Several years ago, as I was flipping through Fr. Michael Scanlan’s little guide to prayer, Appointment With God, I was taken aback by his description of his own daily “appointment” with the Lord. In it he mentioned that he typically spends around 15 minutes a day in a prayer of “praise”. Fr. Scanlan, of course, is the remarkable priest whose efforts transformed a dingy unheard of college into the Franciscan University of Steubenville.
What struck me about Scanlan’s daily prayer regimen was how different it was from my own. How could he spend so much time “praising” God? Didn’t he ever get tired? Sure, I praised God at the Gloria and frequently blurt out “praise God” when a parking spot becomes available at the last moment but to praise God for 15 minutes?
I think my past disconnect with the prayer of praise is not unique to me. In fact, Pope Francis in a homily two years ago noted how Christians often forget the gift of praise. While we are familiar with asking God for things, or adoring him in the Blessed Sacrament, the prayer of praise “doesn’t come so easily to us” and so we often “leave it aside”.
What does the Pope mean by the “prayer of praise”? Francis gives as a couple of examples, the Holy, Holy, Holy… during Mass or simply telling God about how great he is. The Holy Father intends what the Catechism describes as “the form of prayer which recognizes most immediately that God is God. It lauds God for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because HE IS.”
Praise is the gift whereby the Christian acknowledges the greatness of God and attempts to glorify his greatness. Whether in the thoughts of the heart or expressed verbally, the Christian attempts to laud God. Not simply for what he does for me. But because “HE IS”. Because he deserves it.
The strange thing about praising God is that it benefits us. Praise carries our prayer towards God. It draws us, as Aquinas says, away from what is opposed to God and moves our affections towards his Presence. This is why the Psalmist claims that we enter God’s courts with praise. Typical of God: we give him what he’s due, and he gives us more than we can desire.
But if the “prayer of praise” is not only the just response of creatures but also spiritually potent, why as Pope Francis asserts, do we often “leave it aside”? I would suggest there are several reasons.
First, while the prayer of praise is a gift from God, it also requires our cooperation. In other words, it requires work. But, we’re not always fans of putting in the effort. I do not mind reading the Scriptures, but to spend a couple of minutes focusing on the praise of God can be challenging. Experience shows us that cultivating the gift of praise even for 2 or 3 minutes a day is rewarding; God often engages our effort with His grace. We enter the immense sea by way of small streams.
Secondly, praise requires humility. As is said frequently, millennials are a “me-first” generation. This is, of course, one of the big lures of social media. We want to receive love. But, praise is specifically about the Other (whether we look silly or not). Praise takes us out of ourselves. Here, we can glimpse why Francis suggests that the one who doesn’t spontaneously praise risks becoming “sterile”! We cannot give ourselves spiritual life. Praise opens our prayer to God and in so doing allows us to receive his life.
Thirdly, I would suggest a connection between the decrease in praise and the decline in “charismatic” prayer groups in North America. One of the great fruits of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal has been to re-introduce the gift of praise back into the heart of the Church.
While the Catholic Charismatic Renewal is by no means dead in the United States, other movements have sprung up and begun to take root among millennials. Though these movements bring their own flavor to American Catholicism, it is the Renewal movement that particularly emphasizes the power and blessing of praise (especially in a communal setting). Here, it is worth noting a particular opposition among some Catholics against communal praise as exhibited in the Renewal movement. One does not have to look hard to find a voice rejecting the Renewal and its style of praise and worship as “Protestant”. Though here is not the place to counter such a view, I would suggest that such opposition hardly agrees with the tradition or catholicity of the Church.
Finally, whatever the reasons for the neglect of praise among Catholics, now is the time to take it up again. Let us take up the mantle of praise like Our Lady at the Visitation. We can start small. Reading one of the praise psalms or simply repeating in your heart praise for God when you wake-up in the morning is a good way to start. Praise isn’t just for spiritual giants like Fr. Scanlon or the old ladies with lots of Catholic bumper stickers. As Francis has said, it’s a prayer for all of us.
Alex Lorio holds a B.A. in Theology from Our Lady of Holy Cross College in New Orleans with a Minor in Philosophy. He received his M.A. from Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans with a concentration in Dogmatic Theology. He currently teaches theology at Archbishop Rummel High School in Metairie, LA, where he is also a distance running coach. Alex is a member of the Catholic Charismatic Renewal of New Orleans and eats locusts and wild honey.