[This composition was written as a three part talk for our prayer group, as a basis for group discussion.]
A Reflection On Praise
Part I: The Nature of Man is to Praise
As a young adult, praise for me, was ephemeral, something disconnected from my everyday life. It was something angels did in Heaven, or something that was supposed to happen on Sunday, but never really did for me. My disconnect with praise was probably typical. What was I missing then? What are we missing today? How is it possible to be a Believer, baptized into Christ, active in the Church community, but virtually unaware of God’s invitation to enter into what Psalm 100 calls the “porticos of praise”?
Pope John XXIII sensed this same need for “something more” as he called on the Church to join him in praying for a “New Pentecost”, a new outpouring of the Holy Spirit, as the bishops gathered for the convening of Vatican Counsel II. His prayer was systematically answered as the Spirit percolated a fresh vision for the Church through the Counsel. The Holy Spirit, however, wasn’t finished answering his prayer for “something more”.
On the campus of Duchene University, in 1967, a small group of dedicated Catholic men and women were also prayerfully seeking that same “something more.” During a quiet retreat, God unleashed a grace that was to become known as the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. This grace was experienced as a “New Pentecost”, much like what the gentile household of Cornelius experienced, in Acts 10/44-47: “While Peter was still speaking the Holy Spirit came down on all the listeners. Jewish believers who had accompanied Peter were astonished that the gift of the Holy Spirit should be poured out on the pagans too, since they could hear them speaking strange languages and proclaiming the greatness of God. Peter himself then said, 'Could anyone refuse the water of baptism to these people, now they have received the Holy Spirit just as much as we have?'” Peter describes this again in Acts 11/15-17: “I had scarcely begun to speak when the Holy Spirit came down on them in the same way as it came on us at the beginning, and I remembered that the Lord had said, "John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit". I realised then that God was giving them the identical thing he gave to us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ; and who was I to stand in God's way?'”
What happened at Duchene is what happened in Acts. It was the same Holy Spirit, pouring out His same gifts, upon His same Church, albeit dressed in modern clothes. This “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” has today, been experienced by hundreds of millions in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal and embraced by every succeeding pope. It is popularly associated with the Charismatic Gifts, such as healing, but its true hallmark signature is joyous praise which is the centerpiece of its gatherings. It is in this Charismatic Renewal that I was introduced to the gift of praise.
This account from Acts 10, is of a “God-fearing” Roman centurion who was in search of “something more.” This scene holds a profound theological construct regarding the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit”. It is clearly described as distinct from sacramental Baptism (which also imparts the Spirit). Nor, is it attributed to the laying of hands by the Apostles as in other parts of Acts, which points to our sacrament of Confirmation.
Besides defining the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” as distinct from our sacraments of initiation, this scripture assures us that it is available to all who “Believed in the Lord Jesus Christ.” It is God’s Word to His Church, it is proclaiming to those who have been Baptized and Confirmed, that there is “Something More!” There is something more for all of us who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ! This is the message gifted to the Church in the Catholic Charismatic Renewal: “The Spirit and the Bride say, Come! …Come, there is New Life for you who are thirsty!” This point is essential, because if we do not believe there is more, then we will not look for it. We will remain as we are, without The More – either out of ignorance or out of obstinacy.
To refuse the “More” that God is offering out of ignorance is understandable, but surely I would not do so out of obstinacy? The answer is a resounding, “Yes I would!” It is part of our fallen nature. How many great movies have we seen where the manly hero finds himself, under a moon-lit sky, face to face with an adorable heroine with whom he has become smitten. His entire being is driving him to say to her, “I love you!” Her soft eyes are riveted on his lips. She expectantly awaits the words that she desperately wants to hear. The conflicted hero opens his mouth. He manages to get out the word “I” but the next two words “love you” get stuck in his throat, choked by his manliness. He tries to save face and says something easier like, “I like your dress.” This is such a popular scene because it is a parable that speaks of our fallen nature. The hero could not surrender the words “I love you” because he was obstinate: stubborn; unyielding; self-willed; rigid; stiff-necked. He is, like we all are, conflicted with pride.
Scenes like these are a parable because they reflect the truth about our nature, about our relationship to God. We, like the hero, eventually come to the realization that we are desperate for love. And when confronted with the Face of Beauty, we too are driven to respond, but we choke on Love’s demand for surrender. Love is contrary to our base nature. Our instinct is to live for self. Hence, the battle line is drawn: To live for Love or Self. Our spirit, and the Holy Spirit within, draws us towards love. Our sin and the Adversary, Satan, draws us toward self. This is a most dangerous arena, where humility is our only hope, for selfishness and pride are two sides of the same coin.
