When Wayne Gretzky was at the peak of his hockey career with the Edmonton Oilers, a friend of mine said he would sometimes join a crowd of people and exclaim, "Wow! What about that Gretzky?"
Inevitably, an animated conversation would ensue. Everyone would recount a recent story of some marvellous, breath-taking play made by The Great One. People would bubble over with good things to say about Gretzky. They felt compelled to praise what he had done.
Such conversations are very pure, although worldly, examples of praise. No one, in such circumstances, would praise Gretzky in order get something out of him. There was no hidden agenda. People saw something they regarded as good and beautiful and they wanted to share that experience with others.
I venture, however, if you walked into most groups of people and exclaimed, "Hey! What about that Jesus Christ?" you would be met with an embarrassed silence. And then someone would start to talk about the weather.
This says something about us -- that we can reach the heights of ecstasy in talking about hockey stars and be struck dumb when the topic turns to our Savior who has made eternal life possible.
But it also says something about the prayer of praise. Admittedly, unalloyed praise of God is not always at the top of my own prayer agenda. There was a time when I didn't see the point of praising God at all.
My coolness to this form of prayer said a lot about me. It said I didn't really know God or love God. In the right company, I may have mouthed sentiments about knowing and loving God, but if I had known and loved him, my first response in prayer would have been to praise him.
To know God is to love him with zeal. And to love him is to want to praise him.
The charismatic renewal has made an enormous contribution to the church by making it permissible to publicly praise God. This movement has led millions of people into a more intimate relationship with Jesus Christ, a relationship which sometimes overflows into ecstatic forms of praise.
There are, however, people who can't seem to say anything good about anybody or anything. Our first reaction is, of course, to lie low in their presence so as not to be a target for their cannon blasts. But our second reaction may be one of pity -- a sense of sorrow that they have so narrowed their vision of what is good in life that there is little they can enjoy.
Praise, writes C.S. Lewis, "almost seems to be inner health made audible" (Reflections on the Psalms, p. 80). Humble, well-balanced people can find something good to say about practically anything; snobs and malcontents praise nothing.
Viewed in this light, praise is closely linked to thanksgiving. When Jesus healed the 10 lepers on his way to Jerusalem, one returned, "praising God with a loud voice" (Luke 17:15). Praising God was this man's way of saying a resounding "thank you."
Gratitude, in fact, is in short supply. Lack of gratitude may be the greatest evidence of our spiritual poverty in the consumer-oriented Western world. We take it for granted that we can hop in a car, drive to a shopping centre and buy new clothes, the latest CD and fresh produce from halfway around the world. We say thank you to no one for these mind-boggling accomplishments.
A spiritually awake person would see everything as gift, even suffering. We deserve nothing and yet we so often act as though we deserve everything. Nothing should be taken for granted. We should say thank you every day to God and to each other for all that is provided for us.
This is one reason why fasting is such an important spiritual discipline. Not just fasting from food, but also fasting from cars, shopping centres, the news -- whatever we have an inordinate attachment to. Fasting can help re-kindle our gratitude for all that we have been given.
And if we are grateful for the gift, we will praise the giver. The Catechism of the Catholic Church distinguishes praise and thanksgiving by declaring that praise "lauds God for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because HE IS" (no. 2639).
In our prayer lives, we probably don't make such distinctions. We know who God is by what he has done. One noted author on prayer, the late Father Romano Guardini, says, "A short reflection teaches us that adoration and repentance, yearning and praise, thanksgiving and communion, petition and reverence, are all interconnected.
"They are but different aspects of the living relationship of humanity to God, made possible because God reveals himself to humanity and calls us" (The Art of Praying, p. 81).
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