“Fill my Mouth with Your Praise” 1.
The utterance of praise is an
essential quality of being human. Yet the energy of praise cannot be limited to
or contained within our human condition.
Jeremiah describes this energy as “a burning fire shut up in my
bones; I am weary with holding it in,
and I cannot” (Jeremiah 20: 9). As we
will see, praise “deconstructs” which is why the prophet bitterly complains about
derision by others in the chapter. St.
Ephrem uses the miracle of turning water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana
as an image for praise. Jesus’ mother
informs her son: “They have no wine.”
They need to be filled with the transcendent joy of Jesus’ presence so
that their own joy may be complete (John 15: 11). Ephrem prays, “fill my mouth with (the wine
of) your praise.” Nowhere is the fire or
new wine of praise more evident than in Mark’s resurrection narrative. Further, I will suggest that praise is
universal by surveying traditions of praise poetry in Celtic Wales and Africa,
Jewish praise psalms, Arabic praise poetry and the ancient hymning of Saint
Ephrem the Syrian. Indeed, it seems that
humankind is hardwired to praise. Saint
Augustine begins his Confessions by asserting that all people have a
need or even an instinct to praise God.
“You (God) stir (each one) to take pleasure in praising you, because you
have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”
The attempt to cope with the
overflow or superabundance of God’s love is what Christians mean by praise.3. Naturally, then, the resurrection sparks and
energizes praise. Irish poet Patrick
Kavanagh describes resurrection as “… a laugh freed/ for ever and ever.”
4. Alan Jones tells of the end of
Malory’s Morte D’Arthur. “Sir
Lancelot and his companions have all retired from the world in order to live as
hermits. Among their company is a
retired Archbishop of Canterbury. One
night every one in the little monastic community is disturbed by the sound of
the archbishop’s loud laughter. The
companions gather round his bed and wake him up, and the archbishop cries, ‘Ah,
Jesu mercy, why did you wake me? I was
never so merry, and so well at ease in my life.’ They asked him why. He had seen Sir Lancelot’s soul being
received into heaven by myriads of angels, and he laughed and laughed and
Praise and the Resurrection Narrative of the Gospel of Mark
If the superabundance of divine
love is what gives rise to resurrection in Mark’s narrative, and laughter and
praise are what accompany being brought into God’s presence, then why in the
gospel narrative is the dominant note one of fear? And I don’t mean reverence or awe but
flat-out, unsettling fear. Is it
possible that fear is the emotion that accompanies the beginning of praise?
At sunrise the women went to the
tomb where Jesus’ body had been laid.
They are in for a huge disruption in how they make sense of things. From a human perspective death brings
everything to a full stop. Now all of a
sudden this worldview is cracked open, disrupted. Deconstructed we would say today. The women are afraid. It is how we feel when our expectations are
turned on their head. What is it that
cracks open the way of things? The
message of the early church was one of “preaching peace by Jesus Christ – he is
Lord of all” (Acts 10: 36). Praise
creates a worldview that places the overflow of compassion, incarnate in Jesus
Christ (and not ourselves), in the center.
The “not ourselves” is the
deconstruction of all other worldviews where the superabundant God is not
central. Theologian John Franke
following the thought of William Stacy Johnson writes: “It is an infinity that
claims us and will not let go in its call to move us beyond the constraints of
our selfhood, beyond the limitations of our versions of reality and truth and
toward the Other, the God in whom we live and move and have our being.” 6. Praise places us in the presence of this God
and continually deconstructs whatever encrusts this dynamic, divine overflow of
love. It is this deconstruction that
yanks us out of the center of how we look at things and pulls the rug out from
under imperial control that is so unsettling, particularly dangerous to those
on the margins of worldly power. It is
the marginalized that are most prone to praise and also are most vulnerable
when the powers fall under praise’s deconstruction. Mark describes this in his little apocalypse:
“Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing infants in those
days!” (Mark 13:17). In the same way the
women “fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they
Praise not only deconstructs but it
redirects and reorients. The heavenly
messenger at the empty tomb redirects the women and disciples to Galilee where,
they are told, they will encounter the risen Christ. Praise redirects all people and things to
their new life in God. In Galilee Jesus undertook his healing ministry that
gave an intimation of what resurrection would look like. The women and disciples are redirected to
this place of healing. The Quaker and
Welsh Poet Waldo Williams remarked that the purpose of praise is “to recreate
an unblemished world,” 7. a mended creation where the broken are
healed. The phrases “lifted up” and
“arise” are used deliberately in the gospel prefiguring the resurrection. In the first chapter of Mark Jesus takes
Peter’s mother-in-law by the hand and lifts her up (1:31). Later, to a girl nearly dead Jesus takes her
by the hand again and says “Little girl, I say to you, arise” 8. (RSV,
5:41). A boy with convulsions and unable
to speak is brought to Jesus. As by now
is his custom he takes the boy by the hand and lifted him up (9: 27). Praise redirects us to where the feverish
find freedom, those as good as dead are given life, the voiceless find their
voice, and those convulsed with oppression are enabled to stand. Praise redirects the women and disciples to
where they learn again the meaning of healing and re-creation as though for the
first time when they meet the risen Christ in Galilee.