Pride is the primary sin. Pride is the delusion where Self and the great “I AM” are confused as one, where our needs and worth are valued above all. All mankind has been consigned to this battle: to serve God or Self. All humanity is afflicted by Pride. All of us experience a resistance to extol an “other” above our “self”, even when the other is God. This is evident in the world’s taboo toward any public display of love for God. How many of God’s people, crippled by the fear of disapproval, are unable to sing out with enthusiasm their love for God, or lift their hands above their elbows because they are embarrassed? How many times in our liturgy is praise reduced to a rote prayer, or to the privacy of our heart? Who amongst us is not guilty of these charges? We all are guilty.
Why else are we free to publicly express our exuberance at a football game or concert, yet find ourselves bound by the world’s improprieties, when faced with publicly expressing our exuberant love for God? Is it because we lack an exuberant love? No, it is because our pride causes us to desire the world’s approval, the world that disdains public displays of affection towards God. Is it not intriguing, that the world disdains displays of public affection, only when they are religious in nature? Who makes up these rules but the one who rules the world? All of us are caught up in this battle of choosing Self or God.
Our prideful resistance to praising God is wonderfully brought into focus in the story of King David and Michal (2 Samuel 6). It reads: “Thus David and all the House of Israel brought up the ark of Yahweh with acclaim and the sound of the horn. … And David danced whirling round before Yahweh with all his might, wearing a linen loincloth round him. As David was coming back to bless his household Michal, the daughter of Saul, went out to meet him. 'What a fine reputation the king of Israel has won himself today,' she said 'displaying himself under the eyes of his servant-maids, as any buffoon might display himself.' David answered Michal, 'I was dancing for Yahweh, not for them. As Yahweh lives, …I shall dance before Yahweh and demean myself even more.”
Michal represents the pride and obstinacy of all mankind. She has only derision for King David, for publicly displaying his exuberant love for God –for throwing off his kingly robes and stripping to his loincloth, as he praised God with abandonment. Dancing and leaping, twirling and singing, he gave witness to the greatness of God in their midst. He exclaimed the love in his soul for the God who had shown him so much mercy.
As Michal throws light on the darkness of our pride, so David casts hope for what we may become. As we avail ourselves to the “More” God is offering us, as we more deeply surrender into the baptism of His Holy Spirit, we discover greater depths of freedom. Michal was imprisoned by her need to appear in control, by her submission to the approval of others, where appearance took precedence over substance. In contrast, David’s freedom allowed him to be who he was in truth, a forgiven sinner in love with God. He was naked before God, with nothing to hide, certainly not his love. If Satan planted a seed of embarrassment, then David would praise God even more, for he knew that the freedom he felt was rooted in the truth of God’s mercy.
So why would we willfully settle for less? Why would we be closed to the “More” God is offering? For me, the answer is in my own story; I only have to remember my first prayer meeting. I was beaten down, profoundly aware of my brokenness. My self-image as a man in control of his life was shattered. God’s mercy led me one Wednesday night to a Catholic charismatic prayer group. What I witnessed was a gathering of joyful Christians, openly in love with God.
Just as in Acts 10, they were singing in strange languages and proclaiming the greatness of God. I wanted their joy and felt their love, but they seemed too strange for me. I was a Michal in a den of Davids. “God does not suffer from low self-esteem.”I thought, “He does not have an ego problem; He does not need our praise. And what’s with this gibberish, this praising in tongues? How foolish is that!”
Yet I was painfully aware that I was the fool. They were full of love and joy. I was empty and broken. I wanted nothing to do with that foolish gift of tongues, and I remained adamant that they were misguided in their praise. Clueless, that God using my brokenness to secure my love, I clung to my intellectual superiority, yet kept coming back to those gatherings of praise. The need to fill my emptiness overpowered my intellectual objections. I lacked the wisdom, the discernment, to understand that I was engaged in the battle to serve God or Self. If not for my desperation, I would have turned my back on the “More” that God was offering me. As it was, the love and joy that flowed from that group gradually healed my spirit, soul and mind. Over time, I came to believe it was my duty to lift high the Name of our Lord. I even looked forward to it, though I still lacked the perception of what was happening.
