and the group favoring Rodrigues was attached to him with an affection that was far from spiritual. The problem became so acute that Ignatius found it necessary to remove Rodrigues and appoint a new provincial, Diego Miró. But as long as Rodrigues remained among his followers, the new provincial could do nothing to turn the province around. Disobedience was still rampant and Ignatius wrote to Miró in December 15511 instructing him to dismiss from the Society any and all who disobeyed his orders.

          In January 1553 Luis Gonçalves da Camâra wrote to Ignatius from Lisbon2 and described the sorrowful state of the province where the subjects have become the real superiors, and urgently requested Ignatius to write to his sons in Portugal and share with them his thoughts on obedience. Two months later Ignatius acceded to this request. Ignatius' letter studies the question of obedience in depth. He first states that obedience is to be the characteristic virtue of the Society and then goes on to speak of its fundamental principle, its three degrees, suggests practical ways of acquiring it, and ends by exhorting his sons to strive to attain it. Ignatius intended his letter to remedy the disorders in Portugal and within months after its arrival Rodrigues decided to leave Portugal and by the end of 1553 peace was again restored to the province. This letter [Ep. 4:669-68] was drafted by Polanco and was written in Spanish with the several patristic citations given in Latin. The headings in the letter below have been added to facilitate reading. 3


          May the perfect grace and everlasting love of Christ our Lord greet and visit you with His most holy gifts and spiritual graces.

1. Obedience Is To Be the Characteristic Virtue of the Society

          It gives me great consolation, my dear brothers in our Lord Jesus Christ, when I learn of the lively and earnest desires for perfection in His divine service and glory which He gives you, who by His mercy has called you to this Society and preserves you in it and directs you to the blessed end at which His chosen ones arrive.

          And though I wish you all perfection in every virtue and spiritual gift, it is true (as you have heard from me on other occasions), that it is in obedience, more than in any other virtue, that God our Lord gives me the desire to see you signalize yourselves. And that, not only because of the singular good there is in it, so much emphasized by word and example in Holy Scripture in both Old and New Testaments, but because, as Saint Gregory says: "obedience is the only virtue which plants all the other virtues in the mind, and preserves them once they are planted." And insofar as this virtue flourishes, all the other virtues will flourish and bring forth the fruit which I desire in your souls, and which He claims who, by His obedience, redeemed the world after it had been destroyed by the lack of it, becoming obedient unto death, even death on a cross [Phil. 2:8].

          We may allow ourselves to be surpassed by other religious orders in fasts, watchings, and other austerities, which each one following its institute holily observes. But in the purity and perfection of obedience together with the true resignation of our wills and the abnegation of our understanding, I am very desirous, my dear brothers, that they who serve God in this Society should be conspicuous, so that by this virtue its true sons may be recognized as men who regard not the person whom they obey, but in him Christ our Lord, for whose sake they obey.

2. The Foundation of Obedience

          The superior is to be obeyed not because he is prudent, or good, or qualified by any other gift of God, but because he holds the place and the authority of God, as Eternal Truth has said: He who hears you, hears me; and he who rejects you, rejects me [Luke 10:16]. Nor on the contrary, should he lack prudence, is he to be the less obeyed in that in which he is superior, since he represents Him who is infallible wisdom, and who will supply what is wanting in His minister, nor, should he lack goodness or other desirable qualities, since Christ our Lord, having said, the scribes and the Pharisees sit on the chair of Moses, adds, therefore, whatever they shall tell you, observe and do: but do not act according to their works [Matt. 23:2-3].

          Therefore I should wish that all of you would train yourselves to recognize Christ our Lord in any superior, and with all devotion, reverence and obey His Divine Majesty in him. This will appear less strange to you if you keep in mind that Saint Paul, writing to the Ephesians, bids us obey even temporal and pagan superiors as Christ, from whom all well-ordered authority descends: Slaves, obey those who are your lords according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ, not serving to the eye as pleasers of men, but as the slaves of Christ doing the will of God from your heart, giving your service with good will as to the Lord and not to men [Eph. 6:5-7]. From this you can judge, when a religious is taken not only as superior and guide in the divine service, what rank he ought to hold in the mind of the inferior, and whether he ought to be looked upon as man or rather as the vicar of Christ our Lord.

3. Degrees of Obedience

Obedience of Execution and of the Will

          I also desire that this be firmly fixed in your minds, that the first degree of obedience is very low, which consists in the execution of what is commanded, and that it does not deserve the name of obedience, since it does not attain to the worth of this virtue unless it rises to the second degree, which is to make the superior's will one's own in such a way that there is not merely the effectual execution of the command, but an interior conformity, whether willing or not willing the same. Hence it is said in Scripture, obedience is better than sacrifice [1 Sam. 15:22], for, according to Saint Gregory: "In victims the flesh of another is slain, but in obedience our own will is sacrificed."

