To the Fathers and Brothers Studying at Coimbra

On Perfection Rome, May 7, 1547

summary | text of letter  | footnotes

          Simão Rodrigues introduced the Society into Portugal in 1540 and founded the college at Coimbra in 1542. At the time of this letter there were eighty scholastics studying at the college, and from various sources, notably from Rodrigues, who was provincial, and from Martín de Santa Cruz,1 who was rector of the community, Ignatius learned of certain "holy follies" practiced by these young Jesuits. Their excessive fervor led them to discipline themselves in the city streets, preach half-clothed, and raise penitential cries in the middle of the night. These "holy follies" seem to have had the provincial's approval. Rodrigues wrote to Ignatius at the beginning of 1547,2 telling him about the outstanding fervor among the scholastics and noted that there was division in the community regarding public manifestations of that fervor, and so he asked Ignatius to write them a letter on this very point. In his letter Ignatius tells the scholastics of the need to restrain their fervor. Excess can easily lead to pride, loss of health, as well as other inconveniences and, thus, he instructs them to put an end to their practices. The letter has three parts: (1) Ignatius praises the fervor in the young Jesuits and encourages them to continue to be fervent in their vocation; (2) he then tells them of the need to restrain that fervor, lists the harm that can arise from excessive fervor, and suggests that if they want to arrive at discretion they must practice obedience; (3) finally, he enumerates the ways that the young scholastics may exercise zeal during their years of study. The headings within the letter have been added for the sake of clarity; the original letter was written in Spanish [Ep. 1:495-510].

          May the grace and everlasting love of Christ our Lord be ever our protection and help. Amen.


          Master Simão's letter and that of Santa Cruz bring me continued news about you, and God, from whom all good things come, knows what comfort and joy it gives me to see that He so helps you, not only in your studies but in your pursuit of virtue as well. Indeed, the fragrance of these virtues has carried to very distant lands, to the encouragement and edification of many. If every Christian should rejoice because of the common obligation we all have of seeking God's honor and the welfare of His image, which has been redeemed by the blood and death of Jesus Christ, I have a special reason for rejoicing in our Lord, seeing that I have a distinct obligation of keeping you in my heart with a special affection. May our Creator and Redeemer be ever blessed and praised for all, since it is from His liberality that every blessing and grace flows, and may it please Him every day to open more and more the fountain of His mercy to increase and advance what He has already begun in your souls. I have no doubt concerning that Supreme Goodness, who is so eager to share His blessings, or of that everlasting love which makes Him more eager to bestow perfection on us than we are to receive it. If this were not so, our Lord Jesus Christ would never encourage us to hope for what we can have only from His generous hand. For He tells us: Be you therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect [Matt. 5:48]. Thus it is certain that for His part He is ready to bestow it, on condition that we have a vessel of humility and desire to receive His graces, and that He sees that we use well the gifts we have received and cooperate diligently and earnestly with His grace.


Incentives toward Advancement

The Excellence of a Vocation

          On this point I will not fail to put the spurs even to those of you who are running so willingly. For I can tell you that you must be constant, both in your studies and in the practice of virtue, if you are to fulfill the expectations which so many entertain of you. Some persons, in both the kingdom of Portugal and in many other countries, considering the helps and advantages of every kind, both interior and exterior, that God gives you, rightly hope for more than ordinary results from you.

          No commonplace achievement will satisfy the great obligations you have of excelling. If you consider the nature of your vocation, you will see that what would be thought outstanding in others would not be so in you. For not only has God called you out of darkness into His marvelous light [1 Pet. 2:9], and translated you into the kingdom of His beloved Son [Col. 1:13], as He has done with the rest of the faithful, but because you have better preserved purity and are more united in His service in the love of spiritual things, He thought it good to withdraw you from the perilous sea of this world to preserve your consciences from the dangers of the storms which the gusts of passion are wont to raise—the desire now of possessions, now of honors, now of pleasures—and, on the other hand, from the fear of losing all such things. Another reason, over and above this, is that if these earthly concerns have no place in your thoughts or affections, you will be preserved from distraction and dissipation, so that you will be able to direct your thoughts and affections and employ them in attaining the end for which God created you: that is, His own honor and glory, your own salvation, and the help of your neighbor.

