Wednesday 3 April 2013

The Greater Glory of God: the Jesuit Meaning of “Magis”

By John D. O’Brien, S.J. 

With the election of Pope Francis as the Bishop of Rome, questions about Jesuits and Ignatian spirituality have surfaced in both religious and secular circles. In light of this, the contributors of Ibo et Non Redibo have decided to launch a blog series on Ignatian spirituality. In six blog entries, we will attempt to introduce some key principles by which Jesuits live, and how these insights may be useful to the Church and to the world. The first entry on discernment of spirits has already been published; the following is the second entry.

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It’s quite possible that observant believers have come across the acronym A.M.D.G., and wondered what it stood for. The four letters are often inscribed on the walls and over the portals of Jesuit schools, and used to be written at the top of letters and other written documents. They stand for Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, the Latin phrase meaning “To/for the greater glory of God”, and is a key notion of Ignatian spirituality.

It might seem like an easy enough concept: that the prime motive for all of our thoughts, words and actions be for the advancing and expansion of the glory of God – and this is true. But what is “God’s glory” and why “greater” – isn’t advancing God’s glory, plain and simple, enough for these men of the cloth and their pupils?

First, it helps to know where the phrase originates. Like most facets of Ignatian spirituality, it is rooted in The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, that manual for silent retreat, conversion, discovery and embrace of God’s will that the saint fine-tuned during his lifetime. At a certain point in the retreat we are invited to ask ourselves: “What have I done for Christ? What am I doing for Christ? What ought I to do for Christ”. The key word implied in the last question is “more”, which in Latin is the word “magis”, a word related to the “majorem” in the A.M.D.G. acronym. Both words infuse Jesuit thinking, and those who follow them spiritually and intellectually constantly ask themselves what they can do more for Christ.

This more, however, is not necessarily more works, projects or undertakings, understood in a quantitative sense, but rather a “greater” according to the lens of the raison d'etre of the human person. According to St. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises, “man is created to praise, to reverence, and to serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul”. This prime purpose of life is called “The Principle and Foundation”. The most important question of all, then, is whether my life can give better praise, reverence and service to God, and in this way give him greater "glory".

There are different ways to understand glory. First, glory is the radiant presence of God in the world: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” cried the great Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins. God’s glory can be the luminous presence of lives lived in conformity with God’s will, of those who have said “yes” to God and his action, resulting in a divine brilliance that should radiate in them. As the Gospel said: “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Mt. 5:16). This inner radiance is a signifier of God’s presence, and “the glory of God,” wrote St. Irenaeus, “is man fully alive.” We will be more alive as we labour more to bring God to humanity and vice versa, no matter what our calling or station in life.

Living AMDG-Magis is, in the end, not about what I can accomplish, but rather about how God is living and working in me and through me. In a sense there is always a “more” required of us, because God is a God of love who is “ever-more” – never limited, always greater than our capacity to grasp, always drawing us to horizon beyond horizon. This is why the Christian life is a great adventure, that spans the here-and-now, the already-and-not yet, both heaven and earth. Eternity will be a continuous journey into the inexhaustible “ever-greater”-ness of God. We begin now by seeking him in all things, growing in love of others, and being generous in spirit.

Living in a spirit of “magis” requires a complete surrender to God, since by it we refuse to be limited to the status quo of ourselves. This "disposability" to God's action is expressed in the prayer of St Ignatius at the end of The Spiritual Exercises:

Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will. All I have and call my own. Whatever I have or hold, you have given to me. I restore it all to you and surrender it wholly to be governed under your will. Give me only your love and grace and I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.

When we live for the "greater glory of God", we will find that everything we thought we once had, then given away, is given back to us in ways always greater. With God's love and grace as our sole currency, we find ourselves part of the glory, which is ever greater than ourselves.

How are we living our lives "ad majorem dei gloriam": how do we love, how do we serve, and how are we extending the luminous presence of God in the world? We might ask, querying, like Private Witt in The Thin Red Line: "How'd we lose that good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered it, careless. What's keepin' us from reaching out, touching the glory?" Or we might, exalting, simply say: Glory be...


  1. Thanks for a clear explanation of AMDG - Magis, John. Thanks for sharing with such gently illuminating language ......

  2. Where can I find the complete history on the image at the beginning of this blog post? I think it is a 19th century engraving....but I would like to zero in on the exact origins, etc.