          Now because this disposition of will in man is of so great worth, so also is the offering of it, when by obedience it is offered to his Creator and Lord. How great a deception it is, and how dangerous for those who think it lawful to withdraw from the will of their superior, I do not say only in those things pertaining to flesh and blood, but even in those which of their nature are spiritual and holy, such as fasts, prayers, and other pious works! Let them hear Cassian's comment in the Conference of David the Abbot: "It is one and the selfsame kind of disobedience, whether in earnestness of labor, or the desire of ease, one breaks the command of the superior, and as harmful to go against the statutes of the monastery out of sloth as out of watchfulness; and finally, it is as bad to transgress the precept of the abbot to read as to contemn it to sleep." Holy was the activity of Martha, holy the contemplation of Magdalene, and holy the penitence and tears with which she bathed the feet of Christ our Lord; but all this was to be done in Bethany, which is interpreted to mean, the house of obedience. It would seem, therefore, that Christ our Lord would give us to understand, as Saint Bernard remarks, "that neither the activity of good works, nor the leisure of contemplation, nor the tears of the penitent would have pleased Him out of Bethany."

          And thus my dear brothers, try to make the surrender of your wills entire. Offer freely to God through His ministers the liberty He has bestowed on you. Do not think it a slight advantage of your free will that you are able to restore it wholly in obedience to Him who gave it to you. In this you do not lose it, but rather perfect it in conforming your will wholly with the most certain rule of all rectitude, which is the divine will, the interpreter of which is the superior who governs you in place of God.

          For this reason you must never try to draw the will of the superior (which you should consider the will of God) to your own will. This would not be making the divine will the rule of your own, but your own the rule of the divine, and so distorting the order of His wisdom. It is a great delusion in those whose understanding has been darkened by self-love, to think that there is any obedience in the subject who tries to draw the superior to what he wishes. Listen to Saint Bernard, who had much experience in this matter: "Whoever endeavors either openly or covertly to have his spiritual father enjoin him what he himself desires, deceives himself if he flatters himself as a true follower of obedience. For in that he does not obey his superior, but rather the superior obeys him." And so he concludes that he who wishes to rise to the virtue of obedience must rise to the second degree, which, over and above the execution, consists in making the superior's will one's own, or rather putting off his own will to clothe himself with the divine will interpreted by the superior.

Obedience of the Understanding

          But he who aims at making an entire and perfect oblation of himself, in addition to his will, must offer his understanding, which is a further and the highest degree of obedience. He must not only will, but he must think the same as the superior, submitting his own judgment to that of the superior, so far as a devout will can bend the understanding.

          For although this faculty has not the freedom of the will, and naturally gives its assent to what is presented to it as true, there are, however, many instances where the evidence of the known truth is not coercive and it can, with the help of the will, favor one side or the other. When this happens every truly obedient man should conform his thought to the thought of the superior.

          And this is certain, since obedience is a holocaust in which the whole man without the slightest reserve is offered in the fire of charity to his Creator and Lord through the hands of His ministers. And since it is a complete surrender of himself by which a man dispossesses himself to be possessed and governed by Divine Providence through his superiors, it cannot be held that obedience consists merely in the execution, by carrying the command into effect and in the will's acquiescence, but also in the judgment, which must approve the superior's command, insofar, as has been said, as it can, through the energy of the will bring itself to this.

          Would to God that this obedience of the understanding were as much understood and practiced as it is necessary to anyone living in religion, and acceptable to God our Lord. I say necessary, for as in the celestial bodies, if the lower is to receive movement and influence from the higher it must be subject and subordinate, the one body being ordered and adjusted to the other, so when one rational creature is moved by another, as takes place in obedience, the one that is moved must be subject and subordinated to the one by which he is moved, if he is to receive influence and energy from him. And, this subjection and subordination cannot be had unless the understanding and the will of the inferior is in conformity with that of the superior.

          Now, if we regard the end of obedience, as our will so our understanding may be mistaken as to what is good for us. Therefore, we think it expedient to conform our will with that of the superior to keep it from going astray, so also the understanding ought to be conformed with his to keep it from going astray. Rely not on your own prudence [Prov. 3:5]. says Scripture.

          Thus, they who are wise judge it to be true prudence not to rely on their own judgment even in other affairs of life, and especially when personal interests are at stake, in which men, as a rule, because of their lack of self-control, are not good judges.

          This being so, we ought to follow the judgment of another (even when he is not our superior) rather than our own in matters concerning ourselves. How much more, then, the judgment of the superior whom we have taken as a guide to stand in the place of God and to interpret the divine will for us?

          And it is certain that this guidance is all the more necessary in men and matters spiritual, as the danger in the spiritual life is great when one advances rapidly in it without the bridle of discretion. Hence Cassian says in the Conference of the Abbot Moses: "By no other vice does the devil draw a monk headlong, and bring him to death sooner, than by persuading him to neglect the counsel of the elders, and trust to his own judgment and determination."

