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Deacon Kyle Eller: Learning to praise God is a source of joy

One of the blessings of praying the Liturgy of the Hours consistently is that every day it puts the language of praise on our lips.

Deacon Kyle Eller
Deacon Kyle Eller
Mere Catholicism

Of all the elements of prayer, I find praise the most difficult. For me, it comes naturally to ask forgiveness, which I have to do all too often. Thanksgiving is a joy and often arises spontaneously to heart. Asking God for assistance is, likewise, natural. Even adoration arises naturally when I’m recollected and praying in faith.

But the language of praise is hard.

I have come to think that part of the reason for this difficulty is cultural. I’m American, which means that I have spent my whole life in a culture that (at least in principle, if not always in practice) prizes democracy and egalitarianism, in specific rejection of things like monarchy and aristocracy and the titles and claims that go with them.

In theory, we don’t worship the great because they’re great, and in fact we’re often immediately suspicious of anyone presented as great.

What’s more, I am a northern Minnesotan, having lived almost all my life here, so I have imbibed a strong dose of stereotypical Scandinavian stoicism and reserve, of the kind that can pay a compliment but recoils at any hint of flattery.

Last but definitely not least, as Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles memorably put it many years ago, in America practical atheism has become “the de facto state religion.” “Practical atheism” means living as though God does not really exist. Acting this way, he said, is the “price of participation in our economic, political, and social life.”

If the rest of our lives are infused with this mentality, is it any wonder that it seeps into even our liturgies and our moments of personal prayer? Of all the aspects of prayer, praise is the one that most seems to contradict the practical atheist mentality. It would be silly to offer words of praise to God if you’re acting as though he is not there.

Praising and worshiping God is good first of all because it’s just. The virtue of justice means giving another his due, and one “sub-virtue” that falls under its umbrella is the virtue of religion, which gives God his due through worship.

But also for all those cultural reasons that make it hard, and for our own spiritual lives, it’s good and necessary for us to praise God.

One of the beautiful aspects of this is precisely pondering on God’s greatness and sovereign majesty.

It makes some sense for us to be skeptical about the great and powerful, the rich and famous. In this fallen world, damaged by sin, power is often abused, becoming something more akin to domination and tyranny. We have all been hurt by it at some point. In our weak human hands, power offers terrible temptations. Even those whom we believe to be good and decent people often disappoint.

But there is no sin in God. There is no darkness, only light. We have no cause to fear his power and majesty. Rather, we can fully embrace it and rejoice in it and humble ourselves before it and entrust ourselves completely to it, to him, because his power is in his hands, the one who is perfect goodness, perfect love, perfect humility.

Another beautiful aspect is God’s closeness. Often the great and powerful are distant and aloof. They may gate themselves off, shielded from any unhappy interaction with anyone they don’t wish to see.

But the great mystery of God is just the opposite. Infinitely greater than any human being, he is also infinitely closer to us than any human being, close even than we are to ourselves. He is particularly close to the lowly, the forgotten, the brokenhearted, the weak, the fallen. In his profound humility, he has lowered himself and suffered and died on a cross for our healing and salvation.

And his greatness is not diminished by this stooping down into our lowliness but magnified! Indeed, as much in our personal history as in the larger story of salvation history, part of the language of praise is simply recalling with gratitude all the great things God has done for us.

Pope Francis, in line with the whole Christian tradition, has spoken of the joy of being a disciple of Jesus. One of the ways we can experience this joy is praise of the living God, rejoicing in his greatness and goodness, his transcendent power and tender closeness, his mighty deeds for the whole world and for me.

If you’re like me, and that’s not always easy for you, consider asking him in prayer for the grace to praise him as he deserves.

Deacon Kyle Eller is editor of The Northern Cross. Reach him at [email protected]