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To the greater glory

30 November, 1999

“An expression of his chivalric spirit, never satisfied with the good but always seeking the better” is how Brian O’Leary SJ explains the “greater glory” in the Jesuit motto, “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam”. It is also the expression of his lively apostolic spirituality.

Look at the façade of any Jesuit church, or around its interior, and you will almost certainly find the inscription, AMDG. You will also find it on many buildings used for Jesuit ministries – such as schools – as well as on books, magazines, letterheads and so on.

Words of tribute
AMDG stands for the Latin words ad maiorem Dei gloriam or, in English, ‘To the greater glory of God’. This phrase is often considered as the Jesuit motto. It was a favourite expression of St. Ignatius, but it is by no means exclusive to Jesuits.

Pope John Paul II, whenever he was writing, printed the letters AMDG on the top left of every page. The composer Johann Sebastian Bach – a Protestant was known to write them on his finished works, either above or below his own name. AMDG is a way of saying that we want whatever we do, think, say or write to be ultimately for God and in some mysterious way to give glory to God.

Difficult concept
Giving glory to God is a difficult concept to understand. Is glory something that God does not have, so we give it to him? But that would mean that God lacks something and so would not be God!

In one of the weekday Prefaces in the Mass we say, ‘You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to praise you is itself your gift’. So has praising God – or giving glory to God – more to do with us, with our attitude, our feelings, our emotions toward God? With our desire to praise? Even our need to praise?

When we say, ‘Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the. Holy Spirit’, how do we feel? When we sing, ‘Glory to God in the highest’, are we moved in any way? Is ‘glory’ a word that expresses our feelings of reverence, adoration, wonder, awe, creaturehood when we raise our hearts and minds to God? Does it express our gratitude and release our desire to praise? Or do we say the word without feeling? Has the word become meaningless? Has the salt lost its taste?

Mary Ward
In 1609 a young woman of twenty-four was arranging her hair before a mirror in her lodgings on the Strand in London when she had an extraordinary experience.

For many years Mary Ward had been trying to discover how God wanted her to live her life. In this mystical experience, which came unexpectedly and in the middle of a mundane activity, God showed her that her current plans to enter the Carmelite Order were not what he desired, ‘… but some other thing was determined for me, without all comparison, more to the glory of God’.

She continues in her Autobiography, ‘I did not see what the assured good thing would be, but the glory of God, which was to come through it, showed itself inexplicably and so abundantly as to fill my soul in such a way that I remained for a good space without feeling or hearing anything but the sound ‘GLORY, GLORY, GLORY’.

Here God is promising Mary that he has another vocation, another gift in mind for her. This as yet unnamed vocation will give God greater glory than would her entry into a Carmel. As this promise is being given, she is taken out of herself and so filled with God that the word ‘GLORY’ in all its intensity resonates at the depth of her being.

Like Abraham, she was being empowered to set out without knowing where she was going (Heb 11:8). Later she came to embrace the spirituality of Ignatius and to found an Ignatian congregation for women, the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Comparative terms
Mary Ward was already in the Ignatian spirit through her desire to give herself to what was ‘without comparison more to the glory of God’. The AMDG motto is not just about glory but greater glory. Ignatius frequently uses this comparative form of speech. It is an expression of his restless, chivalric spirit, never satisfied with the good but always seeking the better.

When suggesting criteria by which Jesuits are to choose which ministries to undertake, Ignatius writes, ‘One should keep the greater service of God and the more universal good before his eyes… that part of the vineyard ought to be chosen which has greater need… where the greater fruit will probably be reaped’.

This habitual way of thinking in comparative terms, of desiring God’s greater service and greater glory, is not always easy, but nevertheless it can bring the best out of us. It invites us to be willing to leave our comfort zone, to be challenged and stretched by new possibilities and fresh horizons.

Different images
We have taken two approaches to the motto, AMDG. The first raised questions about the feelings that accompany our use of the word ‘glory’ in prayer. I suspect that the feelings that would spontaneously call forth a cry of ‘Glory to God!’ came more readily to Ignatius and Mary Ward than to us.

This has to do with the way our images of God have changed. In earlier times, the holiness, majesty, awesomeness, and ‘otherness’ of God were more obvious to believers, and touched them emotionally. In our day, God has lost some of those qualities for us, and has become rather domesticated.

My novice master used to pose the question, ‘Is your God too small?’ He was on to something! Our contemporary God has indeed become too small, whereas the God of Ignatius was Deus semper maior, ‘God always greater’. That is the God who evokes in us the desire and the need ‘to give God glory’.

Our second approach recognised that giving glory to God is not only a matter of feelings and of words. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius teaches that ‘Love ought to find its expression in deeds more than in words’. We can say the same about giving God glory.

For Ignatius, doing good – being of service to others, helping wherever we can, being committed to justice – all this gives glory to and serves God. This is a spirituality of active involvement in our world. We are encouraged to be ‘people for others’.

It is easy to see why the words ‘glory’ and ‘service’ are almost synonymous for Ignatius. The greater service is the greater glory, and vice versa. God is glorified in our service of God, of the Church, of other people. As Ignatius wrote at the end of one of his letters, ‘May you always persevere, growing in his service, with much honour and glory to him and great benefit to his holy Church’.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.