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Prayer of Admiration and Praise
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
If we were to ask the average Catholic what he means by prayer, I think he would say something like this: "Prayer is asking God for what you need." The answer is correct, of course, but not fully adequate. No doubt many people, maybe most people, most of the time when they pray are asking God for a favor, whether something they want, or to be protected from something they don't want. They are sick and in pain, and so they pray for health. They face a difficult situation and so they pray for light and strength to cope with the problem. They are confused and bewildered so they ask God to give them some guidance. They are afraid of what awaits them in the future and so they pray for courage.
All of this is true, and is as it should be. In fact, one reason that God sends us trials and difficulties is to keep us humbly dependent on His help. He knows, how well He knows, that if everything went well we would become proud and independent and would likely not pray. And the pages of the Gospel are filled with episodes in which people in trouble asked the Savior for help. It seems that is all they were doing. "Lord that I may see." "Lord, if you wish you can make me whole." "If I but touch the hem of His garment I shall get well." "Jesus, Son of David, have pity on me."
But is that all there is to prayer, or more exactly, is this the highest form of prayer in which we can engage, the prayer in which we tell God, "Lord, come to my assistance; make haste to help me"?
The answer to our question is no. The most sublime prayer we can offer to God is not the prayer of petition. It is not even the prayer of gratitude. It is the prayer of adoration. This prayer of adoration is implicit in every other prayer that we make and without this no one would ever really pray at all. The only reason we ask God to help us is because we first acknowledge who He is. The only reason we ever thank God for anything is because, implicit in our gratitude, is already adoration.
What do we do when we adore God? When we adore God we recognize who He is, and tell Him we are pleased. That second part is not an after thought. You know we can tell people who or what we think they are, but besides saying that, we must be pleased. I believe that much more attention should be given to the prayer of adoration than we are naturally inclined to give. I say this especially because today's world is so preoccupied with self, and with man's own achievements, so interested in what human genius has discovered or human ingenuity has made. Man is preoccupied with man.
In my opinion the capital sin of the present age is self-idolatry. Men and women are so lost in their personal or collective accomplishments that they are literally, though we don't use the words, they are literally adoring themselves. The malady then is more serious than just not asking God for His assistance. It is the deeper vice of ignoring the majesty of God and worshipping instead the pathetically finite misery of man. How otherwise explain what otherwise defies explanation-human beings standing in judgment on the most sacred laws of the Almighty. He tells them to honor father and mother and all legitimate superiors in society. They tell Him that they determine who has authority, how and even what authority means, and not He. He tells them not to commit adultery or fornication, or homosexuality. They tell Him to mind His own business. They are not children any more, as were the simple believers of a former age, to be told how to enjoy their own bodies. He tells them not to shed innocent human blood. They tell Him that they are masters of life and death, and not He. It is not for Him but for them to decide who shall live before birth or after birth, and for how long.
In one of my conversations recently with Mother Teresa on this subject, she told me she was convinced the real evil behind the evil of abortion is not mere selfishness, it is merely that people are so preoccupied with their own interests as not to want children to stand between themselves and pleasures they can enjoy. Behind the mania of abortion, she's convinced, certainly in leaders of society, is a defiance of God. I agree. If we were to speculate how man in his maddest treachery could defy the Almighty from the depths of his being would it not be precisely in the act of procreation? Here God tells man, "I am Master of life and death," and man's evil genius has invented a way to say no to the Creator by denying God's right over human existence. If ever, surely today, God wants adorers in spirit and in truth to make up for the blasphemers in untruth. He wants men and women and children to adore Him. When I have occasion I recommend to mothers and fathers that they cannot begin too early with the children to teach them to make up for the massive denial of adoration by so many who are seduced by one another's achievements and become drunk with their own self-conceit. Adoration is the primary duty of man as creature. God demands man's adoration as the fundamental law of human existence.
