I am the product of 14 years of Jesuit education. I see the world through the lenses of Cura Personalis and “Women and Men for and with Others.” I am who I am because of Jesuits – and many lay partners in mission – aspiring to be ever more attentive and responsive to God’s activity in the world.
The Jesuits didn’t teach me what to think, but how to think. We read challenging texts, learned how to account for our biases and presuppositions, considered arguments from a number of perspectives, and engaged in lively debates about issues that matter for human dignity, loving and just communities, and the common good. We learned to see faith and reason as complementary rather than competing, much like religion and science. My eyes were opened to the grandeur of creation and my responsibility to help take care of it. I was fortunate to have teachers and mentors who saw great potential in me, challenged and encouraged me, and motivated me to use my interests and abilities AMDG (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam), for the Greater Glory of God.
We learned about the Jesuit ideal magis, which I understood as “striving for the more.” For a long time, my favorite quote – attributed to Saint Ignatius of Loyola – was: “Pray as if everything depends on God. Work as if everything depends on you.” (Later, a Jesuit would kindly mention to me that this line likely inverts what Ignatius intended to communicate.) Magis inspired me to maximize every opportunity and experience. Never be complacent. Never settle. Always aim for more.
But magis isn’t about the best, the most, or the greatest. It can’t be reduced (as it often is) to banal or bourgeois terms like generosity or excellence. Magis actually gets distorted when we conflate it with doing more. Magis is more about being than doing, and more interested in becoming than achieving.
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One of the most formative experiences of my life happened in a garbage dump in the Dominican Republic. I was 17 years old and part of a team of 10 students who raised funds to build a school for a rural community. To prepare for our time in the campo, we learned about Dominican culture in the capital city, Santo Domingo. We visited a lighthouse built to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ landing on the island, and right after that, we took a trip to the city dump. I didn’t understand why we were driving through these piles of garbage, until I began to see that people were living there. In the garbage. Our Jesuit teacher, Fr. Brennan, explained that these people used to live where the lighthouse stood, but their housing was demolished to build the tourist attraction, and the local government provided them no assistance to relocate, so many families were forced to make their homes among other people’s refuse. I don’t think I’ve ever felt so distant from other people as I did in that moment: me, a white, middle-class boy from the suburbs of Milwaukee, driving in an air-conditioned van while other people look through garbage for anything they can eat, use, or sell. Then Fr. Brennan stopped the van and told us to get out. We opened the van doors and were hit with a wave of heat, smoke, and stench. The dump was called “Cien Fuegos” because it was perpetually on fire, in order to make room for more garbage. The heat and stench were sickening. But we weren’t able to dwell on it for long because in seconds, we were tackled by children who lived there: kids wearing rags who hugged us like we were old friends. We were human jungle gyms for the next few hours, holding kids by their hands and swinging them in circles, playing tag, and acting like we were family.
Eventually, a man approached Fr. Brennan and asked him if he would bless his home. So we walked through the garbage, greeting people as they hunted for anything of value amid the smoldering trash. When we reached the man’s home, we saw it was a small cave in a hill of garbage. He invited us into his tiny shelter, just room enough for some towels, linens, and clothes – where he and his family slept – and there was a table, a chair, and a framed picture of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. The same image that was hanging on the wall of my home parish.
I’m ashamed to admit this, but it took that image of Jesus for me to recognize God’s presence in the garbage dump, in the people that we had met. I have long thought about that icon and what it’s like for Jesus to look through that image at us, a world marred by divisions and unjust inequalities, as well as what Pope Francis calls “the globalization of indifference” at the suffering of so many of our brothers and sisters. The man who invited us into his home grabbed our hands and said, “Hermanos, rezemos.” (Brothers, let us pray.) Magis is the power to shatter the illusion that we are separate from each other, even when it looks like we’re living worlds apart.
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The meaning of magis is complex. In a thorough study of magis in the Jesuit heritage, Rev. Barton Geger, SJ suggests the best translation of magis is “the more universal good.” This definition can be traced all the way back to Saint Ignatius, who advised the early members of the Jesuits to discern how their choices could be guided toward what is most conducive to the “greater service of God and the universal good.” Magis is inseparable from the unofficial motto of the Society of Jesus, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (often abbreviated as AMDG), which means “for the Greater Glory of God.” Geger explains that the “glory of God” refers to “God’s truth, beauty, wisdom, and power becoming evident to human beings.” Truth, beauty, and wisdom not only bring us closer to God, they also make us more fully human. For this reason, it might also help to recall Saint Irenaeus of Lyon’s claim that the “glory of God is the human person fully alive.” In this way, AMDG or magis implies a call to work for the fullness of life for all, the conditions that allow individual persons and communities to flourish. Magis is a religious and moral responsibility to defend human dignity, deliver on human rights and responsibilities, and dedicate ourselves to the common good of all.