Then one week, Sister Francis shared a vision she had as the group was worshiping and praising God a few minutes earlier. She described in vivid detail this scene: Christ the King was sitting on His thrown. In front of the thrown were two columns of soldier guards holding flags and facing each other, forming a long, grand aisle to the throne. The guards were dressed in colorful medieval attire, but they were not the typical stuffed-shirt-stiff-necked-silently-erect type that we have come to know. They were full of exuberant praise, shouting God’s praises and waving their flags. In her vision, Sister Francis was walking down this aisle, and the further she walked toward Christ the King, seated on His thrown, the more she became caught up in the praises of God.
It was in this moment of Sister sharing her vision, that a light turned on in my mind. I instantly realized that it is our nature to praise God. He is God and we are not. We exist to love and serve Him, and praise is our most fundamental response to His love for us, and our love for Him. We were created creatures of praise, and it is our destiny to spend eternity in love with God, praising His Majesty. This is why Satan works so hard to deceive God’s people when it comes to praising God. To Satan’s ears, praise is like scratching fingernails on a chalk board, for praise is the pathway to our intimacy with God.
Sister Francis did not offer an interpretation of her vision of praise, she merely painted the picture. Over 40 years have passed and that picture is still indelibly etched in my mind, still speaking to my spirit. Of late, the flag waving soldier guards have been causing me reflection. Two things especially: their number was great; and their behavior was exuberant. Their number was great because it had to include all God’s creatures destined for glory. But also, the great number speaks to the nature of praise itself. Namely, praise is not a private experience, it is fundamentally communal. Yes, individual guards are praising God, but the context is in a vast assembly. Yes, we can and do praise God individually, but the power, the beauty, the profoundness of praise is unleashed and infinitely multiplied when experienced in the communion of souls.
Unity is the defining attribute of the Holy Spirit. When God’s creation unites as one in praise, it is the expression of our very purpose, which is to give glory to God. God’s perfect plan for creation is being made manifest, that all may be one in him and he in them. Nothing is more pleasing to God and nothing is more reviling to Satan. Thus is the table set for war. And thus, would only the most naive of Christians, be surprised to find resistance from within, and from without, in the exercise of praise.
Secondly the guards’ behavior was exuberant. The expression of their love for God, their praise, was not merely an intellectual exercise in the “private-ness” of their heart. Their praise encompassed their entire being – they danced and sang and waved their flags. What they felt in their heart was freely expressed with their body.
Unlike the pure spirits of angels, man is both spirit and body. God has commanded us to love him with all are heart, mind, and soul. The fullest expression of authentic praise must then incorporate the corporal. Our body cannot be disconnected from our praise. Only when we, like David, surrender our body, mind and soul to praise, can we enter into the fullest expression of our praise. That we can sing and dance, clap our hands and raise our arms, is something that angels can only envy. Yet the Prince of Envy would have us believe that this is not appropriate to do in public. It is a bold, double faced lie, to strip humanity’s praise of its God given corporal nature, and then relegate it to a private closet.
The spirit of Michal is ever alive, still hovering over us, whispering to our pride; “Don’t be a fool for Christ! You must not give witness to your love.” Individually, in our prayer communities, and in our liturgies, we have cause to reflect: Are we praising God in all the freedom he has ordained for us to employ, or is our praise for him muted by pride and fear?
When King David exclaimed, “I shall dance before Yahweh and demean myself even more.” I do not believe that he was exempted from Satan’s temptation, to tone down the expression of his praise for God. I believe he struggled with the same struggles we all experience. God gave us this story because we all need to hear it. We all need to be challenged: To a standard for praise that transcends pride; to a standard of praise that embraces the fullness of our humanity – body, mind and soul.
Part II –The Nature of Praise is Love.
Praise is most profoundly understood as a communion with God, as a response to a love relationship. This love response emanates from our soul, spirit and mind; busting forth in the unity of our body’s members, mirroring the deepest expression of marital love.
Praise is “incarnational”. As Jesus is the Incarnation of God’s desire to espouse us into his Triune Love, so praise is the incarnation – of a redeemed soul’s need to sing …washed in love… bathed in Light …re-birthed into Truth – the soul is driven to express its love. Praise is a Sinner’s response to the forgiveness of Calvary …the washing of the Master’s feet with tears of gratitude. Praise is the song of a soul drenched in Morning Light …in the hope of New Life. Praise is the exultation of the Creator, in the Glory of His Creation …the mind reveling in its privilege of existence. Praise is a surrendered body expressing thanksgiving …with tongues freed from self-consciousness, with arms raised in worship, hands clapping out the heart’s joyful beat, feet dancing to the Day’s New Song, faces smiling, voices singing, as eyes are fixed on The Other.
