Guest Column: In Praise of Praise

Praising is profoundly misunderstood in our culture. We tend to think of it in terms of either therapy or power. On the one hand, we praise children in order to guard their fragile egos. On the other, we condemn sycophantic praise for the tyrant—the invincibly moronic Big Cheese surrounded by underlings who praise him as the greatest genius who ever lived. Such characters, of course, become unhinged barbarians when they do not receive continual praise. Not surprisingly, many of us therefore have difficulty with praise, with praising God, and especially with teaching our children to live lives of praise.

“We do well always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise.” We pray these words in the liturgy of the Eucharist, and they teach us that this is the business of life. Yet it is often very hard for moderns to chase from their imaginations the image of God as either an ancient potentate or a big baby, demanding praise and threatening storms and plagues if He doesn’t get it. To remedy this misapprehension we must recall our own experience of childhood.

Children, like their Maker, find it as natural as rain to marvel at things. So do we, in our best moments. An experience is not complete for us until we can say, “Look! Isn’t it beautiful?” We are incorrigibly driven, not only to see things, but to re-see them. That is what “recognition” means: to see and know again. Praise, like art, makes us recognize what we’ve already seen and thereby, in a strange way, to see it anew. When a child experiences beauty, he has to marvel, to tell somebody what he has seen or heard or smelt or felt. He must, however crudely, recapitulate what he has seen, heard, and felt with a picture or a story or a make- believe pantomime. It must be re-presented in order to be recognized. It must be expressed; it must be praised.

Good art causes us to see again in a new way, as well. One of the differences between quality art and the mere shock schlock of the world is that the latter is indulgence, which only blinds and dulls. The Marilyn Mansons of the world have to continually think of new and more outrageous ways of shocking us because they really have nothing to say. All they can think to do is stab the numbed nerve harder in the hope that we’ll again react to the electric bolt of outraged sensibilities. When they’re done, we’re utterly de-sensitized. In contrast, when a good artist is done with his work, we see, hear, and feel in new and deeper ways. We’re changed by recognizing anew what we, at some level, both already knew and didn’t know at all.

This isn’t a thing done in isolation but among friends. Indeed, one of the great marks of friendship, as C. S. Lewis observed, is the moment when you turn to someone and say, “What? You see it too? I thought I was the only one.” Friends stand praising something they both love. Praise creates communion.

The praise of God is the same. In it, we’re appreciating and seeing anew and in a deeper way what we’ve already seen before. We’re like the disciples on the Emmaus road. They didn’t bring Jesus back from the dead with their praise. Rather, the Risen Christ taught them to see again in a new way—to see themselves, and to see Him. Their eyes were opened, and the natural result was praise. God needs our praise even less than does a mountain or a painting or a sunset. He’s neither the tyrant nor the baby. On the other hand, He isn’t coolly regarding us while we praise Him, utterly impervious to our joy. Rather, He is Joy. The Risen Christ is infinitely more full of life and joy than we are and, by calling us to praise, He aims to kindle our souls to share in His Joy, and to share that Joy with the entire communion of saints. “It is right to give him thanks and praise!”

  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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