When I was a kid going to Sunday School I used to hear the word “praise” get tossed around quite a bit. Even today, the word “praise” evokes in my mind an image of a beaming older woman happy to be at church, bringing her potluck tuna casserole in tow, and praising her god. Sitting there in Sunday school, I had time to wonder about the idea of “praise.”
For years, I kept thinking, “Why the hell does a god need to know how great he is? That sounds like a divine ego problem. No thanks.” I haven’t thought that in years, but it occurred to me recently that this idea of praise needs readdressing and a makeover because quite a few of us come from a similar problematic relationship with the word “praise” and what it means, especially in a religious setting.
The most cursory search for the definition of the word praise identifies the word as both a noun, and a verb. In that definition, it is discussed that as a noun, praise means:
- Expression of approval, commendation, or admiration.
- The extolling or exaltation of a deity, ruler, or hero.
- Archaic A reason for praise; merit.
As an action, praise is:
- [Expressing] warm approval of, commendation for, or admiration for.
- [Expressing] a feeling of veneration or gratitude to (a deity); worship or glorify.
The word “praise” is not just the kind, thoughtful words which are said, but the action of saying those kind and thoughtful words. Usually, praise is made known through words, but praise can also be done through gestures. For instance, when I worked as a secretary, I received flowers on Secretary’s Day from my boss: this was an action meant in gratitude and praise of the hard work I’d done. Accepting a trophy or receiving a laurel wreath: these are also acts of nonverbal praise. Praise and gratitude often go hand in hand, for an expression of praise is an acknowledgment that someone is good at something, you’ve noticed it, and it has made a difference. Praise plays a key role in relationships, whether we are aware of it or not. When we praise someone, we let them know that we value that person, we honor that person’s skills and expertise, and that there is some aspect of that person that we appreciate. Praise and gratitude are the WD-40 combination in relationships, smoothing out the friction of conflict and preventing the rust of disregard.
Most beings, and often nearly anything, can receive praise. Pablo Neruda wrote a poem praising a pair of handknit socks given to him—Ode to My Socks. It’s an honest, intimate, candid look into cherishing what to many may seem commonplace. It is more typical that deities, ancestors, spirits, heroes, regular people, pets, places, and more receive praise. Praise is considered a cornerstone of raising a child well; indeed it is considered vital for the child’s wellbeing. Verbal praise shows up in many forms anywhere from “Good job!” to something more formal like an ode or a hymn. Sometimes praise can even be shortened and tacked on as a part of a being’s own name, kind of like a nickname which is also a compliment and a reminder of that one’s abilities and attributes. It makes beings know they are appreciated when someone says something honest and kind, praising those beings’ gifts and skills.
When I had wondered those years ago, “Why would a god need me to tell him he did a good job?,” I didn’t realize the deeper significance of praise. Indeed, I missed the point entirely. The gods don’t need to be told how awesome or how awe-ful (as in “full of awe”) they are. They know this. However, it is different when we let them know that we know it too. When you take a little time out to appreciate and praise the deities, it’s like signing for a care package they’ve already delivered to you, and it helps you to acknowledge that it arrived. We could practically drown in the packing peanuts from all of the gifts we already have which are essential to life: air, water, plants that grow and provide food, animals, sunlight, rain, land, sleep, wakefulness, hunger and satiety, friendship, crickets singing in humid summer evenings, bonfires, those beautiful web-like cracks in sidewalks, the feral purr and growl of a 1970s classic muscle car that whirrs by on the road, old pilled sweaters, buildings with stained glass windows, batty old aunties, kittens…the list just keeps on coming. After millennia of not being honored and appreciated, of being ignored or insulted, and indeed of sometimes being flat-out cursed, praise is music to their ears and a balm to their souls…and it has been a long time coming.
In days of old, sometimes the praises got written down and have lasted to today. The Egyptian goddess Nut is said to be a Great One, a Great Lady, as possessing a spiritual strength, and as having a beauty that fills all places. The Hindu god Agni is praised as being a giver of treasures, of being worthy, thoughtful, true, splendid, well-known, and of shining in the darkness. The Norse god Odin is praised and known as being the Allfather, a Friend of Wealth, mighty, wise, and as a giver of victory. The Japanese sun goddess Amaterasu-ōmikami is “the great august kami (god) who shines in heaven.” Tlaloc, the Aztec god of the rain, carries the epithets of the Giver and the Green One, probably because of the life giving rains which encourage the green plant growth. The Akkadian god Marduk is known as being the most honored, as having an unrivaled decree, as being an avenger, as being a great dispeller of evil, and as having infallible weapons. The Akkadian goddess Ishtar is described as having sweet lips, as having life in her mouth, has having a mere look that can bring joy; she is known as being powerful, magnificent, protective, splendid, exalted, as being compassionate to the kindhearted, and as wearing the clothes of pleasure and love. And this is just praise for a handful of deities. Added with more deities, heroes, spirits, and ancestors and the praises fill volumes—I’m not speaking figuratively there. Epic tales like Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, The Iliad, the Epic of Baʽal Hadad, are loaded as full of praises as fresh soda pop has all those delightful fizzy bubbles. We know these things because they are written and translated, and most of us have access to them for free in public libraries. Praise exists, too, in oral traditions—the ones that have been written down, and the ones that survive.
Praise is not an ego-boost that a god demands, in childish all-too-human behavior. Praise is genuine, sincere, warm, appreciative, and we give it because it lets the being know that we noticed their gifts and that we care. If praise is said aloud or shared, that praise is then spread so that others can know of that being’s talents, skills, and gifts, and it “spreads the love.” It is also good to give thanks and praise for the gifts that are more difficult to accept—the things that chafe, the things that are heavy. That’s a more challenging thing to do, but that’s another story for another day.