Praise may be the most intense experience knowable to man, but its essence is not always so apparent to our senses, for like love, praise is not an ever present feeling. Rather, it is ever a decision, and as such, it does not emerge out of emotion. In fact, like love, it is often, if not usually, brought forth in spite of our present feelings, as an act of obedient faith. In praise, as in marital love, the ecstasy of the lovers is not the norm, but it emerges spontaneously in those rare moments, when the utter giftedness of love comes into its profound focus, with extreme but fleeting clarity. In praise, as in marital love, what we experience in our daily relationship with God is that deep but subdued knowing, that comes from a life lived for the “Other”. Praise is a sustaining bond that permeates every level of our existence. Praise connects our lived life with the Author of Life.
Praise can be an act of faith, as in the dark times of testing when our senses are deprived of all feelings and certitude regarding our relationship with God, when we believe he loves us, but cannot sense it. It is here that we are saved by Wisdom, by knowing that our commitment to the “Other” is not a feeling, but rather, a decision -that if we persevere in faithfulness, it will bloom again in greater beauty.
This truth was crystallized in my life when I was thrust into leadership of a charismatic prayer group in my early twenties. Shortly afterwards, I entered into a dark, protracted time when I lost my feelings of love for God, and of God for me. Prayer seemed a mechanical effort, praise ceased flowing from my heart and only left my lips because I willed those lips to profess what I believed to be true but could not sense. I remember the power of the temptation to believe I was a hypocrite, for living out what I did not feel in my heart. In retrospect, it was God’s mercy that I was in leadership, for after the many times I had taught about our need to praise God, and about the power of praise, I had no choice but to walk the talk, or quit the walk.
It all came to a head at the closing of a leadership conference that our leaders’ team was attending. I was struggling with a paralyzing conflict between what I believed, and what I felt. The closing Mass was to be a time of praise and healing. I procrastinated in going and arrived late. The entrance song had begun, but I found myself unable to open the glass doors, not because they were locked, but because my heart was. Lost in my inner darkness, the sound of a thousand people praising God was unbearable. I was so disconnected from their joy that the sight of them dancing and singing was painful. I felt tormented to join into their intense love for God, when all I could feel was emptiness. My hands and arms refused to open the door.
It was remarkably similar to a time years earlier, when a high school friend dared me to jump out of a sixty foot cypress tree perched over the Silver River. I eagerly climbed to the highest branch, but when I looked down to the water below, every fiber in my body told me to cling to that tree. I remember having to command my body to let go, almost as if I were talking to someone that was not myself.
Opening those church doors was no less difficult. I had to command my body to do something that was against its will. I did enter into the Mass and joined the entrance song, but it was with words that had no feeling, singing with what felt like empty praise, and holding up arms that seemed not to belong to me. I was alone in a crowd, alienated among jubilant brothers and sisters. I told God I could not do this much longer, that it was hurting too much. God took heed of my plight.
After Eucharist the assembly was channeled into various lines where priests were praying for healing. When my turn came for prayer, the priest immediately told me I was oppressed by the spirits of rejection and condemnation. I had as yet no experience with deliverance, nor with the charismatic gift “word of knowledge”, where God reveals the unknown through the power of his Holy Spirit, so I was indignant that this priest presumed to know my needs, especially since I was not aware of them myself! My slighted pride took backseat to my inner pain, and I presented myself to his laying on of hands, and to his prayer of deliverance.
I returned to my seat, knelt down to pray and was trying to get over being miffed at the priest’s presumption. I did not know that God was doing a work in my spirit, but Pat, a dear sister, who also served on our leader’s team, knew something was happening, for she came over to where I knelt, and silently prayed with her hand on my shoulder. It was then that I became engulfed in a soft white Light and heard Jesus’ voice say, “Richard, I love you.” The dark emptiness was lifted. An almost uncontainable joy flooded through me. It was so overwhelming I could not talk about it. I could not talk at all.
Our leader’s team piled into the van and headed home. I remained silent, replaying over and over the words of Jesus, as the rest were excitedly sharing about the weekend. Raul, now Fr. Raul, who was driving, then looked at me and said in his thick Cuban accent, “Richard, what happened to you?!” Without thinking, the words just came out of my mouth, “A Friend I thought was dead has shown me that he is alive!” This divine intervention of God into my small insignificant life was not an isolated event. It is a universal truth – God Loves Us! It is God’s unchanging Word to us all. It cannot be altered by the changing winds of our feelings.
That God would cease to love us, because we cease to feel his love, is a childish logic we are all prone to embrace. When a baby is being held by mommy all is safe and well, but if mommy disappears from the room, the baby thinks mommy has disappeared from its life. Like the baby, the child within us must also learn that God is ever present. It is our nature to learn by being tested. Even the God-Man was tested with his Father’s absence. How much more will we need to be tested? This test is not one of mere knowledge or understanding. It is fundamentally a test of what voice will we listen to.