If we were to look more closely at what this prayer of divine adoration means we would find that it means the admiration of God. What a strange expression, "admiration of God"! Yet that is what adoring God first means. It means that the human mind on beholding God's greatness is lost in wonder at who He is. When we admire someone we marvel with satisfaction at who he is or what he has or how he could have done what he did. All admiration is wonderment at what seems to be a contradiction or beyond normal explanation. If this is true of any creature, even the most marvelous, what shall we say about God? Everything about Him is a paradox because everything in Him is a mystery that no one but God can fully understand. The greatest wonder of wonders is God, and He wants us to tell Him how wonderful He is. He is at once the most merciful, and yet the most just. Where do you find, I don't say perfect, but even a balanced combination of these two qualities in human beings? He is utterly hidden and yet totally present. He Himself undergoes no change but He changes all things. God is never new. Strange! He's never old but making everything else new. God is always active. Philosophers define Him as pure act, yet He is perfectly at rest. He is gathering and inviting all things to Himself yet He needs nothing and no one. He sustains and fulfills; He protects and creates; He nourishes and makes perfect everything. He is always demanding and yet lacking nothing. You would think He needed everything; He needs nothing, but all creatures need Him. Is it any wonder that the mystics have exhausted the words of created wisdom in trying to describe the marvelous Being who is God?
Among the prayers of admiration in the Church's treasury, the one of St. Augustine speaks, I think, for the rest of us who lack the genius of St. Monica's son saying to God, "How wonderful You are." I quote Augustine:
"You love without subjection to passion.
Adoring God, however, is not only admiring Him, although admiration is the principal form of admiration. When we admire God, I think we have to get used to the vocabulary "admiring God." When we admire Him we look as it were directly into His face and tell Him how marvelous He is, and how pleased we are that He is God. He loves such prayer of Admiration, and in fact, He created rational creatures both angels and men in the final analysis in order to receive their homage- this kind of homage of adoration shown in admiration which they freely give Him as their God.
If we have any doubt of how pleased God must be when we tell Him how wonderful He is, let's just remember the times, I hope many times, that people have told us, "How wonderful you are!" Remember? We were thrilled. As wives tell me, there are no words they more want to hear from their husbands than for the husbands to look at them and say, "You are wonderful."
Adoration, however, has another form of expression and this is praise. Praise builds on admiration, and in this case looks upon God indeed, but adores Him not so much in Himself as in the creatures He has made. The words of revelation are filled with passages of praise for the wonderful creatures that, except for God, would not exist, and except for their existence God would not be praised.
As we reread the Gospels and see how often people marveled at what Christ did-and we are told by the evangelists they praised God-it is remarkable how often Christ had to go beyond the wonders of nature to work miracles which by the way, are nothing else than God's dramatic way of calling attention to His presence on earth in order to evoke admiration and to solicit man's praise.
The word miracle simply means something marvelous. In German-I like the expression-a miracle is wunder, wonder. And God would actually, we can humanly say, have spared Himself the trouble of working extra wonders, which are marvelous and therefore evoked admiration and praise, except that human beings are so blind to the wonders already in creation that He works supplementary wonders that we call wonderful. Why? Not because God is any more godly in working a miracle, but because they happen so seldom that at long last we marvel and call it a miracle. If we look closely at the church's liturgy we find there no less than in the Gospels numerous invitations to adoring God by praising Him. Once again we turn to the mystics to make their sentiments our own. This time we had in St. Francis of Assisi's Canticle of the Sun one of the purest professions of praise of the Godhead in Christian hagiography. Even those who are not Christians admire its sentiments and all of us can make them our own.
"O most High, Almighty, good Lord,
As one who has been brought up by a Franciscan tertiary mother, and who long before I discovered Ignatius knew Francis, I can assure you that many people misunderstand the mysticism of Francis. Or they fail to realize, and this is the worst tragedy, that in praising all the varied creatures and in sensing such close intimacy with them what Francis was doing was adoring God. He saw as only mystics can see in every creature, even the lowliest, the majesty of God. He could hardly bring himself to kill a fly. What he saw in creatures is what the Church, in giving us men like him for imitation, wants us to learn. It is the fact that behind every creature is the creative power of God; that except for His will and His love no creature would exist; that every creature is a divine invitation to praise the Creator. Praising God in practice means using God's creatures indeed but never stopping with them but seeing beyond them and behind them and beneath them not only God's original act of creation but His constant, sustaining divine power which I praise whenever I use even the least of the things that God made.
There are more vistas to prayer - that is, the prayer of adoration - than the two we have just seen, of admiration and praise. But no other form of prayer is higher or deeper than this. None is higher because it is this kind of prayer that the angels have been saying, though we, for want of a better word, say "have been singing" since the dawn of their creation, and that all intelligent creation is destined to be praying into all the reaches of eternity.
No form of prayer is deeper because when we adore God we are in contact with infinity and although still creatures are talking with the Almighty who was, and who is and ever will be. We are, how prosaic the word sounds, we are in conversation with God.
Copyright © 1998 by Inter Mirifica
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