          On the other hand, without this obedience of the understanding it is impossible that the obedience of will and execution be what they should be. For the appetitive powers of the soul naturally follow the apprehensive and, in the long run, the will cannot obey without violence against one's judgment. When for some time it does obey, misled by the common apprehension that it must obey, even when commanded amiss, it cannot do so for any length of time. And so perseverance fails, or if not this, at least the perfection of obedience which consists in obeying with love and cheerfulness. But when one acts in opposition to one's judgment, one cannot obey lovingly and cheerfully as long as such repugnance remains. Promptitude fails, and readiness, which are impossible without agreement of judgment, such as when one doubts whether it is good or not to do what is commanded. That renowned simplicity of blind obedience fails, when we call into question the justice of the command, or even condemn the superior because he bids us to do something that is not pleasing. Humility fails, for although on the one hand we submit, on the other we prefer ourselves to the superior. Fortitude in difficult tasks fails, and in a word, all the perfections of this virtue.

          On the other hand, when one obeys without submitting one's judgment, there arise dissatisfaction, pain, reluctance, slackness, murmurings, excuses, and other imperfections and obstacles of no small moment which strip obedience of its value and merit. Wherefore Saint Bernard, speaking of those who take it ill when commanded to do things that are unpleasant, says, with reason: "If you begin to grieve at this, to judge your superior, to murmur in your heart, although outwardly you fulfill what is commanded, this is not the true virtue of patience, but a cloak of your malice."

          Indeed, if we look to the peace and quiet of mind of him who obeys, it is certain that he will never achieve it who has within himself the cause of his disquiet and unrest, that is, a judgment of his own opposed to what obedience lays upon him.

          Therefore, to maintain that union which is the body of every society, Saint Paul earnestly exhorts all to think and say the same thing [1 Cor. 1:10], because it is by the union of judgment and will that they shall be preserved. Now, if the head and members must think the selfsame, it is easy to see whether the head should agree with the members, or the members with the head. Thus, from what has been said, we can see how necessary is obedience of the understanding.

          But how perfect it is in itself, and how pleasing to God, can be seen from the value of this most noble offering which is made of the most worthy part of man; in this way the obedient man becomes a living holocaust most pleasing to His Divine Majesty, keeping nothing whatever to himself, and also because of the difficulty overcome for love of Him in going against the natural inclination which all men have of following their own judgment. It follows that obedience, though it is a perfection proper to the will (which it makes ready to fulfill the will of the superior), yet, it must also, as has been said, extend to the understanding, inclining it to agree with the thought of the superior, for it is thus that we proceed with the full strength of the soul—of will and understanding—to a prompt and perfect execution.

4. General Means for Attaining Obedience

          I seem to hear some of you say, most dear brothers, that you see the importance of this virtue, but that you would like to see how you can attain to its perfection. To this I answer with Pope Saint Leo: "Nothing is difficult to the humble, and nothing hard to the meek." Be humble and meek, therefore, and God our Lord will bestow His grace which will enable you to maintain sweetly and lovingly the offering that you have made to Him.

5. Particular Means for Attaining Obedience

          In addition to these means, I will place before you three especially which will give you great assistance in attaining this perfection of obedience.

Seeing God in the Superior

          The first is that, as I said at the beginning, you do not behold in the person of your superior a man subject to errors and miseries, but rather Him whom you obey in man, Christ, the highest wisdom, immeasurable goodness, and infinite charity, who, you know, cannot be deceived and does not wish to deceive you. And because you are certain that you have set upon your own shoulders this yoke of obedience for the love of God, submitting yourself to the will of the superior in order to be more conformable to the divine will, be assured that His most faithful charity will ever direct you by the means you yourselves have chosen. Therefore, do not look upon the voice of the superior, as far as he commands you, otherwise than as the voice of Christ, in keeping with Saint Paul's advice to the Colossians, where he exhorts subjects to obey their superiors: Whatever you do, do it from the heart, as serving the Lord, and not men, knowing that you will receive from the Lord the inheritance as your reward. Serve the Lord Christ [3:23-24]. And Saint Bernard: "whether God or man, his substitute, commands anything, we must obey with equal diligence, and perform it with like reverence, when however man commands nothing that is contrary to God." Thus, if you do not look upon man with the eyes of the body, but upon God with those of the soul, you will find no difficulty in conforming your will and judgment with the rule of action which you yourselves have chosen.

Seeking Reasons to Support the Superior's Command

          The second means is that you be quick to look for reasons to defend what the superior commands, or to what he is inclined, rather than to disapprove of it. A help toward this will be to love whatever obedience shall enjoin. From this will come a cheerful obedience without any trouble, for as Saint Leo says: "It is not hard to serve when we love that which is commanded."

