The Sacrifice of Praise and the Ecstatic Orientation of Man

Dr. Kwasniewski’s Lecture at Silverstream Priory (Ireland)

This conference was delivered to local clergy and religious at Silverstream Priory on Thursday, July 28, 2016. The text is reproduced below in full (for those who prefer it, here is an audio link). Among other topics, Dr. Kwasniewski addresses the importance and necessity of ad orientem worship.

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In the Epistle to the Hebrews, a climactic verse of chapter 13 exhorts us: “By Him [our Lord Jesus Christ], therefore, let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is to say, the fruit of lips confessing to His Name” (Heb 13:15). Given the relative paucity of explicit references in Hebrews to the Christian liturgy and how it is to be conducted here on earth,[1] this exhortation rings out all the more loudly, summoning us to a certain way of life: one in which we offer unto God, continually, the “sacrifice of praise,” which is the fruit of interior faith and its verbal confession. One might well ask: Why does the author sum up the Christian religion as a sacrificium laudis? What might we learn from the emphasis on praise?

Before digging into that question, it is worthwhile to point out how frequently Sacred Scripture uses this language. Apart from Hebrews 13:15, here are some other instances:

Offer to God the sacrifice of praise: and pay thy vows to the most High. (Psalm 49:14)
The sacrifice of praise shall glorify me: and there is the way by which I will shew him the salvation of God. (Psalm 49:23)
And let them sacrifice the sacrifice of praise: and declare his works with joy. (Psalm 106:22 )
I will sacrifice to thee the sacrifice of praise, and I will call upon the name of the Lord. (Psalm 115:8)
And offer a sacrifice of praise with leaven: and call free offerings, and proclaim it: for so you would do, O children of Israel, saith the Lord God. (Amos 4:5)
But I with the voice of praise will sacrifice to thee: I will pay whatsoever I have vowed for my salvation to the Lord. (Jonah 2:10)
And thou hast taken pity upon two only children. Make them, O Lord, bless thee more fully: and to offer up to thee a sacrifice of thy praise, and of their health, that all nations may know, that thou alone art God in all the earth. (Tobit 8:19)[2]

And there are countless verses that suggest the same in different language. We have, for instance, Psalm 70:8: “Let my mouth be filled with praise, that I may sing thy glory, thy greatness, all the day long”—a verse, incidentally, that is sung in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom immediately after the reception of Holy Communion, in a way identifying Our Lord with the very act of praise: “Let my mouth be filled with praise.” The Prophet Jeremiah says: quoniam laus mea tu es, “for Thou art my praise.”

Of all forms of prayer, praise is the one most “for its own sake.” Praise looks to the greatness, glory, beauty, and worthiness of the one praised and seeks to render to him a selfless homage; in the words of the Gloria, propter magnam gloriam tuam, or in the words of the final Psalm: laudate eum secundum multitudinem magnitudinis eius, “praise him according to his exceeding greatness!” (Ps 150:2). All forms of prayer, of course, are directed towards God, this being part of the very definition of prayer. That explains why the publican in the parable went home justified rather than the Pharisee, since the publican actually turned to God in self-abnegating repentance, whereas the Pharisee turned to himself in admiration of his own excellence. All the same, other forms of prayer besides praise are unavoidably wrapped up with oneself. When we give thanks to God, we are recalling the good things He has done for us. When we supplicate Him, it’s definitely about our own needs or the needs of others, and that’s perfectly fine; we are needy creatures, and the worst thing we can do is to pretend otherwise. When we accuse ourselves of wrongdoing and repent of it, we are recognizing that we have failed to live up to God’s just expectations of us, that we are at fault and deserving of punishment, and we beg for pardon. But when we praise, we are lifting up our hands, our voices, our minds, towards God who is almighty, all-glorious, aweful and awe-inspiring, worthy in Himself of the homage of the entire cosmos for all eternity, worthy of the total surrender of myself to Him. In a short story called “The Castle: A Parable,” George MacDonald gives us this magnificent prayer: “We thank Thee for Thyself. Be what Thou art—our root and life, our beginning and end, our all in all. Thou livest; therefore we live. Thou art—that is all our song.”