Will we listen and respond to the Voice of Truth, or to the silly child within? If to Truth, then we owe God our love and praise in good times and bad times; when we sense his presence and when we feel his absence. Here is a circular mystery that will do us well to grasp, “The more we love God, the more we will praise him, and the more we praise God, the more we will love him.”
Abraham Lincoln tapped into this truth when he said, “Smile, and you will be happy.” The Evil One would have us believe we can only smile when we are happy, or that we can only praise God when we feel like praising him. In God’s Truth, in God’s reality, we are to praise him in all circumstances. Indeed, the highest form of praise comes from a heart that doesn’t feel like praising, or, from a heart that cannot sense the God of one’s praise.
To enter into this praise relation with God we must first fall in love with him, for praise finds its source in love. Without love, praise would have no meaning or value, nor would it be attempted in the first place. Love is what drives us to praise. Great love throws open the curtains to the porticos of praise. Praise is a condition of nakedness before God – of exposing our soul, stripped of pretense. Only in a loving relationship do we have the prerequisite trust to bear our true self before our Creator. Praise demands this humble transparency. Praise is in fact a sacred place, where we discover our true selves, our position before God, our smallness, our majesty, our sinfulness and our glory, our solitude and our communion with the saints, the angels, and the Triune God. To cultivate the gift of praise, we must throw ourselves into His love.
God created us body, mind and soul that we might love and serve Him with all the strength and capacity of our body, mind and soul. Indeed, this is the “Great Commandment” he enjoined upon us: To love the Lord our God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength. But is this not also the “Great Impossibility”? Are we not dependent on our senses to understand what lies beyond our self? Does this not then make God the Great Unknowable? Is it not then impossible for us to love God?
There are two answers. The disheartening answer is yes. It is impossible for us to know God, let alone to love Him, for we cannot love what we do not know. God, as the object of our love, cannot be seen, or touched, tasted, or smelled. And even if we could somehow sense Him, His majesty is so infinitely beyond our finite ability to comprehend Him, that we would surely be blind, if we said that we could see. Confined then, to the limitations of our finite-ness, and confronted with the Infinite-ness of a God, who sustains the Cosmos by merely willing it to be, would it not be wholly illogical, as well as utterly audacious, for Man-The-Creature to even consider attaining this personal relationship called love, with the Creator-Of-All-That-Is? The answer is most assuredly, a disheartening “Yes!”
But, we need not be disheartened, for there is another answer: His name is Jesus – The-One-Who-Saves! He is the One-Sent to bring the Good News – that, what is impossible for man, is possible for God! We cannot find God, so God reveals Himself to us! It is for this that God became man, that we might know Him. It is for this, that The Father sent His only begotten Son, Jesus, to become subject to our sin, to suffer and die, that we might live in Truth, that we may know the Way. Thus, we do not first love God, but He first loves us. The Unknowable Truth became knowable in the Incarnation. The Pre-Existing-Son took on our nature, that the carnal may know the Incarnate. This is the Good News – that the Father-Of-All-That-Is, has willed to pour into our hearts, through the blood of His Son, the very manifestation of Their Love, the gift of His Holy Spirit.
God so desired to share His love, that He spoke us into existence, that we may choose Him, and participate for all eternity in His Triune Love. And anyone who surrenders to this Love will come to know Him as the Fullness of All Desire. We will come to know the purpose for which we were created: To know, love and serve our Creator – with all our heart, with our entire mind, and with all our soul. Such is the mind of God. So it is that we have come to be in Love with God, not from any causal act from within, but from a response to a Gift from outside our realm of existence or knowing, from the very Heart of God.
As the time for The-One-Sent drew near to return to His Father, Jesus, with a Heart now breaking with Love’s Sorrow, promised He would not leave us orphaned. He revealed that He was going to prepare a room for us in His Father’s house. He made known the desire of His Father’s heart – that from eternity, we have been destined to be one in Him and Him in us. Then, taking on the position of Our Servant, Jesus washed our sin dirt feet, and bequeathed to us His unceasing presence of Body, Mind, Soul and Divinity, by instituting the Holy Eucharist. Only then, did He set out to Calvary, to burn into history, the indelible image of His Love. And after rising from the dead, He comforted us with many tender goodbyes before ascending to His place at the right hand of His Father. Being faithful to His Promise, He breathed His Holy Spirit upon us, establishing His Church, promising that it will prevail till the end of time, when He will come again, to gather His Faithful into the fullness of His Love, into the Bosom of the Father.
