“For the earth will be filled
With the knowledge of the glory of the Lord,
As the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14).
My alma mater is a Jesuit university in California. Naturally, our school’s logo is adorned with the motto of St. Ignatius of Loyola: Ad majorem Dei gloriam, or “For the greater glory of God.”
What does this mean, exactly?
According to Ignatius and other Jesuits, the idea is rooted in how even small, seemingly insignificant acts can be offered up to the Most High. That we don’t have to confine our spirituality to how many times we attend Mass, or how well we can recite Scripture, or how we’ve never broken a single commandment in our lives. It’s also about the small things in life, the mundane things. Activities like sitting down for a meal, doing your homework, traveling abroad, or working in a garden—all of this can be used to glorify God. To enrich our place in the world He has given us.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this phrase lately (obviously, since I decided to write about it today). It’s not just the mundane activities in my life that I think about offering up to God. Sure, when I drink more water or do more exercise, I’m offering thanks and praise for this body I have. And when I play a game or write a new story, I’m grateful to God for the gift of my intelligence and every small bit of wisdom.
But then there are the other things in life. Every doubt I have. Every question I wrestle with. Every political debate, every concern about my sexuality, every poor mental health day I encounter, from one week to the next. All those things that, even as Christians, we find ourselves shying away from in our discourse. We look at sex, even in the bounds of marriage and childrearing, as something we shouldn’t publicly discuss. We look at doubts as an “opportunity” to increase our faith, rather than as a natural reaction. We might praise ourselves as spiritually saved, but are we spiritually mature?
(Now, this is where I get even more frank about my recent thoughts. For some readers, this may be a jumping-off point. If it is, then God be with you and with your loved ones.)
Now, as for myself, I’ve been wrestling with questions about my past. About my childhood. About my physical, emotional, and even sexual development. About my emotional needs, and whether or not they’re rooted in my sometimes strained relationship with my mother, who dealt with years of chronic illness and hospital procedures throughout my late childhood and adolescence. And in all these thoughts, I wrestle with the idea that I’m truly giving everything I have to the greater glory of God.
Because, sometimes, I’m afraid. Sometimes I’m hurt. At times, I’m not conscious of God’s glory, but I’m blindly seeking for peace or acceptance within myself because I have odd thoughts or desires or emotional turmoil that seems rooted in something from when I was a child or a teenager. Reading all the Scriptures and listening to a thousand sermons can illuminate my path, but they can’t answer every question I have. How will a priest answer my concerns about, say, an odd fetish or kink? How will they respond when I get deep into a sense of lost childhood from dealing with my mother’s health problems, or exploring an attraction to both men and women I had back in high school? Will it be answers that help me feel more secure within myself, or will it be more platitudes about putting God first in my life?
At the time of this writing, it’s the season of Lent. That time when we follow Christ out into the wilderness for forty days and nights, to fast and pray and resist temptations. I always liked that mental image. But then, I’ve always liked the ways of the Desert Fathers, who inspired the first Christian monastic traditions.
At times like these, I imagine myself sitting in a tent in the middle of a desert plain. Out among the scrublands, I kneel at a table in humble garments, alone with God. In my mind’s eye, whatever I put before God inside that tent, on that makeshift altar, I’m asking Him to accept. In a way, I’m asking the Lord to accept me through these things. Sometimes it’s a symbolic gift like bread and wine, but sometimes it’s material possessions, or a story I’m trying to write, or a memory of an awkward night with someone I tried to get closer to. Whatever my concern is, I make that an offering to God.
I think that’s what it means to give to the greater glory of God. Not just all our successes, but our failures and frustrations, too. To admit how vulnerable we are, so that we can, in the words of theologian Paul Tillich, “Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!”
At the start of this essay, I quoted a line from the Book of Habbakuk. In context, the second chapter of the prophet’s writing is a series of warnings to the people of Israel, condemning their rulers for ravaging Lebanon and becoming proud conquerors who build lavish palaces and idols. In contrast, Habbakuk points to the quiet majesty of God that is available beyond all the works of humanity. “Nations grow weary for nought!” says the prophet, “But the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord’s glory, as water covers the sea.”
Let’s not compete over who can build the biggest church or say the most prayers. Let’s not shame each other into silence over our desires and doubts. Let us sit together, or sit apart. Breathe deeply. From our hearts, we offer up our shame and our honor, our woes and our joys, our despair and our faith.