Perhaps the prayer in the rosary which is simultaneously the most beautiful and the most enigmatic is the doxology, or the "Glory be." ("Doxology" is derived from the Greek for "words of glory.") What exactly does this prayer mean? What are we praying for? What is glory anyway?
In a massively influential work known as The Glory of the Lord, the great Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar discusses glory in terms of beauty. To give a terribly inadequate summary, glory is the aspect of God that attracts our aesthetic sense, that lifts us up to contemplation. More traditionally, glory is connected to praise and fame. But if that praise is to be true praise, and not mere flattery, it must be based on the perception of a true attribute of the one praised. To be perceived, those attributes have to be manifested, they have to be displayed. And so, in one real way, we can say that God's glory is an outward manifestation of all of his perfections, of his power, wisdom, goodness, love, and justice. This seems to fit in well with the biblical picture of glory, where God's glory is shown, seen, demonstrated. In one of the most touching passages of the Old Testament, we have Moses crying out to God.
Moses said, "I beg you, show me your glory." And God said, "I will make all my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim before you my name 'The LORD'; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But," he said, "you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live." And the LORD said, "Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand upon the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen." [...] And the LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed, "The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." And Moses made haste to bow his head toward the earth, and worshipped. (Exodus 33:18-23; 34:5-8)
We cannot see God's face on earth; we cannot see him as he actually is until we are in heaven. But we can behold his glory, his "back" - his effects in the world, the manifestations of his power, wisdom, and goodness. A beautiful sunset, the giggle of an infant, the glance of love between friends, the enlightening power of wisdom - all of these show the beauty of God, and all of these are the glory of God. God's glory flows into the world through his actions. And God is glorified when we praise him for the things he has done. First, with Balthasar, we see God's glory, in his beautiful works; then we give God glory, in our praise.
But now we come to the enigmatic part of the prayer: to whom is this prayer addressed? Are we praying to ourselves, saying "Glory be..." as in, let us all glorify the Lord? What strange prayer is that, where we pray to ourselves? Are we vaguely aspiring to a better world, and really not praying to anyone at all? If we really unpack the phrase "Glory be," it can almost seem to say, "Let us all be nicer and praise the Lord." Where is the prayer in that? We need to go deeper.
First of all, I think the prayer is a prayer to God to manifest his glory. We want God's beauty and truth to wash over this broken world, to transform it, to bring about his kingdom. But we are also praying to God that God might be glorified. And here we pause, and ask, "Should I be asking God for anything here? Why shouldn't I just praise him directly?" And here we once again slam into our own poverty - we cannot glorify God without God. We cannot praise him unless he first gives us the power to do so. We almost rebel against this idea, but we must recognize our poverty before God. As one of our prefaces of the Mass says, "Even the desire to thank you is itself your gift." Jesus is clear on this: "Without me you can do nothing." (John 15:5) Nothing. We are not in an equal partnership with God, in which God passes us the salt, and we say thank you, because we have good manners. Neither do we stand as disinterested critics, applauding God's work in the world, and crying out, "Encore!" as if God were fishing for our praise. Without God, we have nothing, not even the ability to thank him or praise him for what he has done. So when we pray, "Glory be," we are not simply talking to ourselves, admonishing ourselves to praise God - we are instead acknowledging our poverty. "Lord, pour your glory into us, and lift us up to glorify you!"
This is the core motion of procession and return acknowledged by so many of the saints. God pours his glory into the world, creating the world out of nothing. He pours his teaching into the world, giving us the Scriptures. Finally, he pours himself into the world in the Incarnation, and in the Indwelling of the Trinity in our souls. In all of this he manifests his power, wisdom, and goodness. But then, by his own power, he bids creation return to him, not to be dissolved into him, but to return by wisdom and love to know him and praise him - in short, to glorify him. By his power, his glory pours into the world; by his power the world returns to him and glorifies him. To use an example from St. Bonaventure - it is like a ray of light falling on a mirror. The light descends on the mirror and illuminates it. And, by the very power of that light, the mirror reflects the light back to its source. So it is with us: God's glory shines down on us, and by that very power, we reflect our glory and praise to him.
And so in this prayer we beg the blessed Trinity to shine their glory upon us, to let us see their glory. Then, lifted up by their power, we return with praise "to the Father", source of the Godhead and protector of the poor, "to the Son", Word and Wisdom of God, equal to the Father in every way, and made man for our salvation, "and to the Holy Spirit", Love and Gift of God, equally God, who sanctifies and guides us. Our very praise depends upon God, and so our very praise itself manifests God's glory, "as it was" with the angelic praise "in the beginning," "is now" in redeemed souls in every Church throughout the world, "and ever shall be" by all the resurrected with their angelic peers in the new creation, "world without end." Amen. So let it be.