The importance of letters in the newly formed Society of Jesus
Perhaps one of the greatest legacies that Ignatius Loyola leaves both the Jesuits and the world is the vast collection of letters that he wrote mostly during his time as Superior General. There are approximately 7,000 letters that are still in the Jesuit archives. These letters, along with the Spiritual Exercises and his memoirs or “autobiography”, provide an insight into Ignatius’ developing understanding of how he understood his relationship with God, himself and the world around him.
The letters provide an insight into the various roles that Ignatius played, particularly during his time in Rome: beggar, friend, superior, spiritual guide, correspondent with various monarchs and nobility. These are all lenses through which we can see the way Ignatius engages with the world.
One of the fundamental roles the letters played for Ignatius was helping to defining for this new order and its rapidly growing membership, what would come to be known as its “way of proceeding”. This way of proceeding would help to address questions such as: What did it mean to be a member of this new religious order? Why did this order place emphasis on some things and not others? How did one live and see the world as a Jesuit?
Two excerpts below illustrate this point. The first is a letter to James De Gouvea (November 1538). Ignatius explains why the Society offered itself to the pope for mission:
“All of us who are mutually bound in this Society have given ourselves to the supreme pontiff, since he is the lord of the worldwide harvest of Christ our Lord. In thus offering ourselves we have pointed out to him that we are ready for any duty he may wish to assign us in Christ… Our reason for thus placing ourselves at his disposal is that we know that he has a better knowledge of what will be profitable for the universal Church.”
Next is a letter to Diego Laínez, Alfonso Salmeron and Claude Le Jay who were attending the Council of Trent (1546) as theological advisors. The letter is in three sections: Instructions on dealing with others; in the ministry; and some self-helps. In instructions on dealing with others, Ignatius repeats the exhortation: “Be slow to speak”. He reminds that it is “only after having listened quietly, so that you may understand the meaning, leanings, and desires of those who speak. You will thus know better when to speak and when to be silent.”
Ignatius then outlines a suggested routine for each day, which includes the following:
“Take an hour at night in which each can share with the others what has been done that day and discuss plans for the morrow.
We should agree on matters, both past and future, by vote, or in some other way…
Make resolutions in the morning and twice in the course of the day make the examen.”
We can see from both these excerpts that Ignatius starts to articulate the Society’s raison d’être and how that is incarnated through its way of proceeding. It is the culmination, or a synthesising, of the insights gained through the Spiritual Exercises, the mystical experience of La Storta and all that has taken place on this pilgrim journey which has brought him to the eternal city.
Image below is of Ignatius’ desk in his room in Rome.
With thanks to Isaac Demase, SJ for this contribution to our Erromeria pilgrimage. Isaac is a Jesuit scholastic assisting at JISA and Jesuit Mission Australia before he begins theology studies in the middle of this year.