So praise is the way one copes with
the overflow of God’s love. Praise is an
orientation whereby at the heart of how one looks at the world there is
God. What can one do but laugh with joy.
There are worldviews that are convulsive and oppressive where God, the infinity
that claims us, is not at the center.
Praise deconstructs these orientations.
Fear is the feeling that accompanies this deconstruction. Finally praise redirects one to where healing
and new life are found and God who is uncontainable is again at the center of
how one understands life unblemished by violence, coercion and the power of
There is a cross-cultural quality
of praise. This says to me that we have
a human need or propensity for praise.
Praise is deeply part of who we are as human beings. We see it expressed across cultures in what
is known as praise poetry. I hope the
following brief survey will demonstrate this human need to praise and draw us
more deeply into its meaning for our own Christian tradition.
In Wales during a sabbatical in
1997 I learned of the ancient tradition of praise poetry. Esther de Waal who lives in the Marches or
border area between Wales and England, acknowledges the origin of the praise
poem in “the cultic celebration of the pagan king by professional poets.”
9. In the following 13th
century poem the author, most likely a cleric, wrote a praise poem to Christ
the first five lines of which would have served well in a poem of praise to a
the name of the Lord, mine to praise, of great praise,
shall praise God, great the triumph of his love,
who defended us, God who made us, God who saved us,
our hope, perfect and honorable, beautiful his blessing.
are in God’s power, God above, Trinity’s king.
Like a king whose triumph is great, the poet praises
God. We find in praise an asymmetry
between the king and bard, or in this case, God and the poet. The human person is in God’s power. The poet
participates in God’s beautiful blessing bringing salvation and joy. God is the defender of the poet, as once the
king protected the bard. There is an
overflow of largesse in the perfect and honorable stature of the king/God
warranting the trinity of praise in the first two lines.
The poem then goes on to pick up
themes from the resurrection narrative of fear (terrible grief),
deconstruction, redirection and reorientation.
proved himself our liberation by his suffering,
came to be imprisoned in humility.
Lord, who will free us by Judgment Day,
will lead us to the feast through his mercy and sanctity
paradise, in pure release from the burden of sin,
will bring us salvation through penance and the five wounds.
grief, God defended us when he took on flesh.
would be lost if the perfect rite had not redeemed him.
the cross, blood-stained, came salvation to the world.
strong shepherd, his honor shall not fail.10.
There is a deconstruction of triumph and power. It is not by domination that the victory is
won but by suffering and love. An
all-powerful, distant God is deconstructed to an event of love imprisoned in
humility, waiting to be cracked open, just as the cross and resurrection tore
in two the curtain of the temple. Does
the terrible grief refer to the cross or to the marginalized in their
oppression, or perhaps to the lost condition of all apart from Christ. This is an incarnational story. God is present in having taken on flesh, and
in the real presence of communion. The
“perfect rite” of the Eucharist redirects Jesus’ followers and the poet. The poem begins: “In the name of the Lord”
that would have for the poet Eucharistic connotations. The Eucharist reorients its participants to a
worldview of cosmic mending with Christ at the center. This is an orientation that gives meaning to
all else which is what we will see next in African praise poetry.
African Praise Poetry
In 2002 I
attended a workshop on Creativity Through Writing and Storytelling with
storyteller Jay O’Callahan who tells his tales all over the world. He first came on the idea of praise poems
when he was telling stories in Africa.
Jay says that “if you give people a gift of praising themselves, it is a
sacred act.” In Lesotho boys were
expected to compose their own lithoko (the word for praise poem that
comes from the verb ho roka - “to
praise”). “At one time almost every
adult male Sotho was able to compose and chant his own lithoko…”
11. The poem is not self-congratulatory
as though the poem was oriented about one’s self. Instead, the orientation in which the poem
was composed would be one of proud traditional values, a love of the land, and
an historically continuous community.
