New Year’s Focus: Praise

On December 31st, the Ghost of Facebook Past revealed to me that over the past decade that I’d been on Facebook, two recurring New Year’s resolutions have been to cut back on anxiety and to cut back on Facebook. Now, one charming aspect of having a relatively poor memory is that I frequently experience surprise; I suppose I could find it humiliating, and occasionally I do, but more often than not it’s refreshing, perhaps especially because in other areas of my life I exhaust myself with my tenacity. So on New Year’s Eve, as I was warming up to rise to the traditional invitation to change my life for the better, much to my surprise and horror and amusement, I discovered the same old resolutions hanging up from years past like wives in Bluebeard’s closet.

Moreover, unlike those noble folks who resolve, say, to exercise more in the new year and spend New Year’s Day jogging, the Ghost returned to me on January 1st to reveal that I had failed in my resolutions on the very first day.

OK. Assessing the situation, I can see that neither my own strength of will (or lack thereof), nor my pleading with the Lord to pour out His grace on me, nor even my determined resolutions made quasi-public for the sake of accountability are getting me anywhere. It’s time to fight my demons with a new tactic:

Praise.

As the Catholic Church tends to focus more on the Sacraments and rote prayers, I haven’t had a great deal of experience with the spiritual practice of praise beyond the Glory Be and the Praise and Worship songs that were sung at the youth retreats I sought out since I was a teenager, and that my soul felt some attraction to but my intellect and musical taste often recoiled from. Indeed, it is largely thanks to those retreats led by NET Canada that I was taught to have a conversational relationship with God, something my soul thirsted for. I knew about praise but I didn’t really practise it. Probably the closest I came to it was in Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, when Jesus sits on the altar in the form of the Eucharist and we just sit in silence, gazing at each other in love (this is really quite impossible to describe to someone who hasn’t experienced it; the first time I encountered Adoration it seemed very strange indeed).

Recently my husband and I moved to a new home only steps away from a parish run by the Companions of the Cross, a congregation of priests whose charism is charisma: they are the charismatic branch of Catholicism and place a strong emphasis on healing and praise. When we first arrived at the parish we marvelled at the almost jarring marriage of the sort of enthusiasm in music and preaching that we associate with our Protestant brethren with the incredibly beautiful solemnity of the altar attended by incense and Gregorian chant that we associate with pre-Vatican II Catholicism. We quickly fell in love with our new faith home, however.

Driven by the desperation severe physical pain can bring (yay, gallbladder!), I attended a healing service our church offered in the fall. There I had an experience unlike any in my life hitherto, replete with speaking and singing in tongues, but I was also given my first real lesson in praising God.

Now, for all that I’ve benefitted from the laid-back culture of my upbringing on the West Coast, I’m a somewhat uptight individual. Catholicism’s structure suits me. I thrive on rules and obedience comes easy, relatively speaking. I also embarrass easily. Raising my hands up to the Lord in the sight of others, daring to sing whatever harmonies might come to my head without a score and at the risk of hitting a wrong note, letting tears fall in public, and just letting myself relax my grip in general are all the sort of actions that my pride is constantly patrolling to keep in check. And I think a lot of my anxiety stems from this need to feel like I’m in control. So waddya know, the Lord seems to have led me to a parish that offers me what I would call an Ignatian antidote, namely, to combat an error, practise its opposite (this is not wisdom that was confined to Ignatius by any means, but it was in an Ignatian environment that I first studied it objectively).

The antidote to my anxiety, I believe, is praise. It is also, I suspect, the antidote to much of my pride. Score! Two great hurdles in my life to be combatted with one and the same resolution!

What is praise?

I want to differentiate between praise and other holy activities such as petition and thanksgiving. It’s good to ask God for what we need and to thank Him for all He’s given us and all we trust He will give us. However, praise is different. It is, essentially, using our words to express our delight in someone and our admiration for him.

Upon reflection, I do this a lot in my life — I praise my husband and children constantly. Aren’t you wonderful! How are you so handsome/cute? You are so good! You are so loving! You are so precious! How kind you are! How thoughtful! You are the best husband/*name-of-child* in the whole world! I am so blessed to have you in my life! It’s a habit I learned from my mother, and it does a lot to build relationships up. Moreover, if I force myself to praise someone when our relationship is suffering, it does a lot to strengthen and renew the relationship. It recognizes the inherent and essential goodness of the other.

How often, though, do I praise God? You are wonderful! You are merciful! You are all kindness! The source of all happiness! I adore you! I bless you! I praise you! And so forth.

My mother-in-law, when I shared with her the events of the healing service, shared with me a story from one of her Christian encounters: that a man who was resolved to praise God in everything was at a fancy dinner and spilled a drink across the white linens and even on the hostess’ dress. In response, he praised God for allowing the humiliating episode to happen. The hostess at first was, understandably, a little put out, but in the end his witness to the love of God attracted to her convert to Christ, too.

This story inspires me: first, the man’s first response to disaster is praise; second, he makes his praise public. My response would have been to let the event affect me negatively, and I certainly would not have first praised God openly. While I’m not ready to introduce the latter into my life, it’s high time I embraced the former. When minor disasters strike in my life, my response is to panic, cower, run, rage, despair — anything but calmly accept, trusting that God is in control. When I look at my current state objectively, I see that I’m rejecting a lot of opportunity to grow in the love of God and others, simply by my failure to praise Him in all things.

This year, then, in the attempt to give greater glory to God and to overcome those obstacles that hold me back from becoming the person He made me to be, I intend to practise praising Him in all things, but especially in those moments that I’m tempted to despair or grow despondent, or when I feel a surge of anxiety.

I will recount the steadfast love of the Lord,
the praises of the Lord,
according to all that the Lord has granted us,
and the great goodness to the house of Israel
which he has granted them according to his mercy,
according to the abundance of his steadfast love. – Isaiah 63:7