Standing in that garbage dump, I more fully grasped how magis is tied to solidarity and justice. If we take seriously the claim that God is our Source and our Destiny, this makes us siblings with every other person on the planet (past, present, and future). Moreover, this means that we are all equals in the eyes of God; those children searching through garbage for anything they can eat, use, or sell have the same share of dignity as I do. Magis reminds us there is no “us” and “them” – only us. The “greater good” is the good that includes everyone, leaving out no one. This isn’t a utilitarian position that calculates the trade-offs between what is good for the many at the expense of the few. That risks trampling over the equal dignity, rights, and hopes of those who may not have as much privilege, power, or opportunity. It usually pits the weak against the strong and does little to dissolve the categories of “us” and “them.”
As Fr. Gregory Boyle, SJ suggests in his most recent book, Barking to the Choir, magis “refers to an affection for God,” a “devotion” that takes the shape of a “pervasive familiarity and union with God, a desire to want what God wants.” God’s heart must break to see precious little ones with no choice but to live in that garbage dump in Santo Domingo, surrounded by squalor, deprived of not only dignity, but freedom. The same is true for anyone denied dignity and freedom, those who are discriminated against or excluded because of their race or ethnicity, social status or economic class, sex, gender or sexual orientation, physical or intellectual ability, mental health, religion, or age.
It’s not enough to lament the state of our unjust world; we have to discover the root causes – the sinful choices and systems that exclude and oppress – so that we can prevent and solve these problems. This is what it means to desire what God wants, and this is the purpose of Jesuit education. Fr. Jon Sobrino, SJ attests, “To believe in God is not just to love life, but to work so there is life.” God wants life in fullness (John 10:10) for each and every person. Jesuit education cannot be reduced to acquiring knowledge or preparing for a profession; it is training to become more aware of reality so that we can take responsibility for transforming it.
Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the former Superior General of the Jesuits, described his vision of student formation in this way:
You are called by the Society of Jesus to be men and women who reflect upon the reality of this world around you with all its ambiguities, opportunities, and challenges, to discern what is really happening in your life and in the lives of others, to find God there and to discover where God is calling you, to employ criteria for significant choices that reflect godly values rather than narrow, exclusive self-interest, to make decisions in the light of what is truly for the greater glory of God and the service of those in need, and then to act accordingly.
This view of Jesuit education provides a fundamental horizon of meaning (to be in relationship with God), calls each of us to be partners in mission (for inclusive human flourishing in justice), and empowers us to think, speak, and act with moral responsibility For the Greater Glory of God. Magis reminds us that who we are is God’s gift to us, and our gift back to God is what we do with who we are, especially when we work for justice for those deprived dignity, rights, and freedom. Pope Francis discusses magis as “the fire, the fervor of action, that rouses us from slumber.” It is what drives us “to leave an imprint or mark in history, especially in the lives of the smallest.”
This is not an easy mentality to maintain. We’re bombarded with images and messages that convince us that self-interest is best, that we should view others as competitors for scarce resources and fear vulnerability. This makes it easier to close ourselves off to others or create distance, reinforcing categories of “us” and “them,” those who we can care about and trust and those we can disregard or distrust. Worse, we’re told that the poor deserve their fate because they’re lazy or just want to cheat the system – which couldn’t be further from the truth. It’s far easier to judge other people than try to understand them. But judgment won’t bring change. As Fr. Boyle writes, “We are at our healthiest when we are most situated in awe, and at our least healthy when we engage in judgment. Judgment creates the distance that moves us away from each other. Judgment keeps us in the competitive game and is always self-aggrandizing. Standing at the margins with the broken reminds us not of our own superiority but of our own brokenness. Awe is the great leveler. The embrace of our own suffering helps us to land on a spiritual intimacy with ourselves and others. For if we don’t welcome our own wounds, we will be tempted to despise the wounded.”
Magis implies humility, the grace to know the truth about ourselves, the whole truth that includes our strengths and weaknesses. It means being authentic instead of trying to impress. It requires that we accept ourselves and others, that we practice patience and trust, courage and compassion. Instead of fearing vulnerability, it demands it, because without vulnerability, it’s impossible to accept ourselves and others, be open to learning and growing, and cultivate relationships of mutual respect and responsibility. Magis invites us to build communities that are ever more inclusive and equitable. In the face of so much division, distrust, and despair, magis means asking ourselves if we can really imagine belonging to each other, even across real differences.
