If you ask Loyolites “What comes to your mind when you think of Fr Pulickal?”, various students will use different words to describe him. But if you ask Loyolites “What comes to your mind when you hear ‘AMDG’?”, all students will tell you the same thing: Fr Pulickal.
Fr Pulickal taught me history in high school, and on every question paper he set for us, he inscribed “A.M.D.G.” in the end. There it was: centre-aligned, in Courier typeface, on the cyclostyled paper. (The typeface would vary on the odd occasion that Fr Pulickal keyed in the question paper on butter paper by using his own typewriter in the Residence.) I thought of celebrating his anniversary by doing what he might approve of — go beyond the question paper, explore the history of the abbreviation he introduced to us, and in the process combine the twin axes of this blog — history and Loyola.
AMDG is mentioned in dictionaries and encyclopaediae, but even in specialist works like encyclopaedia of Christianity, the explanation is almost always limited to “Abbreviation of ad maiorem dei gloriam, Latin phrase meaning ‘to the greater glory of God’. Motto of the Society of Jesus.”
Wikipedia has the longest explanation of AMDG I have come across. In contrast, Encyclopaedia Britannica does not even have an entry on AMDG. A blogger tells us that the phrase and the abbreviation were not created by Ignatius of Loyola. Another tells us that “for hundreds of years, this esoteric acronym [sic] has been used by many Catholics as either a prefix or suffix to practically any written work and, in it’s colloquialism, has stood for ‘All My Duties to God’ (AMDG).” Judging the state of AMDG today in popular and authoritative reference works, I would argue that the decision of St Ignatius to make it the motto of Jesuits explains AMDG’s survival into the 21st century.
In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, A.M.D.G. means the moment of decision after one has searched one’s soul trying to make a difficult choice. When faced with these difficult choices, St. Ignatius directs his readers, one should make one’s decision based on which option will be ‘for the greater glory of God’. To use this expression as a dedication in a book or on a building, Ong asserted, is inappropriate, for no particular decision has been made. It is sufficient to pronounce that the book or building exists simply ‘for the glory of God’, without the addition of the word ‘greater’.
Ong seems to have argued that the use of AMDG in dedicatory fashion was not wrong, but that the essence of AMDG was soul-searching.
In Loyola, if Fr Pulickal was the most celebrated user of AMDG, outside the school it was Pope John Paul II. When Time magazine awarded the Man of the Year title to the Pope in 1994, it reported,
Every morning, before his private and general audiences, John Paul devotes an hour or so to writing or – increasingly, as age and injuries have taken their toll – to dictation. When he can, he composes quickly, in Polish, with a neat, flowing hand, using a black felt-tipped pen. On the top left of every page he prints the letters AMDG.
Other well-known names associated with AMDG, the Wikipedia tells us, have been the music composer Bach, and the novelist James Joyce. From that tip-off, I set off on the trail of the latter.
James Joyce studied at a Jesuit school, which is the backdrop for much of his semi-autobigraphical novel A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, published in 1916.
In Chapter 2 of the novel, a para begins,
The next day he sat at his table in the bare upper room for many hours. Before him lay a new pen, a new bottle of ink and a new emerald exercise. From force of habit he had written at the top of the first page the initial letters of the jesuit motto: A.M.D.G.
We know from an autographed manuscript at the Cornell University Library that Joyce himself wrote “AMDG” at the top of each page in one of the weekly compositions for his English class at Belvedere College in Dublin, the Jesuit school he attended.
Around the same time that Joyce wrote A Portrait…, another novel appeared, this time with the title AMDG. Published in 1910, and written by the Spanish novelist, poet and critic Ramon Perez de Ayala, AMDG is a “bitter satire about the author’s unhappy education at a Jesuit school”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica. Here again, I am struck by the close association of AMDG with Jesuits, and the probable death of the phrase and its abbreviation, but for its use across centuries by Jesuits.
“Many Jesuit schools ask students to write the initialism at the top of their papers, to remind the students that their schoolwork is ‘For the Greater Glory of God’,” the Wikipedia tells us. This is consistent with Joyce writing AMDG in his English class, and later describing the act as a “force of habit” in one of his novels.
The Jesuits in our school did not follow this practice. Fr Pulickal was the only priest, in my years there, who wrote AMDG in public documents like question papers of exams. Nor did the priests advise or insist students to inscribe AMDG in notebooks or answer sheets. The priests probably felt it better to promote and project cosmopolitanism, rather than invite allegations of Christianisation. After all, in modern Kerala, despite the Malayala Manorama, and the extensive network of Christian educational institutions, any recommendation like inscribing AMDG on every page or notebook would have provoked the ever-suspicious Malayali and invited bad press.
It could also be that the use of AMDG is not the norm among Jesuits in Kerala. In the letters and e-mails I have received from Jesuits over the years, I have not seen AMDG in every correspondence, but only in a few.
There is some evidence, however, that a few smart Loyolites wrote AMDG at the end of answer papers, to score brownie points with Fr Pulickal for they were “hoping against hope that those 4 letters would compensate for an almost blank history answer paper coupled with the strictest valuation possible and save us from sure failure.” Jiby’s collection of Loyola anecdotes, where this is mentioned, fittingly ends in nostalgia with an AMDG inscription.
Tailpiece: At times, Fr Pulickal used to have quizzes in his classes. He would come with his pink or yellow scroll of notes, and shoot one question after the other. Here’s a question he never fired at us. Who is the patron saint of Jesuit students?