Here is part of an initiate’s lithoko.
Each initiate is given a new name that begins with the letter “L.” In this case the boy’s new name was
Lefata. He makes me smile. I can just imagine a thirteen-year-old coming
up with something like this!
wander on and go down
go and see how huts stand
go and see dark-complexioned girls.
dark-complexioned young man, I, Lefata
young man with a beautiful voice
young man to be called a chief
young man to be given a shield.
love him without knowing him
go about breaking themselves into small pieces.12.
In the Creativity workshop, Jay
O’Callahan asked each of us to write our own praise poem. The language of
praise is very different from the language of congratulations. In congratulations the autonomous self
replaces God or community at the center of the world. Psychiatrist Robert Coles in a book entitled The
Secular Mind, writes: “With God gone for so many intellectual pioneers of
the last two centuries, the rest of us, as students and readers… have only
ourselves left as ‘objects’ of attention.” 13. A different world (than an unblemished one)
is evoked when we are the object of attention than when we praise God. Then we “understand each human being as his
or her own lord.” 14. The
self is sovereign. When we praise a
person or ourselves in the context of the divine, each one is part of God’s
good creation. The boy Lafata rises on
the tide of his community and tradition none of which is removed from the
divine. We praise the activity that
leads to fulfillment of each person in all that they were created to be. We praise the co-creative actions that serve
the eschatological goal of an unblemished world. In the Episcopal Church at confirmation
instead of composing a lithoko, the bishop prays that each confirmand may
continue God’s forever, and daily increase in Holy Spirit until arrival in that
everlasting kingdom.15. That
prayer is very much in the tradition of praise.
There is orientation (God’s forever), an implied deconstruction
(otherwise why would daily increase be necessary), redirection and fulfillment
(everlasting kingdom). In O’Callahan’s
words, at confirmation, we are beginning to teach another the meaning of praise
for themselves and that is a sacred act.
So we are sitting in a cottage on
Humarock Beach on the South Shore of Massachusetts. It is
a sunny day and Minot’s Light is off in the distance. Jay introduces the exercise with some words
from Walt Whitman: “I too am not a bit tamed, I am untranslatable,/ I sound my
barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world…16. Then he adds some verses from Psalm 139,
“Lord… I will thank you because I am marvelously made; your works are wonderful, and I know it
well.” He reads his own praise poem and invites
us to write ours. With apologies to any
true poet this is my own lithoko:
is my aspiration,
high tide unebbing,
salt sea lapping.
laugh at my openness
of an openness
has no shore –
hopeful wind stirs the whitecaps
turn sunlight to joyful flashes like some lighthouse
saves a vessel passing by –
morning’s ocean view.
Africa is a big continent, and there are many other aspects
to praise poetry there. The experience
on Humarock Beach put me in mind of psalms of praise. The psalm that Jay quoted is actually an
individual lament or perhaps a wisdom psalm.
But there is a genre of praise psalms.
praises arise out of an orientation of God’s saving purpose at the heart of a
people’s life. This is God who in the
African-American tradition can make a way out of no way. Or as Paul said to the Romans God “gives life
to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4::
17). Praise is a faith orientation. Psalm 136 is a storytelling psalm of hymnic
praise. It begins with an invocation
that calls upon the community to praise.
The divine Name is spoken. The
God of Israel has an identity and may be addressed personally even though God
is beyond our grasp and control. Walter
Brueggemann reflects that: “Praise articulates and embodies our capacity to
yield, submit, and abandon ourselves in trust and gratitude to the One whose we
Give thanks to the
Lord, for he is good,
his mercy endures forever.
thanks to the God of gods,
his mercy endures forever.
thanks to the Lord of lords,
his mercy endures forever.
This invocation includes the imperative to praise and the
reason for it. Praise evokes a world in
which God is active. So in historic
situations where there was distress and God’s help was needed, God acted
mercifully. This is the main portion of
the psalm. It is the motive for the
people’s praise. God’s sovereignty and
majesty are seen in the story of God’s people.
God the Creator:
spread out the earth upon the waters,
his mercy endures forever.
God the Deliverer:
struck down the first-born of Egypt,
for his mercy endures forever.
God the Homemaker:
gave away their lands for an inheritance,
his mercy endures forever.
