Praising is profoundly misunderstood in our culture. We tend to think of it in terms of either therapy or power. On the therapy end of things, we “praise” little kids in order to guard their fragile little egos. Similarly, we’ve all seen Stuart Smalley characters on TV, those “support group” denizens who wander around in a haze of self-praise and mumbling “I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And, gosh darn it, people like me.”
At the power end of things, our other cultural icon of “praise” is that of the sycophant for the tyrant. We are continually exposed to the picture of the invincibly moronic Big Cheese surrounded by underlings who “praise” him as the smartest, baddest, toughest, greatest genius who ever lived. Such characters are fanned by breezes of fawning praise and, of course, become unhinged barbarians when they do not receive such praise (usually because the Honest Hero speaks truth to power at the risk of his own life before defeating the tyrant in a sword fight or a phaser battle).
Not surprisingly, many non-Christians (and not a few Christians, if they only admitted it) therefore have difficulty with praise, with praising God, and especially with teaching their children to live lives of praise.
“We do well always and everywhere to give you thanks and praise through Jesus Christ our Lord”. We pray these words in the liturgy of the Eucharist and they teach us that this is, in fact, the business of life. Yet it is often very hard for moderns to chase from their imaginations the image of the needy child or the vain tyrant when Scripture exhorts us to praise the Lord and even appeals to things like mountains and whales to do likewise. Many people have the picture of God as either an ancient oriental potentate or a big baby, demanding praise and threatening storms and plagues if he doesn’t get it. To remedy this misapprehension we must turn to what is going on in great art, most especially, to what went on in our own 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, in some way or other, “Look! Isn’t it beautiful! Check it out! How cool is that?” We are incorrigibly driven, not only to see things, but to re-see them. That is what the word “recognition” means: to see and know again. Praise, like art, makes us recognize: to see again what we’ve already seen and thereby, in a strange way, to see it anew. Even at the crudest level, this is why we are not satisfied to wolf down dinner as our dog does and move on to the next sight or smell. We have to comment on it, even if we only say “That was delicious!” At higher levels, such as the experience of beauty, a child has to do the same thing. He has to marvel, to tell somebody what he has seen or heard or smelt or felt. If the child is an artist (and most are), 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 re-presented in order to be fully seen–recognized. It must be expressed. It must be praised.
All art does this. It causes us to see again in a new way. Indeed, one of the differences between good art and the mere shock schlock of the tired Marilyn Mansons of the world is that it really does make us see anew, whereas mere indulgence of shock only blinds and dulls. The Mansons and Madonnas of the world have to continually think of new and more outrageous ways of shocking us because they have nothing to say. All they can think to do is stab the numbed nerve harder in the hope that we will again react to the electric bolt of outraged sensibilities. When they are done, we are completely de-sensitized. In contrast, when a good artist is done with his work we see, hear, and feel in new and deeper ways. We are changed by recognizing anew what we, at one level, already knew yet did not know at all.
This is, by its nature, not 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 marveling and praising something they both love. Praise creates communion.
The praise of God is the same thing. In praising God, we are appreciating and seeing anew and in a deeper way what we have already seen. We are like the disciples on the Emmaus road. They did not bring Jesus back from the dead with their praise. Rather, the Risen Christ taught them to see again in a new way: to see their Bibles, to see themselves, and to see him. Their eyes were opened. The natural result was praise. God needs our praise even less than a mountain or a painting or a sunset does. He needs nothing from us. So he is neither the tyrant nor the baby, dependent on our praise. On the other hand, he is also not a cosmic cold fish, coolly regarding us while we praise him and utterly impervious to our joy. Rather, he is Joy. He doesn’t need our praise for the same reason the sun doesn’t need us to light a match to keep it warm. The Risen Christ is infinitely more full of life and joy than we 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!”