          It is true that all orders in the Church are directed to this end. Yet God has called you to this one, in which His glory and the salvation of the neighbor are set before you, not as a general end but one toward which your whole life and its various activities must be directed as a continuous sacrifice. This requires a cooperation from you that should not stop with example and earnest prayer, but includes all the exterior means which His Divine Providence has provided for the mutual help we should give one another. From this you can understand how noble and royal is the manner of life you have chosen. For not merely among men, but not even among the angels, is there a nobler work than glorifying the Creator and leading His creatures to Him, as far as their capacities permit.

The Advantages of Fervor

          Therefore, give serious thought to your vocation so that you can give much thanks to God for so great a favor and ask Him for the special help needed to correspond to it with courage and diligence. Both of these you must have in large measure if you are to attain the end you have in view. Sloth, tepidity, weariness in study and in the other exercises which you have undertaken for the love of our Lord you must recognize as the sworn enemies of your vocation.

          For his encouragement each one should keep before his eyes, not those who he thinks will accomplish less, but rather those who are active and energetic. Never permit the children of this world to show greater care and interest in the things of time than you show for those of eternity. It should bring a blush to your cheek to see them run to death more enthusiastically than you to life. Hold yourselves as worth little if a courtier serves with greater dedication to gain the favor of an earthly prince than you do for the favor of the King of Heaven, or if a soldier battles with greater courage for the glory of victory and hope of spoils, than you fight for victory and triumph over the world, the devil, and yourselves, all for a heavenly kingdom and eternal glory.

          For the love of God, therefore, be neither careless nor tepid. For if tautness snaps the bow, slackness snaps the soul; while on the contrary, according to Solomon, the soul of them that work shall be richly supplied [Prov. 13:4]. Try to maintain a holy and discreet fervor in your work and in the pursuit of learning as well as virtue. With both alike, one energetic act is worth a thousand that are listless, and what a lazy man cannot accomplish in many years an energetic man can usually achieve quickly.

          In the matter of learning, the difference between the earnest and the careless student stands out clearly. The same holds true in the mastering of passion and the weaknesses to which our nature is subject, as in the acquiring of virtue. It is certain that, because the negligent do not struggle against self, they never achieve peace of soul or do so tardily, and never possess any virtue in its fullness, while the energetic and industrious make notable advances on both fronts.

          Experience proves that in this life peace and satisfaction are had, not by the listless but by those who are fervent in God's service. And rightly so. For in their effort to overcome themselves and to rid themselves of self-love, they rid themselves of the roots of all passion and unrest. And by acquiring habits of virtue, they naturally succeed in acting with ease and cheerfulness in accordance with these same virtues.

          By this means they dispose themselves to receive the holy consolation of God our faithful consoler, for to him who conquers I will give the hidden manna [Rev. 2:17]. On the other hand, tepidity is the cause of a lifetime of uneasiness, for we never uproot its cause, self-love, nor do we ever deserve God's help. Therefore you should rouse yourselves to work earnestly at your praiseworthy tasks, since even in this life you will perceive the advantages of holy fervor, not only in the growth of perfection in your souls but even in the peace of mind it grants you in this present life.

          But if you look to the eternal reward, as you often should, Saint Paul will easily convince you that the sufferings of this time are not worthy to be compared with the glory to come that shall be revealed in us [Rom. 8:18], because this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal measure of glory beyond all comparison [2 Cor. 4:17].

          If this is true of every Christian who serves and honors God, you can understand what your crown will be if you correspond with our Institute, which is not only to serve God for your own sakes but to draw many others to His honor and service. Of them Holy Scripture says that they that instruct many to justice shall shine as stars for all eternity [Dan. 12:3]. And this is to be understood of those who engage in the discharge of their duty, not only later in the exercise of arms but even before that, while they are getting themselves ready. If this were not so, we certainly could not apply to works that are in themselves good the words of Jeremiah, Cursed is he that does the work of the Lord carelessly [Jer. 48:10], and of Saint Paul, Do you not know that in a race all indeed run, but only one receives the prize? [1 Cor. 9:24], and for he is not crowned unless he strives according to the rules [2 Tim. 2:5], and that means a good worker.

