How Praising God Transforms the World
I catch the train to go to Church most Sundays. When I do so, I find I have enough time to say the morning prayer of the Church, called Lauds. It is a prayer steeped in scripture, comprised as it is by three psalms, a passage from the prophets or the epistles, and a canticle from the Gospel of Luke called the Benedictus (which the Gospel records as being recited by Zechariah upon recovering his voice).
The second “psalm” for Sunday is actually a canticle taken from the Book of Daniel, that lays out a whole slew of elements within the world - angels, people trees, animals and even fire and heat - all while punctuated at every second line with the injunction to give praise and bless the Lord.
The canticle takes a while to read through and a first time reader can be forgiven for being a bit annoyed with the constant repetition to give praise to God. It certainly was my experience when I started praying the liturgy of the hours regularly.
However, I found an important corrective when I started paying attention not just to the oft-repeated injunction to praise God, but to whom and to what that injunction was given, everything from heavenly beings to inanimate objects and even sensations. Modern me would have looked at this and said that it is hard enough to find the praise of God in people who largely will not praise God, never mind the objects that we say cannot praise God.
However, modern me also listened to the Cambridge Professor of Divinity Catherine Pickstock, who reminded me that what Scripture says about nature is not a fantasy, but a fact of the material world that materialists would not acknowledge. This point is also raised by Alison Milbank in her recent Areopagus Lecture for Mars Hill Audio Journal, on what she terms “imaginative apologetics”
What Pickstock hints at and Milbank makes explicit is that Scripture presents us with a nature that lies beyond the surface that we do see, a depth within the structure of a material world that the materialist cannot see. It is a structure of a creature, made by God, which bears within it an inner life, a nature brimming with the divine life of its creator, which makes the creature want to exuberantly respond to its creator in praise, in its treeness and frostiness.
The canticle of Daniel transforms the whole of creation into an orchestra of praise where not just humans, but the earth, the sky, the heat and cold, birds and beasts and hills and trees give praise to God, and do so in unison to the angels in heaven.
I was wondering why this emphasis on praise, and realised that praise does more than give due credit to the creator. Praise also benefits creatures because praises transforms our perceptions of the world. In praise, we see the world in a new light. Praise prompts us to see beyond mere surfaces and acknowledge that the depth that resides within the things of this world.
That depth within things is a signal, a waypost to the divine to those that behold it. Moreover, the depth of the things of this world are hooks that connect me to the things of heaven, so that the sight of frost or the feeling of heat could connect me to the angels.
This instruction to the heavens and the earth is in turn an instruction for me to see that, in the words of Psalm 19, that the heavens proclaim God and that the earth shows forth his works. In my prayers for a sign from God, I am surrounded by his signals in the creatures and events that make up my circumstances, if only I have the eyes to see.