On Praise

The Fourth Ordinary Mass Preface reads: “Lord, although you have no need of our praise, yet our thanksgiving is itself your gift, since our praises add nothing to your greatness but profit us for salvation through Christ, Our Lord.” Such a liturgical passage is refreshing. But it can puzzle us. Strands of it at first seem contradictory.

The cited passage contains five points: 1) God has no need of praise. 2) To be able to give thanks is itself a gift. 3) The greatness of God is not increased by human praise of Him. 4) Human praise does make an eternal difference. 5) We know these things because of who Christ is.

If God “needed” anything, He would not be God. He did not “need” to create, but did. The world does not exist for any “necessary” reason in God. Unless our minds are pretty blinkered, we know the world exists with us in it. So there must be a category of causes that do not proceed from necessity but still are capable of initiating and carrying out their own intelligent actions. What need not exist cannot cause itself to come to be. So we need an uncaused cause “in the beginning.”

“Coerced” thanks are not properly thanks. To be able to give thanks means to be likewise able to withhold thanks. The capacity to give thanks is thus one thing; actually giving thanks and why is another. If we do not exist by necessity, we must exist as the result of gift. Only those beings who know what gifts are can give or withhold them.

The greatness of God is its own glory. God does not become more what-it-is-to-be God if what-is-not God praises Him. This truth does not mean that God exists in haughty isolation. God is three Persons, one God. Yet, it is all right not to be God.

Mosaic of John Chrysostom, c. 570 [Hagia Sophia, Istanbul]
Mosaic of John Chrysostom, c. 570 [Hagia Sophia, Istanbul]

What is not God should praise Him. What is “praise”? It is the free acknowledgement that something that is glorious in fact is acknowledged to be glorious. “To praise” means that he who praises has some basic understanding that what is praised is worthy of honor. Praise cannot be bought. It can only be freely given if it is to mean anything.

But human praise does make an eternal difference. To whom? Ignatius of Loyola said famously: “Man was created to praise, reverence, and serve God and, by these means, to save his soul.” To praise God had something to do with our salvation. It was something we needed and wanted to do besides all those ordinary things. Evidently, God takes seriously how beings who know of Him react or respond to Him in their lives.

September 13 is the Feast of St. John Chrysostom (d. 407 A.D.). In a homily, he remarked, apropos of what we are considering here, that “The Lord does want them (men) to contribute something, lest everything seem to be the work of grace, and they seem to win their reward without deserving it.” God, who need not create, does not create automata with no input of their own into reality. The glory of the First Cause is that it can create other beings, not gods, who can cause in turn.

In the words of Cassiodorus (d. 585 A. D.), “We praise God by recalling his wondrous deeds.” We are to give praise as a response, as an acknowledgment that we recognize what is good not only about God but about everything else. Praise is most often at its best in song, in music. The “heavenly choirs” are probably something more than metaphors. In Surprised by Beauty, Robert Reilly wrote: “Cicero spoke of music as enabling us to ‘return’ to the divine region, implying a place once lost to man. . . .Many composers. . .have restored music to its role of recollecting paradise and bringing us ever closer to the New Song that shall resound throughout eternity.” The theme of the beginning and the end, the Alpha and Omega, is already here.

This consideration of praise and thanksgiving is only fully coherent “through Christ Our Lord.” The connection between “in the Beginning was the Word” and “the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” is unbreakable. Our times have been at pains to assure us that Christ was, at best, a nice man who wouldn’t hurt a flea.

What strikes us most today about the Christ of the Gospels is that He also and forcefully presents Himself as God, the Word, the Logos. He is who He said He was. The coming to judge the living and the dead is no joke or myth. Praise and thanks are responses to what is. Chrysostom was quite right. We do not “win our reward without deserving it.” We do not deserve it if we refuse to ask ourselves “Quid sit Verbum?” (“What is the Word?”)

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James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, was one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. Among his many books are The Mind That Is Catholic, The Modern Age, Political Philosophy and Revelation: A Catholic Reading, Reasonable Pleasures, Docilitas: On Teaching and Being Taught, Catholicism and Intelligence, and, most recently, On Islam: A Chronological Record, 2002-2018.

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