Thursday, December 03, 2015

A Catholic Praise Tradition?

Most Catholics have no idea what it is to “praise” God. We hear this verb occasionally in the Psalms, but the experience of praise is unfamiliar.

Praise is distinctly different than worship in the broad sense.  Worship is showing reverence and adoration to God, through rite and through sacrament. Praise, however, is the specific act of identifying God as savior, redeemer, the almighty, the superlative Good. Further, praise recalls the great works of the Lord. The Psalms are chock full of praise. Take Psalm 107, for example:
1 O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
2 Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
3 and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south.
What gives praise its particular value and depth comes from our personal context. It is particularly difficult to identify God as the savior when all seems lost. It is difficult to praise God as the source of good, when goodness around us seems tarnished by pride, ego, deception, and greed. Offering God our praises in this context is an act of faith, hope, and love. Praise, for that reason, must be personal. It must come from “all that is within me,” warts and all (Psalm 103).  Then, the praises being offered, our personal situation is illumined by God’s very being, placed in context of eternity as it were. Through praise, we come to see God's involvement in the circumstances of our own life and sanctification. This personal benefit does not come when someone else offers God praise on our behalf.

While the Psalms are certainly a part of our Catholic experience, the mode of the Mass is primarily didactic and demonstrative, offering lots of “we do this” and “we do that.” Of course, there is the singular worship Jesus offers God the Father through his death and resurrection, and that is made present at every Mass. With the exception of the Gloria and the Sanctus, however, Mass is not in the "mode" of praise as we've defined it above. Music covers movement or actions at Mass; an Introit or entrance antiphon, a Gradual or Offertory antiphon, a Communion anthem, or a closing hymn all co-exist with other actions that take precedence.  For some, sacred music is just music of the court, even though it is God’s court; it offers reflections on the readings and brings beauty. Praise, however, as an act of faith – identifying God as God – demands our focus, commitment, and time. In fact, St. Gregory the Great required monks observe a pause of at least five syllables in the middle of a psalm verse to provide adequate time for praise to seep into the soul and become understanding.

Without belief in the authentic, real presence of God, liturgy slips into a comfortable and bloodless deism, where God is distant and disengaged, a watchmaker who winds the watch and walks away. In this counterfeit spirituality, we attempt to make God present through human interaction (support, community, etc). But ultimately this is madness. As Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head, and it is his head that splits.” God has already made a way for us to get our heads (and someday, please God, our whole body) into the heavens, and that way is faith. The psalms are a sort of litmus test, a way to show our faith in action; it is impossible to sing the psalms without faith that God is indeed "our refuge and our strength, our ever present help in time of trouble" (Psalm 46). In keeping with the Jewish tradition, praise is the correct response to God's deliverance and liberation from sin and oppression.

Many well-intentioned pastors go to great lengths to offer their own compassion and heart-felt understanding to parishioners, as if there were something sacred or divine about their own emotional commitment or vulnerability. “Fr. Bob understands,” and for some that's enough.  But while human compassion is profoundly valuable, what about the freedom that comes from the virtue of faith, which comes from God and grows strong within us? Why offer the lesser (and split your head in the process), when you can offer the greater? 1 John 5:4 says, “this is the victory that overcomes the world, our faith;” and faith is the primary virtue cultivated by praise.

How could praise be more thoroughly included in our Catholic liturgy and practice? At one time whole psalms of praise were sung with the Introit, but today the ancient praise tradition remains most intact in the Liturgy of the Hours. Priests are obligated to keep the Liturgy of the Hours daily, even if they are unable to say Mass. Laypeople can keep the office without priests. In communities that struggle to find clergy to staff their parishes, a rediscovered tradition of praise, the practice of keeping the Liturgy of the Hours, might be just the ticket. Furthermore, it is an opportunity for ecumenism and collaboration with Jewish and Protestant communities. If the value of praise were discovered, it could be a tremendous boon on a variety of fronts.

Here at St. Mary’s Church in Auburn, NY, we started singing Compline (Night Prayers) a few years ago during Advent and Lent. About fifteen to twenty of us sing the psalms and various prayers by dim candlelight, without any accompaniment. Another thirty to forty folks sit in the pews, taking it in quietly. It’s a new experience for all of us, and you’re welcome to take a look at the music we’re using here. The prayers and psalms are assembled after the old Latin Benedictine office, with Cardinal George’s favorite, the newly revised Grail psalms. I composed two new antiphons to satisfy the requirements of the new office. It's not perfect, but it's a start.

What would it look like if parishioners arrived Sunday about thirty minutes early, and sang Matins and Lauds (Morning prayers) before the Mass started? What parish communities are keeping the office? How do you see the ancient Catholic praise tradition becoming a meaningful part of your spirituality? Let’s start the discussion!

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