Blind Obedience

          The third means to subject the understanding which is even easier and surer, and in use among the holy Fathers, is to presuppose and believe, very much as we are accustomed to do in matters of faith, that what the superior enjoins is the command of God our Lord and His holy will. Then to proceed blindly, without injury of any kind, to the carrying out of the command, with the prompt impulse of the will to obey. So we are to think Abraham did when commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac [Gen. 22:2-3]. Likewise, under the new covenant, some of the holy Fathers to whom Cassian refers, as the Abbot John, who did not question whether what he was commanded was profitable or not, as when with such great labor he watered a dry stick throughout a year. Or whether it was possible or not, when he tried so earnestly at the command of his superior to move a rock which a large number of men would not have been able to move.

          We see that God our Lord sometimes confirmed this kind of obedience with miracles, as when Maurus, Saint Benedict's disciple, going into a lake at the command of his superior, did not sink. Or in the instance of another, who being told to bring back a lioness, took hold of her and brought her to his superior. And you are acquainted with others. What I mean is that this manner of subjecting one's own judgment, without further inquiry, supposing that the command is holy and in conformity with God's will, is in use among the saints and ought to be imitated by any one who wishes to obey perfectly in all things, where manifestly there appears no sin.

6. Representation

          But this does not mean that you should not feel free to propose a difficulty, should something occur to you different from his opinion, provided you pray over it, and it seems to you in God's presence that you ought to make the representation to the superior. If you wish to proceed in this matter without suspicion of attachment to your own judgment, you must maintain indifference both before and after making this representation, not only as to undertaking or relinquishing the matter in question, but you must even go so far as to be better satisfied with, and to consider as better, whatever the superior shall ordain.

7. Final Observations

          Now what I have said of obedience is not only to be understood of individuals with reference to their immediate superiors, but also of rectors and local superiors with reference to provincials, and of provincials with reference to the general, and of the general toward him whom God our Lord has given as superior, His vicar on earth. In this way complete subordination will be observed and, consequently, union and charity, without which the welfare and government of the Society or of any other congregation would be impossible.

          It is by this means that Divine Providence gently disposes all things, bringing to their appointed end the lowest by the middlemost, and the middlemost by the highest. Even in the angels there is the subordination of one hierarchy to another, and in the heavens, and all the bodies that are moved, the lowest by the highest and the highest in their turn unto the Supreme Mover of all.

          We see the same on earth in well-governed states, and in the hierarchy of the Church, the members of which render their obedience to the one universal vicar of Christ our Lord. And the better this subordination is kept, the better the government. But when it is lacking everyone can see what outstanding faults ensue. Therefore, in this congregation, in which our Lord has given me some charge, I desire that this virtue be as perfect as if the whole welfare of the Society depended on it.

8. Final Exhortation

          Not wishing to go beyond the limits I set at the beginning of this letter, I will end by begging you for the love of Christ our Lord, who not only gave us the precept of obedience, but added His example, to make every effort to attain it by a glorious victory over yourselves, vanquishing the loftiest and most difficult part of yourselves, your will and understanding, because in this way the true knowledge and love of God our Lord will possess you wholly and direct your souls throughout the course of this pilgrimage, until at length He leads you and many others through you to the last and most happy end of bliss everlasting.

          From Rome, March 26, 1553.

          The servant of all in our Lord,


1 See letter #22 in this collection.
2 See Ep. Mixtae, 3:31-40.
3 For a full commentary on this letter, see Manuel Espinosa Polit, Perfect Obedience (Westminster; Newman, 1947).
4 Moralia, Bk. 35, c. 14, n. 28 (PL 76-765B).
5 Ibid.
6 Collationes, Bk 4, c. 20 (PL 49:608-609).
7 Liber ad milites templi, c. 13, in Sancti Bernardi opera 3:239.
8 Sermo ad Abbates, n. 4, in Sancti Bernardi opera 5:291.
9 Collationes, Bk 2, c. 11 (PL 49:541B).
10 Sermo 3, De circumcisione, n. 8, in Sancti Bernardi opera 4:288.
11 Sermo 35, In Epiphaniae solem. 5, c. 3 (PL 54:252A).
12 Liber de praecepto et dispensatione, c. 9, n. 19, in Sancti Bernardi Opera 3:266.
13 Sermo 89, De jejunio septimi mensis 4, c.1 (PL 54:444B).
14 See De Coenobiorum instit., Bk. 4, c. 24. (PL 49:183D-184B).
15 Ibid., Bk. 4, c. 26 (PL 49:186A).
16 See St. Gregory, Vita Sancti Benedicti, c. 7 (PL 66:146A-B).
17 See De vitis patrum, Bk. 3, n. 27 (PL 73:755B-756B).