We were not this wondrously created, just so God could have subjects to lord over. God is Love and He created us to be in love in Him, with all the strength of our body, mind and soul. As we grow into the Image-We-Reflect, we discover our true identity: that we belong to the One who loves us. The more we surrender to the grace of this Truth, the more we are driven to respond to the One-Who-Loves-Us, the One-Who-Betrothed-Himself to us.
The more we desire God over self, the more we begin to glimpse this Incomprehensible Love. We find ourselves desiring to respond to His Love, desiring to respond like a bride, who longs for ever deeper ways to express the longing for her Beloved that is bursting in her heart. It is here we discover that the room Jesus went to prepare for us is not just a fancy room for us to hang our hat for eternity, but that this room is his Bridal Chamber for the eternal consummation of his Love for us, and our love for Him. This room is the Bosom of God, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Womb of the Holy Spirit – the place where He is in us and we are in Him. God’s Love never ceases to surprise, and one of these surprises, is that this Room which is waiting for us in heaven, is even now, receiving us this moment. It is our Father’s ” Son-Room”, a Place For Praise, a place that transcends time and space, a room built by The Carpenter just for us, a place to encounter our God in our heart, the “Portico for Praise”.
Jesus, the Incarnate Son of our Transcendent God, loves us! But, how can we possibly respond in like kind? We are mere finite creatures. He is the Infinite Creator. What can we possibly give that He does not already have, or, that He has not first given us? The answer is again, Jesus! He gave Himself to us that we might become an acceptable gift to His Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit. This mystery of grace is what opens the door to our desire for God. Jesus is the source of our desire. And it is this desire, this act of our will, the surrendering into His love, which becomes our personal gift. In truth, the surrender of our life is a “re-gifting” of what God has given us. Yet in his eyes, it is no less a precious gift.
Jesus came to show us how to love His Father, and to enable us with the gifts of Grace and Faith, through the power of His Holy Spirit, that we may do, what for us is impossible: To know and love God. Yes, Jesus gave Himself to us, in the fullness of His Love, in the fullness of His Holy Spirit, and in the fullness of the Eucharist as Body, Soul and Divinity, all, that we may return to Him the sacrificial offering of His Love, rebranded as our own. He literally has given to us Himself, who is Love, that we, with our sin disfigured image, may be reconstituted, reborn, that we may re-present ourselves as the love offering we were intended to be from eternity, that we may become a holy Sacrifice of Praise.
If, after receiving this Revelation, this Good News, we accept the gifts of Grace and Faith in Jesus, then never again, can we believe it is impossible to live in love with God. Truth, once known, can never again become unknown. Whether, we embrace it, or renounce it, this Truth will forever remain Known to our spirit. It will forever live, as Wisdom or as Guilt, demanding to be expressed in the living of our life –with all of the strength of our heart and mind and soul. With this conviction of our purpose, how do we respond in like to God’s Love for us? What is it about Jesus’ life that shows us how to love His Father? What does it mean that we are to love as He loved us?
The defining image of Jesus’ life is the Sacrificial Lamb. He chose to surrender His privilege – to be humbled as a man, to become the Obedient Slave. He chose the path to Calvary, to surrender to the Father’s Will. His sacrificial life was not based on the good feelings He was having. It was not based on His need for approval, or comfort, or even the desire to live. Everything He did was based on one condition: That it was in Truth, that it was the Father’s Will. God’s Love is always sacrificial. At every moment, the Father was willing to sacrifice his Beloved Son, and Jesus was willing to sacrifice His rights and needs, to fulfill His destiny as Son of God.
This too is our destiny -to love as Jesus loved us – to love as Sons and Daughters of God, to sacrifice our Self on the altar of life. To say that love is sacrificial is like saying water is wet. If we must bleed in order to love, then we must know that from his Cross a river of blood flows. This Blood is the Love that heals our wounds. It is the Blood that we drink to nourish our body, mind and soul. It is the Blood of Christ that gives us the strength to die to our self, and reason to live for the God of Life.
This dying to self and rising to love produces a pattern in the fabric of our lives, a picture of who we are and what we are made of, not unlike a photograph that is made up of countless small dots. And it is this pattern that we present as our sacrifice, as our sacrament – as our sacred moments realized into a symbol of our love, when we enter through the porticos of praise, into the chamber of our God. These patterns, the collective form of our many deaths and risings, are like a personal tapestry which unfolds before God in His throne room, releasing our praise, as our hearts release control, and our tongue releases its song. Though beautiful, this pattern we bring is not always pretty. It is our sins covered in Christ’s Blood. It is our failures and fears, healed as life-scars. Our tapestry becomes both the background, and the context, of this sacred exchange with God.