In order to have a concrete model in front of us, we might think of the sequence of psalms in the monastic office of Lauds on Sundays of Paschaltide, on certain Sundays in special seasons, and on Solemnities: Psalms 66, 62, 92, 99, the Benedicite from Daniel, and Psalms 148 to 150. As its very name indicates, Lauds is a time of prayer largely given over to pure praise of God. In contrast, when we look at Prime or the Little Hours, we can see how concerned they are with the labors and trials of the day, the ongoing struggle with our enemies who seek to surprise us and capture us, the need for help, mercy, and consolation in a time of exile or pilgrimage. But Lauds, while not excluding these themes, is principally a “sacrifice of praise,” a burning up of the incense of our time and of the fruit of our lips. It is an office we perform not in order to “get” something, but propter magnam gloriam tuam. May all the earth praise the Lord: every creature, every order of being, every man, woman, and child. We will stand in for them, voicing the praises of creation; we will announce and obey the divine imperative, laudate Dominum; we will give utterance to a sleeping world on its behalf. As with the religious life in general, Lauds is not concerned with going out into the streets, knocking on doors, engaging in conversations, making the Gospel relevant or intelligible. Those things are obviously important and have their place, but first comes praise, the precondition and promise of the fruitfulness of anything else we may do.[3] A priest once wrote to me these words:

I know of no great thinker, no great advocate of justice or mercy or great keeper of an institution, who was not first an ardent laudator. I also do not know true intercessors who did not do this ministry in the context of praise. Self-forgetting praise is our foretaste of Heaven.

This is the message we modern Christians need to hear in the expression “sacrifice of praise.” We are steeped in a world of pragmatism, utilitarianism, and activism, where we place such a high premium on doing and making, where we ask “what good is it” and “what’s in it for me,” where we look for results, the bottom line, the cash value, the pay-off. It is so interesting to see how Our Lord in the Gospels repeatedly refuses to lower Himself to the level of quick victories over the roiling crowds, how He insists on the disciples taking time off to recollect themselves and to pray, and, most mysteriously of all, how He Himself spends whole nights in “the prayer of God,” as St. Luke says.[4] He who, as God, could not pray to Himself; He who, as man, was hypostatically united to the Word and therefore perpetually and perfectly communing with the Most Blessed Trinity in His human mind and heart, nevertheless really and truly exercised all the acts of prayer, including praise. In this way He revealed to us that prayer is not something superficial and optional to man but, rather, is constitutive of his inmost identity as a rational creature fashioned by God, dependent on God, and destined for God. The one who does not pray is not living as a man; in any case, he cannot inherit the kingdom that a saint, that is, a man of prayer, is competent to receive. Jesus showed His disciples that prayer is an activity as necessary and as refreshing as eating and drinking when the body needs nourishment, as vital and fundamental as breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide.[5] The poignant little prayer before the Divine Office brings out this point: “O Lord, in union with that divine intention with which You Yourself praised God while on earth, I offer You this hour.” This short prayer addresses Our Lord as the one who first lived and always lives the sacrificium laudis with utter completeness, with inexhaustible superabundance; we wish to unite our will to His pure, lofty, all-sufficient intention.

At this point…..

Continue reading the rest of this excellent article, (with footnotes below).

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One Response to The Sacrifice of Praise and the Ecstatic Orientation of Man

  1. This is the kind of essay that almost makes you want to stand up and cheer. Some key statements:

    “The one who does not pray is not living as a man….We must, however, acknowledge a fundamental paradox: we stand to benefit (from the liturgy) precisely when, and to the extent that, we order ourselves to God as our first beginning and last end. When, and to the extent that, we act as if we were ordering God to ourselves instead, He will allow us to suffer the just penalties of restlessness, boredom, dryness, disbelief, and even despair. Nor should we underestimate the perceptiveness of the faithful in the pews, many of whom can readily sense the difference between a liturgy that is done for God’s sake, with His honor and glory as the motivating force, and a liturgy that is designed and conducted for the people, so as to involve, stimulate, affirm, entertain, or otherwise engage them….(C)onsider the extremely popular misconception of the Mass as a re­enactment of the Last Supper. As a result of this quintessentially Protestant idea, refurbished with shaggy carpeting in the 1960s and 1970s, the Mass was presented as a meal to be conducted in a cozy circle or, at very least, humanly face to face. This is a radically false view….Hence, the only posture that can possibly make theological sense at Mass is the traditional eastward stance, praying ad orientem.”

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