Two days ago, I thought I understood praise. But I was wrong.
Yesterday, I learned something entirely new. From an old Hebrew prayer poem. But through the lens of a modern technology.
I opened my daily spiritual self-reflection iPhone app.
It said, “Today’s theme is praise.”
“Sit in a comfortable position,” it said. “Then, ask God to make the divine presence known to you.”
So I did. I quieted my breathing. And watched my consciousness change.
I felt the air around me. Became aware of sounds I usually ignore.
Soon, I felt peaceful.
Then, I looked out the window. Reached with my mind to the top of a leafless tree. Felt joy as a little bird flew up. Noticed my cat purring beside me. Understood that he is a companion angel.
“Soak in this feeling,” the app said.
So, I did. I started to sense things I normally miss. Things I imagine other creatures perceive. Did I glimpse their inner lives? Intuit the world as they see it? Everything is animated, I thought.
Thus was I aware of the presence of God.
Then, a banner popped up on the screen with the next instruction.
“Recite a favourite hymn of praise.”
So I recited the first words that arose. Familiar words. Elegant medieval poetry, from the morning prayer service.
First came words that invite us to praise.
Yishtabach shimcha la’ad. May Your name be praised forever.
But, I wondered, what is Your name? What should I call the presence known to me now? Is it an experience? A being? Or a personality? Is it an unfolding? An energy? Or an interface?
Next came words that answered my questions. The next line of the prayer, in fact.
Ha’el hamelekh hagadol v’ha’kadosh. The big, holy, divine king.
We could call it God. Holiness. Expansiveness. Universal governance.
But which one is right? We don’t have to choose. That’s not our real question, anyway, says the poet. So, let’s find out what we really want to know.
The prayer’s next words reframed my question.
Ki lekha na’eh Adonai. ּBecause it pleases You, ineffable one.
Thus, I found my real question. What pleases You? How can I draw You close? Soak in Your presence?
Then, the poet’s next words answered the question.
Shir u’shvacha. Poetry and praise. Hallel v’Zimra. Praise and song. Tehilah v’Tiferet. Praise and beauty.
Praise. So that’s how I soak in your presence!
But what is praise? It’s what you feel when you hear a beautiful poem or sing a beautiful song.
Spiritual praise is not a cognitive kind of knowing. So you don’t have to name a specific object or achievement. It’s not like praising a co-worker. “NAME, I like the way you did NOUN. It was very ADJECTIVE.”
Instead, spiritual praise activates your feelings. Directs you to notice what is good and special. Long before you can even name what you see.
No wonder every Jewish prayer service begins with praise.
Sure, I could pile on the ideas here. According to Kabbalah, creation begins with an unformed intuition. Only later does it take shape, and find its name. So, when we praise, we help create the world.
Also, poetry, music, and strong emotion all shape our breath. And Psalm 150 says, “the breath of every living thing shall praise your name.” So, breathing with intention is praise. Or maybe life itself is praise.
Finally, if a prayer service begins with praise, are we asking people to check their cognition at the door? Are we afraid of critical thinking in religion? Or just inviting them into a different experience?
But I’ll stop right there.
Because, you see what I mean. And what the app means. And the unnamed poet, too. Sometimes knowledge gets in the way. So, shift your consciousness and see anew.
The iphone app I use is “Daily Examen.” It is based on the book “Re-imagining the Ignatian Examen: Fresh Ways to Pray from Your Day.” However, I used a little poetic license in describing it. It’s not really so intrusive!
Recently, I offered a shorter version of these words at Or Shalom, as Sulam led singing of Pesukei D’Zimra (Morning Psalms).