God's Manifold Gifts

          But more than anything else I should wish to awaken in you the pure love of Jesus Christ, the desire for His honor and for the salvation of souls whom He has redeemed. For you are His soldiers in this Society with a special title and a special wage. I say special because there are many general reasons which likewise oblige you to work for His honor and service. His wage is everything you are and have in the natural order, for He bestows and preserves your being and life, and all the perfections of body and soul, as well as eternal blessings. His wage is also the spiritual gifts of His grace with which He has so generously and lovingly bestowed on you and continues to offer even when you oppose Him and rebel against Him. His wage is also those incomparable blessings of His glory which, without any advantage to Himself, He has promised to you and holds in readiness for you, actually sharing with you all the treasures of His happiness so that you may, by a remarkable participation in His divine perfection, be what He is by essence and nature. Finally, His wage is the whole universe and everything material and spiritual contained in it. For He has placed under our ministry not only all that is under heaven, but even the whole of His sublime court, without exempting any of the heavenly hierarchy: Are they not all ministering spirits, sent to minister for them who shall receive the inheritance of salvation? [Heb. 1:14].

          As though this wage were not enough, He has made Himself our wage, becoming a brother in our own flesh, as the price of our salvation on the cross, and in the Eucharist to be with us as support and company. Oh, what an unworthy soldier he would be whom such a wage would not induce to labor for the honor of such a prince. We know indeed that, to oblige us to desire and labor for this glory, His Majesty has bestowed on us these inestimable and priceless favors, in a sense stripping Himself of His own possessions to give us a share in them; taking on himself our miseries to deliver us from them; wishing to be sold as our redemption; to be dishonored to glorify us; to be poor to enrich us; accepting a disgraceful and painful death to give us a blessed and immortal life. How extremely ungrateful and hardhearted is he who after all this does not recognize his obligation to serve our Lord Jesus Christ diligently and to seek His honor.

The Wretched State of Many Souls and of the World

          If, therefore, you recognize this obligation, and wish to employ yourselves in promoting God's honor, the times you are living in indeed require that you make your desire known by works. Can you find a place where the Divine Majesty is in honor today, or where His infinite greatness is worshiped, where His wisdom and infinite goodness are known, or His most holy will obeyed? Behold rather, with deep grief, how His holy name is everywhere ignored, despised, blasphemed. The teaching of Jesus Christ is cast off, His example forgotten, and the price of His blood lost, in a sense, as far as we are concerned, because so few profit by it. Behold also your neighbors, images of the most Holy Trinity and capable of enjoying the glory of Him whom all the world serves, members of Christ, redeemed by so much pain, opprobrium, and blood. Behold, I say, the miseries that surround them, the darkness of ignorance that envelops them, and the whirlwind of desires, empty fears, and other passions that torment them, set upon by so many visible and invisible enemies, in danger of losing, I do not say their wealth or temporal life, but an eternal kingdom and its happiness by falling into the insufferable misfortune of everlasting fire.

          To sum up briefly, if you were carefully to examine the great obligation you have of seeking the honor of Jesus Christ and the salvation of your neighbor, you would see how fitting it is for you to get ready by diligently striving to make yourselves fit instruments of God's grace, especially since in these days there are so few real laborers who do not seek the things that are their own, but the things that are Jesus Christ's. And the more others fall short, the more you ought to endeavor to make up for them, since God bestows so special a grace on you and one so proper to your vocation.


The Need to Beware of Excessive Fervor

Harm Coming from Excessive Fervor

          What I have said so far to awaken the drowsy and spur on the loiterers on the way, should not be taken as a justification for going to the other extreme of fervor. Spiritual infirmities such as tepidity are caused, not only by chills but also by fevers, that is, by excessive zeal. Saint Paul says, let your service be a reasonable service [Rom. 12:1], because he knew the truth of the words of the Psalmist, the king in his might loves justice [99:4], that is, discretion; and what was prefigured in Leviticus, whatsoever sacrifice you offer, you shall season it with salt [2:13]. In the same vein does Saint Bernard speak: the enemy has no more successful ruse for depriving the heart of real charity than to get her to act rashly and not in keeping with spiritual reasonableness.3 "Nothing in excess"4 said the philosopher. And this principle should be our guide even in a matter pertaining to justice itself, as we read in Ecclesiastes, be not over just [7:16]. If one fails to observe this moderation, he will find that good is turned into evil and virtue into vice. He will also learn that many inconveniences follow which are quite contrary to the purpose of the one who so acts.