This is a time for authenticity, which makes our offering so pleasing to God, and allows Him to more profoundly transform and heal our body, mind, spirit and soul. Similarly, this is our time to abandon fear and complacency, which dulls the beauty of our praise offering, and inhibits God’s transforming design. The more honestly we present ourselves, the more our deprivations are exposed to God’s healing Presence.
Praise is a most extraordinary gift. Within it: We express our love for God in ways we could not ask nor imagine; in manners known to angels; and most tenderly, it is a Portal Of Truth, where God gently exposes our true nature – both the dark and the glorious, and where he, often overwhelmingly, allows himself to be known, as we are being known to him. This joyful-presence of praise, has a painful incongruence. As we stand naked and vulnerable before our Lord, we are deeply aware of our need for Mercy -the ugliness of our sin’s shadow, against the tender Light of His Loving Face, becomes almost impossibly painful. We are driven to sing of our love for him –knowing we only do so because he has made it possible with His Blood. Yet he loves us. Yet he is present. Yet we are aware of our sin. As it is with love, what little we sacrifice in our offering of praise cannot be compared to what we receive in return. God loves us so much. He has no problem giving us the gift of praise, just so we will have an offering to make in return.
My mother had a favorite story to tell of my older brother, David, when he was very young. Our neighbor, Mrs. Farner, had a green thumb and a garden of prize roses. One day, David walked through her garden and picked a big bouquet of her of best prize roses. He then proceeded to her front door, rang her bell, and then proudly presented her his wonderful gift of her roses. She accepted those roses with profuse delight, knowing her first place showing was now just a smile on a little boy’s face. But she made a showing greater than any of her prize roses could have, she showed my brother the love of God, how he delights in what small offerings we have, even if they have come from His own garden.
Praise is offering the surrender of Self, even while knowing, that what good we have, we received at the price of his Blood. Indeed, all that is needed is the desire to do what is required, and his grace will complete the pattern for our offering. This in turn, forms a more mature and perfect offering, until we can join with St. Paul and exclaim, “It is not I that live, but the Christ within me …for I too, am being transformed into the Image that I reflect!
“Praise and honor be to God our Father, to our Lord, Jesus Christ, in the Love of his Holy Spirit, for everywhere and always, it is right and just.” This liturgical prayer is the order of Truth, our place, our purpose, as the Created before the Uncreated. The fullness of our humanity can only be known in the fullness of praise. And the fullness of praise can only be known in the bridal chamber of the heart, where the lover surrenders as the One-Betrothed, giving free reign to the body, soul and spirit to sing out its love.
Part III: Practical Applications Toward Praise
Praise is Communal, it is Sacrificial, and it is a Love Song. These three attributes illuminate how we participate in the act praise.
Praise is Communal because God is Love. Love cannot exist without an “other”. Thus the mystery of the Trinity becomes logical: The Unity of the One-God is a common-unity – a Communal-Oneness that desires to share itself. Creation is a reflection of this. We exist to share ourselves. This is the context of praise, to share ourselves – our love, with God. And how supreme is the act of sharing ourselves when we are joined as one, with the Body of Christ, the Church-Gathered, all in the common-union of his Holy Spirit. The Body of Christ, joined in the intimate act of sharing ourselves in praising God, is a profound reflection of the Holy Trinity. Something precious and powerful happens when “two or three are gathered”, the product becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Just as the presence of God is unleashed, when faith is united in the prayer of God’s Gathered People, so too is his Presence and Power unleashed in the unity of praise. When individual “Beloveds” are joined in expressing their love for God, they become joined into the very Heart of the Triune God.
To be exiled from the Body-of-Christ-Gathered, is to be exiled from this Triune love of God. In Hebrews 10:23-25 we read: “Let us keep firm in the hope we profess, because the one who made the promise is faithful. Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works. Do not stay away from the meetings of the community, as some do, but encourage each other to go; the more so as you see the Day drawing near.” If we are sincere in living out our faith, then we must whole heartedly seek out and join ourselves into this communal witness we know as praise.
