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Perspective: In praise of praising

A family tradition leads to reflection on one of God’s greatest gifts: the consummation of enjoyment that comes from praise and thanksgiving

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The painting “Embarkation of the Pilgrims” by Robert Walter Weir shows English Puritans praying aboard their ship.

The painting “Embarkation of the Pilgrims” by Robert Walter Weir shows English Puritans praying aboard their ship.

Wikimedia Commons

On Thanksgiving my family observes a homemade ritual that my mom invented years ago. We gather in a circle and pass around a dish of candy corns. Each person takes a piece and “plants” it (by eating it) in remembrance of the first Thanksgiving, and then recounts a blessing or blessings received during the year.  After this ritual of gratitude, we feast together — on love as well as lunch.  

Thanksgiving holds a special appeal for me. Less compromised by commercialism than any other major holiday, Thanksgiving still seems grounded in its original purpose. It remains a distinctively American holiday with a unique genesis in our history. It’s also a universal harvest feast akin to those celebrated by virtually all agricultural societies in every age. Thus it puts me in touch with America and with people everywhere who give thanks. I am grateful that, despite the overlay of football and Black Friday, Thanksgiving is still a day of thanksgiving. 

I believe in giving thanks. It is good for the soul. Like mercy in Portia’s speech in “The Merchant of Venice,” giving thanks is twice blessed: “It blesses him that gives and him that takes.”

This Thanksgiving season, my thoughts turn to how praising and thanking bless those who offer them. So today I write in praise of praising.  

In his “Reflections on the Psalms,” C.S. Lewis asks a fascinating question: Why is it that religious people demand, and that God commands, us to praise him?  

What satisfaction can God possibly take in our praise? After all, Lewis quips, “I don’t want my dog to bark approval of my books.”

This question leads Lewis to an important discovery about praise. We praise not merely to compliment one another but to complete our own enjoyment. Lewis writes: 

“I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise. ... The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers their favourite poet, walkers praising the countryside, players praising their favourite game. ... I had not noticed how the humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious, minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits and malcontents praised least. ... Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible. ...”

He goes on: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.”

I like the thought that praise is the consummation of enjoyment. This is a consummation we ought to indulge in often, more than once a year.

As Rabbi Benjamin Blech notes, “God doesn’t really need to hear ‘thank you.’ Yet we need to become people who never fail to be grateful. How shameful to go through life without expressing thanks to God for his gifts. Get into the habit of taking divine blessings for granted, and you’ll be just as ungracious to your parents, your husband or wife, or to your friends. Who wants to have a relationship with someone like that?

Who indeed?  

The apostle Paul admonishes us not only to “weep with them that weep” but also to “rejoice with them that do rejoice.” Most of us have a harder time with the latter than with the former. Too often, instead of rejoicing with those who rejoice, we selfishly begrudge and envy them.   

It’s crucial to learn be grateful and to praise, not just for the sake of our own souls but for society’s sake. What we praise aright establishes norms about the good, the true and the beautiful, just as what we praise amiss establishes degrading norms. Everyone suffers when we “call good evil, and evil good.” To praise what truly deserves praise makes audible the inner health of institutions as well as individuals. Therefore, our halls and homes should ring with praise and thanksgiving daily  

Note that God ended each day of creation with a benediction. He praised even his own creations. In this, he set an example for us all.  As President Henry B. Eyring, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, has said, we should end every day in benediction, praise and thanksgiving by asking, “Have I seen the hand of God reaching out to touch us or our children or our family today?”

Such reflection softens the heart and readies the soul for a harvest of faith.

So this Thanksgiving let us follow the example of the Pilgrims, who being “brought safe to land ... fell upon their knees and blessed the God of Heaven who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean,” as William Bradford attests in “Of Plimoth Plantation.”

John S. Tanner is the former president of BYU-Hawaii, academic vice president of BYU and English department chairman. He is the author of a prize-winning book on John Milton, “Anxiety in Eden: A Kierkegaardian Reading of Paradise Lost.”