St. Ignatius of Loyola, author of The Spiritual Exercises and founder of “The Society of Jesus,” also known as the Jesuits, a spiritual society devoted to the piety propagation of the Christian faith, speaks into Christian history with clarion voice for the sake of obedience to Christ. The sixteenth-century Saint’s message of obedience proceeded from a life fleshed by vowed devotion to poverty and service to others for the sake of the Gospel. To the modern reader, Ignatius, like so many Christian history shapers, might seem unreachable. The story of Christian history is filled with these characters, heroes easy to admire but impossible to imitate. Ignatius is a man who had a vision in which the Father Himself directly requested that he be a servant to Christ, after all, and a true virtuoso in prayer, spiritual meditation, and theological thought. This is a Believer whose life consisted of extreme deprivation for the sake of sanctification, one willing to lose this world to gain the next, letting his body be famished for his spirit to be full, his fleshly desires broken so his will be perfected.
In my reading Ignatius, I found not a hagiographic caricature of Christian piety, but the impassioned pleas of a man convicted of total surrender to Christ. Confronted with a blatant obedience desperately needed in this age, the church is reminded by Ignatius of the high cost of holy living. And at the point where the Saint seems so out of reach—his complete obedience to God—we find a nexus where invitation and challenge coexist, where we can relearn some lasting ideas about living the Lordship of Jesus. Modern readers of Ignatius’s writing, especially his 1553 letter to the Jesuits in Portugal called “On Perfect Obedience,” find an invitation to surrendered devotion to Christ and the latent challenges therewith. In “On Perfect Obedience,” Ignatius reissues the call for the proper obedient disposition of God’s people to His will then proceeds to argue for the totality of obedience in the Christian life.
While other desirable virtues and spiritual gifts remain of import, Ignatius argues that “it is in obedience, more than in any other virtue, that God our Lord gives me the desire to see you signalize yourselves.” Obedience “signalizes,” makes conspicuously defined, the Christian not only by creating uninterrupted fellowship between God and man but, and on this point Ignatius quotes Saint Gregory, also by planting and preserving all virtue says in the mind. Obedience cultivates the self so that it might be positioned appropriately to God, and as Ignatius appeals to his Jesuit audience, rightly positioning the self in relation to God is the necessary and endemic nature of the Christian.
If Christians, “as in the celestial bodies,” are to move in harmonious relationship with God, if believers are “to receive movement and influence from the higher,” Ignatius explains, then they “must be subject and subordinate. . . as takes place in obedience, the one that is moved must be subject and subordinated to the one by which he is moved.” This is the whole of the Christian life, to constellate every virtue, act of the will, and remaining sin under the authority of God.
Obedience works in process, Ignatius contends. It is the mind’s understanding as well as the will that must submit, for “without this obedience of the understanding it is impossible that the obedience of will and execution be what they should be.” The mind loves God best in submission to Him, and the will serves God best when following the submitted mind. To see obedience as anything less than a consummation of the whole self, both understanding and will, is to do violence against one’s self. Ignatius would have true obedience from his readers so that “love and cheerfulness” abound. For reader of Ignatius, invitation and challenge meet in an obedience from which love for God and cheerfulness in His will flourish.
Ignatius pushed obedience as the heart of the gospel. In obedience, the Christian church could take the reign and rule of God into the world, and as people convert to God’s loving will, the glory of “Christ, the highest wisdom, immeasurable goodness, and infinite charity” spreads.
Ignatius’s message remains clear. The promotion of the gospel is the promotion of active obedience. The consolation of the gospel is the acceptance of an obedient life. And the promise of the gospel is the assurance of obedience’s continual guidance into the supreme will of God: “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.”
Image: Ignatius of Loyola accessed at stmarymagdalen.org