A friend of mine likes to tease the Jesuits about their motto: “For the greater glory of God.” “God doesn’t need you to enhance his glory,” he likes to kid them. Partly he’s right, but the Jesuits are right too: God doesn’t need our praises, but we need to give praise, otherwise our lives degenerate into bitterness and violence. Why?
Spiritual writers have always told us that we are either growing or regressing, never neutral. This means that we are either praising someone or demanding we be praised, offering gratitude or muttering in bitterness, blessing or cursing, turning attention away from ourselves or demanding it be focused on us, expressing admiration or demanding it, praying a doxology or doing violence. We are always doing one or the other and it’s only by deflecting attention away from ourselves, which is what we do in essence when we give glory to God, that we save ourselves from egoism, jealousy, bitterness, greed, and violence.
It’s no accident that when good art depicts someone as being martyred, it always depicts the victim’s eyes as turned upwards, towards heaven, while the eyes of those who are doing the killing or watching it are turned in other directions, never upward. A good artist knows that if we don’t have our eyes turned heavenward we are involved somehow in violence.
Michael Ondaatje points this out in Anil’s Ghost. He submits that unless we celebrate a faith or create something in art, we will do violence to somebody: Be an artificer or a demon. Praise or create something beyond yourself or fall into the trap of believing that it’s your own person that makes the world go round.
Ondaatje’s right. Moreover this isn’t an abstract thing. The lesson’s simple, unless we’re consistently praising somebody or something beyond ourselves we will be consistently speaking words of jealousy, bitterness, and anger. That’s in fact our daily experience: We sit around talking with each other and, invariably, unless we’re praising someone we’re “killing” someone. Gossip, slander, harsh judgement, vicious comment, are often both the tone and substance of our conversations and they’re the very antithesis of a doxology, of offering praise to God. Nothing sounds less like a doxology (“Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit”) than many of our everyday conversations.
The main reason our faith asks us to constantly render glory to God is that the more we praise the less we slander, gossip, or pass judgement. Offering praise to God, and others, is what saves us from bitterness and violence.
And, in the end, overcoming bitterness and violence, is the greatest spiritual hurdle of all. Much tougher than the Sixth commandment is the fifth (“Thou Shalt Not Kill!”). As Henri Nouwen used to say, we’re killing each other all the time. Nobody is shot by a gun who isn’t first shot by a word, and nobody is shot by a word who isn’t first shot by a thought. Our thoughts are too frequently murderous and soon enough get expressed in our words: “Who does he think he is!” “She thinks she’s so special!” “What a hypocrite!” “She hasn’t had an original thought in years!” “It’s all about him, isn’t it!”
Underneath those comments, driving that bitterness, is a not-so- subtle anxiety and hurt: “What about me? Who’s noticing me? Who’s giving anything to me?” I say this sympathetically because it’s not easy to not be anxious in this way, especially for the young, and it’s not easy, after the neuroses of mid-life and beyond, to not be bitter or not feel cheated. For both the young and the old, it’s hard to simply say to someone else, God included, “glory be to you” and really mean it.
We’re made in God’s image, have a divine fire in us that over-charges us for this world, and live lives of quiet desperation. That desperation, all too often, expresses itself in negative, bitter, and even murderous judgements because the divine is us has been ignored and we feel rage about this slight. But that’s precisely why daily, hourly, we need to give glory to God, to pray a doxology. Only by focusing ourselves on the real centre of the universe can we displace ourselves from that centre.
When St. Paul begins his Epistles, he usually does so in a rapture of praise: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ from whose great mercy we all drink!” That isn’t a throwaway opening, it’s a key part of the main lesson: Only by praising something beyond ourselves do we save ourselves from bitterness. All the great spiritual writers do the same: They won’t write for long, no matter how bitter or difficult the topic, before they insert some kind of doxology: “Glory be to the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit”. They know a deep secret: Only praise saves us from bitterness and only by blessing others do we save ourselves from cursing them.