Many of us might be at a loss for how we can reach those on the other side, but Fr. Boyle suggests that we first ask ourselves if we’re willing to be reached by them. He explains:
We always seem to be faced with this choice: to save the world or savor it. I want to propose that savoring is better, and that when we seek to ‘save’ and ‘contribute’ and ‘give back’ and ‘rescue’ folks and EVEN ‘make a difference,’ then it is all about you … and the world stays stuck … The good news, of course, is that when we choose to ‘savor’ the world, it gets saved. Don’t set out to change the world. Set out to wonder how people are doing … stop trying to reach them. Can YOU be reached by THEM? Folks on the margins only ask us to receive them.
What would it take to make ourselves available to others we have trouble understanding? Take, for example, rising racial tensions in our country. Surveys show that white people don’t fully understand what people of color experience in this country, how the pervasive and pernicious effects of racism extend from personal bias to systematic segregation and injustice. It’s worth considering that a study found that three-quarters of white Americans didn’t have a single black friend and that two-thirds of African Americans didn’t have a single white friend. How can we build empathy and understanding across the color line (or the class line or party line) if we don’t know what it’s like to be something other than me? Magis moves us out of our comfort zone, not just so we encounter others who are different from us, but so that we realize our good is bound up with the good of others. In the work for justice, we don’t choose to have skin in the game; we have skin in the game because we belong to each other. Our humanity is diminished when we become numb to the suffering of others, when we accept injustice as inevitable, and excuse ourselves from showing up, speaking out, or stepping in. As Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
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When I was in college, I had the opportunity to spend some time with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He shared about his experiences fighting apartheid in the pursuit of peace and reconciliation so that we could be leaders in this kind of work in the world. He stated, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Tutu continued, “If an elephant is standing on the tail of a mouse, your neutrality does nothing to help the mouse.” Justice is not a fight for any one individual on his or her own; instead, we should think of justice like an orchestra: it takes many hands and each one of us has an instrument to play. I remember being a little disheartened by the metaphor because I have no musical talent and the rhythm of a tree stump. But Tutu exhorted each one of us to figure out what role we have to play in the orchestra of justice. He told us to find our passion and make that our instrument – even if it’s the triangle. Then play the hell out of the triangle for justice, he told us.
What makes an orchestra great is not just what each musician is doing on his or her own, but the effect produced by each member playing together. If someone were left out, the orchestra would be impoverished. The image of the orchestra reminds us that not only do we need each other to do what we can’t on our own, but life is more beautiful when it is shared through the gifts each person has to bring.
Magis isn’t about the best, the most, or the greatest. It’s not an exhortation to give more generously, raise our standards for excellence, or add more items to our to-do list. Magis is less about doing for others – especially when it is inspired by the white savior complex – than it is about being with others. This is how we come to better understand who people are, what they most deeply desire, and how we can partner with them to work toward that end. Not to be the voice of the voiceless (which may be well-intended but can nonetheless be paternalistic), but to be advocates, allies, and accomplices in the work for justice and peace.
My time in the garbage dump in Santo Domingo stays with me. It shaped my trajectory for what I studied in college and the clubs I joined. It inspired me to pursue graduate school and study ethics, especially in the tradition of Catholic social teaching that highlights inherent human dignity and responsibilities to the common good. It is part of my vocation: how I understand my purpose in life, what I most deeply desire, and what I’m willing to endure. It’s a major reason I’m passionate about teaching theology at Xavier University and it also extends beyond my job; it shapes the kind of husband, father, friend, and family member I want to be. I don’t just feel like I belong to the people I met in the Dominican Republic. I feel accountable to them. If we were to trade places, I often wonder, what would they do with my education and opportunities? How much good could they do with my salary or social media networks? What are the kinds of things they would hope that I think, feel, say, and do?
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Magis is about being the kind of person who contemplates who God is and what God wants and who acts to be ever more attentive and responsive to participating with God in making this reality here and now. (Ignatius would approve this integration of contemplation and action and surely magis is a worthy goal for our ongoing formation as “contemplatives in action.”) If we belong to each other, then the “greater good” is a matter of interdependence and solidarity, not a cost-benefit-analysis based on self-interest or the greatest good for the greatest number. Magis requires careful discernment in order to pursue what will promote greater dignity, freedom, and responsibility for ourselves and others – or what will alleviate the suffering of others. It is allergic to the popular phrase, “I do me, you do you” which makes tolerance and nonjudgmentalism the greatest goods. Justice will not be accomplished by merely tolerating the existence of others; “live and let live” just as easily becomes “live and let die” or “live and let suffer.” Instead, magis guides our careful work to identify, analyze, and apply the beliefs and values, practices and relationships, systems and structures that ensure everyone has adequate access to the rights and duties necessary to flourish. This is, after all, what God wants.
Magis is learning and living in order to become more fully aware of reality so that we can take responsibility for transforming it. This is how we help realize what Jesus called the “reign of God,” or God’s dream for creation: the fullness of life for all. This is the gift and task of the Jesuit tradition we have inherited and must now pass on to others. AMDG