Dear Donagh …I promised I'd send you a question, so here it is finally. An elderly relative of mine (you know who I mean) has taken to saying 'Praise the Lord!' whenever she hears anything good - a thing I'm beginning to find very tiresome, though I haven't the nerve to tell her so! - She would put me down as an atheist right away and she would take to praying for me every day. I suppose there can be aged Charismatics just as there are aged hippies, so I've been quite nice to her really. But it has made me think about the whole idea of praising God. I have to say, it stopped making sense the moment I began to think about it. How could a person of any depth endure being praised all the time? What makes us think that God would enjoy it? Would he not die of boredom if everyone kept praising him round the clock? If he needs that he must be very insecure! I know you'll say he doesn’t need it, but why do people do it then? …Do your best, and try not to be so balanced! Larry.
Thank you, Larry! If you were to tell your "elderly relative" (!) about your problem her prayer of praise would instantly change to prayer of petition! So you know what to do….
We've talked a little already about this subject, so I'll sum up.
Yes, God doesn’t need our praise. One of the Prefaces of the Mass says, "You have no need of our praise, yet our desire to thank you is itself your gift." Very balanced! Everything is there.
Still, something can be perfectly correct and still not right. I always avoid that particular Preface…. It sounds a bit 'back of me hand to you'. Even though love is about giving rather than needing, love won't allow the other to say "You don’t need anything from me." And the Scriptures say God is love. Meister Eckhart, the least likely of all to make little God's transcendence, wrote, "God needs our friendship so much that He cannot wait for us to pray to Him: He approaches us and begs us to be His friends." Eckhart spoke from the heart of experience. Logic would leave us with a cold self-sufficient God (close relative of Aristotle's prime mover), but people who write from experience do better. Our relationship with God can be understood only through the experience of friendship and love. "Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love" (1John 4:8).
Only love knows how to praise, pure and simple. The praise that the ego offers is almost bound to be strategic; there's a hidden agenda, as they say. I praise so that I will appear to have good taste (= popular taste at the time). The ego knows far more about competition and self-promotion than about praise. The more the ego praises, the more resentment builds up underneath. That kind of praise is as bad for the giver as for the receiver.
Real praise finds it hard to breathe today. We are in a culture of increasing distrust and cynicism. There is much to distrust, it's true, but this atmosphere is extremely corrosive. Imagine sitting down to a meal with a group of friends, and then being joined by a cynical person who loves no person place or thing. What power such a person has! Praise, like everything that comes from an innocent heart, withers and shrivels up in an atmosphere of cynicism.
When cynicism is spread very thinly on a decent person its name is irony. There are very many writers and commentators today who would be ashamed to praise anything in a straightforward way; instead they come sideways at it, with a mortal dread of appearing naïve. A Frenchman told me once that for him it was the mark of the English language!
To praise is to go out of the ego. It is to go beyond the tight package of the self. You could say it is to merge oneself. We are quite familiar with what Eric Fromm called the "lower mergings of the self" - the Nuremberg rallies in the '30s in Nazi Germany, the loutish behaviour of street-gangs, the strange allure of cults; and less destructively the adulation given to pop-stars, and perhaps the harmless ecstasy of football fans…. We seem to have a need to give ourselves up to something beyond ourselves. The tragedy is that what we give ourselves to is sometimes not worthy of us. But there is a "higher merging of the self," and its name is love or God - genuine love, and not addiction or some other counterfeit. If we become cynical about this we are left with some lower merging. In his book on 19th-century atheism, God's Funeral, A.N. Wilson wrote, "Dethroning God, that generation found it impossible to leave the sanctuary empty. They put man in his place, which had the paradoxical effect, not of elevating human nature but of demeaning it to depths of cruelty, depravity and stupidity unparalleled in human history." Nietzsche seems to have been right: we cannot just eliminate God and expect everything else to stay in place. If we stop praising God we are likely to forget how to praise anything at all.
To finish, here's something from W.H. Auden (from In memory of W.B. Yeats) - words that have stayed somehow in my memory.
In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.
Give my love to your ancient relative!