          The first is that God is not really served in the long run, as the horse worn out in the first days does not as a rule finish the journey, and thus it happens that someone must be found to care for it.

          Second, gains that are made through such excessive eagerness do not usually endure, as Scripture says, wealth gathered in haste will dwindle [Prov. 13:11]. Not only dwindle, but it may be the cause of a fall: and he that is hasty with his feet shall stumble [Prov. 19:2]; and if he stumbles, the further he falls, the greater the danger for he will not stop until he has reached the bottom of the ladder.

          Third, there is the danger of being careless in overloading the vessel. There is danger, of course, in sailing it empty, as it can then be tossed about on the waves of temptation; but there is also danger of so overloading it that it sinks.

          Fourth, it can happen that, in crucifying the old man, the new man is also crucified and thus made unable through weakness to practice virtue. Saint Bernard tells us that because of this excess we lose four things: "The body loses the effect of the good work, the soul its devotion, our neighbor good example, and God His honor."5 From this we infer that whosoever thus mistreats the living temple of God is guilty of sacrilege. Saint Bernard says that the neighbor is deprived of good example, because the fall of one and the ensuing scandal are a source of scandal to others; and he calls them, in cause at least, disturbers of unity and enemies of peace. The example of such a fall frightens many and makes them tepid in their spiritual progress. In the fallen there is danger of pride and vainglory, since they prefer their own judgment to the judgment of everyone else, usurping what is not their own by setting themselves up as judges in their own cause when the rightful judge is their superior.

          Besides these, there are also other disadvantages, such as overloading themselves with weapons which they cannot use, like David with the armor of Saul [1 Sam. 17:38-39]. They apply spurs to a spirited horse rather than the rein. Therefore there is need of discretion on this point to keep the practice of virtue between both extremes. Saint Bernard gives this advice: "Good will is not always to be trusted, but it must be bridled, regulated, especially in beginners,"6 if one wishes to benefit others without any disadvantage to himself, for he that is evil to himself, to whom will he be good? [Sir. 14:5].

Obedience is the Infallible Means for Gaining Discretion

          If discretion seems to you to be something very rare and hard to come by, make up for it with obedience, whose counsel is certain. Hear what Saint Bernard says of those who wish to follow their own opinion: "Whatever is done without the approval or against the wishes of the spiritual father should be set down as vainglory, and not as something worthy of reward."7 We should remember, as it is said in Holy Scripture, that it is like the sin of witchcraft to rebel, and like the crime of idolatry to refuse to obey [1 Sam. 15:23]. Thus if you wish to hold the middle way between the extremes of tepidity and excessive fervor, discuss your affairs with the superior and keep within the limits set down by obedience. If you have a great desire for mortification, use it rather in breaking your wills and bringing your judgments under the yoke of obedience rather than in weakening your bodies and afflicting them beyond due measure, especially during the years of your studies.


Ways of Exercising Zeal During Years of Study

Offer Your Studies to God

          I should not wish you to think from what I have here written that I do not approve of what I have learned of some of your mortifications. I know that these and other holy follies have been profitably used by the saints and that they are useful to obtain self-mastery and bring down richer graces upon us, especially in the beginning. But for one who has acquired some mastery over his self-love, I hold that what I have written about bringing oneself to the golden mean of discretion is the better thing, provided one does not withdraw from obedience. It is this obedience that I recommend very earnestly to you, joined with that virtue which is a compendium of all the others and which Jesus Christ so earnestly recommends when He calls it His special commandment: This is my commandment, that you love one another [John 15:12]. And I wish that you preserve this union and lasting love, not only among yourselves, but that you extend it to everyone, and endeavor to enkindle in your souls the lively desire for the salvation of your neighbor, gauging the value of each soul from the price our Lord paid by His life's blood. This you do on the one hand by acquiring learning and on the other by increasing fraternal charity, making yourselves perfect instruments of God's grace and collaborators in the sublime work of leading God's creatures back to Him as to their last end.

          Do not think that in this period of time given to your studies you are of no use to your neighbor, for, besides the profit to yourself which well-ordered charity requires—Have pity on your own soul, pleasing God [Vulgate Sir. 30:24]—you are serving God's honor and glory in many ways.