The psalm concludes with a refrain in which the people are
not self-congratulatory but remember their low estate, and God’s
deliverance. God is to be praised for
the sustenance given to all creatures: human and animal, plant and mineral. Creation is a continuing activity of
sustaining God’s creatures. The psalm’s refrain seems to strike a universal
note at the end.
thanks to the God of heaven,
his mercy endures forever.
It would seem there is an openness to God that embraces the
whole cosmos and what can one do but praise.
Esther de Waal quotes Thomas Merton
who observed that, “In the Psalms we drink divine praise at its pure and
stainless source, in all its primitive sincerity and perfection. We return to the youthful strength and
directness with which the ancient psalmists voiced their adoration of the God
of Israel.” 18. One reason to
refer to the primitive sincerity of
the psalm’s praise is an aggression and occupation of another’s land that would
be deemed unjust by today’s standards.19. Primitive sincerity also however brings us
close in time to a people who saw God active and at the center of their
understanding of life. That is a
sincerity and directness that is deeply needed today. Unlike the Celts whom Esther de Waal writes
about, God in the modern, secular world has come to be seen as distant from
daily life. Where once the simplest and
most ordinary tasks were imbued with the divine presence, today even many
church members might be hard pressed to identify God’s presence or action in
their daily lives. We need the praise of
the psalms. We have lost and need to
recover our “religious imagination” for God’s presence in the little things of
daily life, natural beauty and ordinary relationships. 20. We need to recover the meaning of praise and
find fulfillment for ourselves and our world as a result.
conflict in the Middle East I could not help but wonder if Israel has psalms of
praise how about the Arabs? And after
some searching sure enough there is also Arab praise poetry. Pre-Islamic praise poetry like that of
ancient Wales was offered to kings and tribal lords. The poem that I will look at is “Ka’b ibn
Zuhayr and the Mantle of the Prophet.”
It is based on the pre-Islamic praise tradition and tells of Ka’b’s
conversion to Islam in he 7th century. Praise in the Arab tradition is a
process. There is a prelude that
describes some loss or separation. It
seems to me rather like a deconstruction of what was. Then there is the journey that is dangerous
and ambiguous. It is a kind of
in-between state, perhaps the crossing of some threshold. Finally, there is the praise of having
arrived, a state of fulfillment.
begins with a traditional motif of a departed, lost lover.
has departed and today
heart is sick,…
What a mistress, had she been true
what she promised…
she is a mistress
whose blood are mixed
and perfidy. 21.
The name Su’ad is related to the word for prosperity, good
fortune and happiness. Allegorically,
this is the loss of a tribal society that had stability though was false and
Next comes the journey. The poet describes his camel, “the best of
she-camels of noble breed and easy pace.”
The poet is traveling to a land “Never to be reached but by a she-camel/
huge and robust/That despite fatigue sustains/ her amble and her trot.” The camel is understood allegorically to be
the poet’s own resolve in the face of almost unbearable loss. The final verse of this section reads:
“Tearing her clothes from her breast/ with her bare hands,/ Her woolen shift
ripped from her collarbone/ in shreds.”
The relentless motion of the she-camel on this perilous journey is like
a grieving mother fiercely tearing at her clothing over the loss of her first
The final and third section of the
poem is the arrival/conversion of the poet in a praise of rebirth. To his former associates who were of no help,
the poet cries: “Out of my way,/ you bastards!…” Tribal bonds are emphatically cut off. Then
comes the possibility of a new, salvific relationship.
But from God’s Messenger
pardon is hoped.
easy, and let Him be your guide
gave to you
gift of the Qur’an in which
warnings and discernment!
In this praise poem we have the movement from false hope to
hope fulfilled, from misguidance to true discernment. Suzanne Stetkevych writes that here we have
“the Islamic message of right guidance and divine might.” 22. Praise is a process of getting on the right
path. The poem is an affirmation of
Islamic faith and the fulfillment of one’s self in Allah/God through praise.
Hymnic Praise of St. Ephrem the Syrian
Islam may have been influenced in some part by east Syriac mystics. 23. I mentioned to Esther de Waal that I was
reading about Arab praise poetry and interested in praise generally and in its
cross cultural expression. She pointed
me in the direction of Saint Ephrem the Syrian, the finest poet of the
patristic age not just in Syriac but in any language. Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic, the language
that Jesus spoke. Ephrem who lived in
the fourth century wrote many of hymns for women’s choirs and had an
appreciation for the equality of the sexes.