Praise is Sacrificial because it is born out of love. We cannot worship God if we worship self. What this translates to in everyday terms is this: The act of praise is, virtually always, at war with our flesh. It could almost be said we never feel like praising God. So often, feelings are Satan’s attempt to distract us and dissuade us from the very purpose of our existence –to praise God. Praise is sacrificial because it calls us to “punch through” the fog of our self-centered feelings …feelings like pride, sloth, selfishness, embarrassment, grumpiness, unworthiness or just not being in the mood. Ironically, it is our feelings that often keep us from intimacy with God. Feelings can be the spiritual version of “Not now honey, I have a headache.” These feelings, which are so resistant against praise, are not an occasional temptation. They are virtually always present in some form. To die to self, is the prerequisite doorway to praise. The deeper and more intense these feelings, the deeper and more fragrant is our praise offering when we overcome them. Praise is the practice of deflecting our eyes from self centered feelings and resting them instead on the source of our life.
But sometimes, we really do have a headache. Sometimes our bodies are truly weighing us down. We do find it painful to stand on our burning feet or raise an aching arm, or maybe to get ourselves to the meeting or to mass. There are no hard fast rules here, and we can never judge another’s situation, but I can speak of my own. Because of a health condition, by the end of the day, my feet and legs are always burning and I feel worn out. Some days can be more challenging than others, but God never ceases to surprise me with his grace and mercy. Inevitably, when I step out in faith, and make that decision to urge on my rebelling body to praise God, he rewards me with his joy and love. Often when those times of discomfort are especially difficult, he brings me into a sense of his presence that reduces me to joyful tears during the community’s time of praise. The point here is not that I have to stand on burning feet in order to offer God praise that is pleasing. He is delighted with any offering of praise. The point is that there is always more with our God. If we sacrifice a little more of ourselves, God’s response is not proportionate. It is a hundredfold. What little we can sacrifice is multiplied by God’s love for us!
Lastly, Praise is a Love Song. Love songs spring from the soul as an unabashed expression of one’s heart. They are our attempt to give witness to the Sacred welling up from within. God’s Love poured into our hearts, cannot, must not, be contained. It must be sung, and so praise is born. Praise, like love, is not something we measure out. Praise is effusive. It is extravagant and lavished. Love songs are gung-ho, not bound to the tyranny of society’s proprieties. Praise is released by freedom found only in love. As love sings with abandon, so praise is surrendered into the Love-of-All-Love. To communicate this joyous love within becomes our urgent desire. “Who can do this without singing? …So bring on the song, bring on the music, bring on the dancing. Lord give us the words, the means, to express what you have placed within us!” This is our prayer as we ache to express the fullness of our love, to extol the grandeur of God.
The charismatic prayer meeting is an answer to this prayer (Let us pray our liturgies will be transformed in this freedom as well!). It is here we find the freedom and the venue to express the fullness of praise. It is here where our song of praise finds its words, takes on its music, finds the room to clap and dance. Here we can learn to sing as David sang, and dance as David danced. But there is more, a realm of praise that even David did not have –the Holy Spirit’s gift of “singing in his Spirit”. Here again, God gives us a gift so we have something to give back to him. He gives us the gift of tongues, as we read Romans 8:26-27: “The Spirit too comes to help us in our weakness. For when we cannot choose words in order to pray properly, the Spirit himself expresses our plea in a way that could never be put into words, and God who knows everything in our hearts knows perfectly well what he means, and that the pleas of the saints expressed by the Spirit are according to the mind of God.” When we “pray in the Spirit” we surrender our tongue and allow the Holy Spirit to provide a vocabulary that transcends our imperfect intentions and replaces them with the “mind of God”. It is the Advocate himself, interceding through us and for us, in the manner and order of his liking. Our contribution is merely the starting and stopping, the volume and tone, but these are only “linkages” that allow the Advocate to interface with our will and spirit. They are akin to our signature attesting that we agree with the Spirit’s prayer.
Singing in the Spirit, is exercising the same gift as praying in the Spirit, but with the delightful addition of allowing our hearts to sing the prayer as song. It is akin to signing a blank love letter and trusting the Spirit will fill it with a poetry that is beyond our wildest expression. There are no rules or criteria for success –only that it is in the unity and order of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the composer, the conductor and the musician. We are only humble instruments, surrendered to the finger of God. This participation in the unity of God is utter Gift, a humble exaltation.
If the gift of praise is a jewel of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, then the gift of singing in tongues is a jewel among the God’s Gifts of his Holy Spirit. For when the Body-of-Christ-Gathered, is united in proclaiming his greatness, in singing with one voice, in the same Holy Spirit -what is experienced in that moment, is a communion of God and man, as one in Him and He in us. It is pure, sacred privilege …a Love Song …to God, in God, and by the power of God.
[All Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. ]