          First, by your present labor and the intention with which you undertake and regulate everything for your neighbor's edification, just as soldiers waiting to get supplies of arms and munitions for the operation about to be launched cannot say that their labor is not in the service of their king. Even if death should overtake one before he begins to work exteriorly for his neighbor, he shall not for that reason have failed in the service of his neighbor, having helped him by the mere fact of his preparation. But besides the intention for the future, he should each day offer himself to God for his neighbor. As God is willing to accept the offering, he can serve as an instrument for the help of his neighbor no less than he would have done by preaching or hearing confessions.

Growth in Virtue, a Necessary Requirement for the Apostolate

          The second way is to attain a high degree of virtue, because you will thus be able to make your neighbor such as you are yourselves. For it is God's will that the process of generation observed in material things be observed in things spiritual, mutatis mutandis. Philosophy and experience teach us that in the generation of man or animals, besides the general causes such as the heavens, another cause or agent of the same species is required which possesses the same form as that which is to be transmitted, and for this reason it is said that "the sun and man beget man."8 In like manner, to transmit the form of humility, patience, charity, and so forth, to others, God wills that the immediate cause, which He uses as instrument, such as the preacher or confessor, be humble, charitable, and patient. With the result, as I have said, that, when you benefit yourselves by growing in virtue, you are also of great service to the neighbor.

          You are preparing an instrument that is not less, but better, fitted to confer grace by leading a virtuous life than by leading a learned one, though both learning and virtue are required if the instrument is to be perfect.

Good Example

          The third way of helping the neighbor is by the example of a good life. In this respect, as I have told you, the good odor of your lives has spread abroad and exerts a good influence even beyond the limits of Portugal. I trust that the author of all good will continue His gifts and increase them in you, so that, as you daily grow in perfection, the fragrance of your virtues and the resulting edification will likewise grow, even without your seeking it.

Holy Desires and Prayers

          The fourth way of helping your neighbor is very far-reaching indeed, and consists in holy desires and prayers. The demands of your life of study do not permit you to devote much time to prayer, yet you can make up for this by desires, since the time you devote to your various exercises is a continuous prayer, seeing that you are engaged in them only for God's service. But in this and other matters, you have close at hand those who can advise you as to details. Indeed, for that reason part of what I have written could have been omitted, but so seldom do I write to you that I thought I could give myself the consolation of writing at some length.


          This is all for the present, except to beg God our Creator and Redeemer that, as it has pleased Him to bestow so great a grace on you as to call you and give you the firm desire of being employed entirely in his service, so he would be pleased to continue and increase His gifts in all, so that you will persevere unwaveringly and grow in His service to His greater honor and glory and the help of His Church.

          From Rome,

          Yours in our Lord,


1 Martín de Santa Cruz was born in Toledo, Spain, and traveled to Rome to enter the Society in September 1541. He went to Portugal in April 1542 for studies, was ordained in 1544 and shortly thereafter was made rector of the college in Coimbra. He went to Rome in September 1547 to report on the state of the college and died there on October 27, 1548. His letter has not survived.
2 This letter may be found in Epistolae PP. Paschasii Broëtii, Claudii Jaii, Joannis Cordurii et Simonis Rodericii (MHSI) (Madrid, 1903) 547-553.
3 Sermones super Cantica Canticorum, serm. 19, #7 in Sancti Bernardi opera, ed. J. Leclercq et al., 5 v. (Rome, 1957-1965) 1:113.
4 Plato mentions this as an inscription on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi (Protagoras 343b). The saying is usually ascribed to Chillon of Sparta (6th c. B.C.) and sometimes to Pittacus of Mytilene (ca. 650-ca. 570 B.C.); both are numbered among the Seven Sages of Ancient Greece.
5 Ad Fratres de Monte Dei, Bk. 1, c. 11, n. 32 (PL 184:328C). This treatise had once been attributed to St. Bernard, but since 1662 it has been ascribed to its rightful author, William of Saint-Thierry.
6 Ibid. Bk. 1, c. 9 (PL 184:324A).
7 Sermones in Cantica Canticorum, serm. 19, #7, 1:112-113. Bernard here refers to c. 49 of the Rule of St. Benedict.
8 Cf. St. Thomas, Summa theologica, I, q. 76, a. 1, ad 1um, where he cites Aristotle, Physics, 2, 11.