The object of your
teaching is the wholly new world, where,
the kingdom, men and women are equal.
work put the two sexes together as two lyres,
you made men and women at once equal to
sing (God’s) praises.
Ephrem has been called a second Moses for women. 24.
praise is the nourishment required for faith to grow. In a hymn on faith he wrote:
seed, swollen with moisture,
asunder its covering of soil
out peers the blade of wheat, full of symbols.
faith, whose bosom is filled with goodly fruits,
blade bearing praise.
Praise is like the sap coursing through the blade of wheat.
It energizes faith. It also displays
“goodly fruits.” One has only to think
of a favorite parable of Ephrem, that of the sower, and the seed that brought
forth grain a hundredfold (Matt. 13).
Again there is this sense of profusion and abundance that with respect
to praise continually grows larger.
Ephrem declares that the more we praise, the wider our inner or
spiritual vision. We see greater and
greater evidence of God’s compassion and praise all the more.
believe there is a relation between rootedness and praise. I once asked the Benedictine Fr. Laurence
Freeman about the relation between praise and stability. This question would have been anachronistic
to Ephrem as monasticism had not yet arrived in Syria. But Freeman’s answer reminds me of a verse
from Ephrem. He replied you only have to
look in the cemetery. I gave a quizzical
look, to which he added. There is a
cherry tree there in full blossom.
Without its roots and their stability we would not have such a riot of
color. St. Ephrem writes in Faith 80:
decrees that by his faith
the righteous man shall find his life;
for truth itself is root and stem –
a noble tree – and on its branch,
righteous works God took, like fruits,
and placed, where now, by faith, they hang.
Praise needs to root itself in truth, not deception or
ingratitude, greed or arrogance. When
stabilized by the truth, the tree is noble and the fruits hang in a profusion
One can go deeper than the
spiritual perception that speaks with mouths filled with praise. Ephrem suggests that the most profound praise
are both conceived and born in the sea
they dive deep, they escape those who would catch them.
luminous silence within the mind let prayer recollect itself,
Sebastian Brock notes that the “movement of praise from
sound to silence is seen by Ephrem as a counterpart to the movement of God from
the silence of His ineffable Being to the divine Utterance, the Word.” 27
Like the Welsh poem’s “perfect
rite,” Ephrem’s poem, “The Eucharistic Marriage Feast,” situates praise as an
integral part of Christian life. Praise
places Christ at the center around which everything else is oriented. Ephrem begins his poem with reference to the
wedding feast at Cana:
I have invited
You, Lord, to a wedding feast of songs,
the wine – the utterance of praise – at our feast has run out.
are) the guest who filled with good wine the jars;
my mouth with Your praise.
The poem ends with paradox.
Greek philosophy with its reliance on static definition had not yet
arrived in Syria. This happenstance
freed Ephrem to use paradox as a more dynamic and fluid way of doing theology.
It is right that
humanity should acknowledge Your divinity, it
is right for the supernal beings to worship Your humanity; the
supernal beings were amazed to see how small You become, and
those below to see how exalted!
The refrain again finds praise grounded in truth:
Praise to You from
has perceived Your truth. 28.
one looks with what Ephrem calls the luminous eye, praise is the human response
to the truth of God’s overwhelming compassion.
There is laughter at being received into God’s presence, but fear at the
deconstruction or loss that is praise’s beginning. This may be the loss of a worldview that has
been turned on its head, or the loss of a way of life that had seemed so
dependable and was found to be false.
From loss praise redirects the faithful to those Galilees where the
dynamic prospect of healing and wholeness may find fulfillment. Praise expects God’s merciful activity in the
world. Each person finds their worth
through praise by virtue of their asymmetric relationship with God and their
interdependence with God’s creation.
Everything else is congratulations where self is at the center. This may be good as far as it goes but congratulations
is a “one-off” declaration of success.
Praise is a process that leads to continual conversion and growth. It may be that praise at its deepest is
expressed in silence. When one
encounters praise in different cultures one finds a breadth of meaning. Praise seems so central that without it one
could scarcely be called human. Let
Ephrem have the last word:
While I live
I will give praise, and not be as if I had no existence;
I will give
praise during my lifetime, and will not be as someone dead
1. Brock, Sebastian P., and Kiraz, George A.,
translators and editors; Ephrem
the Syrian: Select Poems;
Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 2009; p. 217. This paper was first presented at the
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