On Praise and Celebration | Fr. James V. Schall,
S.J. | September 26, 2005
On Praise and Celebration | Fr. James V. Schall,
S.J. | September 26, 2005
"For praise is given to virtue, since it makes us do fine actions,
but celebrations are for successful achievement, either of body or of
soul." Aristotle (Ethics, 1101b32-33)
We can, if we so choose, reasonably approach what Catholicism is about
from the angle of the Fall, of original sin, of the dire consequences
of both natural and human disasters. Such things abide and repeat themselves
over the centuries. They recur in most times and places, even under the
best regimes, certainly under the worst.
Any careful reading of Scripture, moreover, can be a sobering exercise,
making us aware of the dark side of human existence. We recall the chastisements
of the Hebrews, the "Woe to you, Capernaum" of the New Testament.
We are not spared Gods warnings and His wrath, however much these
are downplayed or not even mentioned these days. No doubt, we must ask
questions about the prevalence of evil in the world, about Gods,
at times, seeing indifference to human fate, indeed about His anger over
the deviant deeds of men. On the other hand, we do not want a universe
in which our deeds, good or bad, mean absolutely nothing and cannot be
properly attributed to us.
We can also read in Thucydides, or Augustine, or Machiavelli, or even
in Aristotle and Aquinas for that matter, just how disordered human life
can be, not only at a personal level but also at a social and corporate
level. Any reading of almost any major newspaper anywhere in the world
during any day of the whole modern era would reveal, in spite of "enlightenment,"
a steady diet of wars and rumors of war, of economic and natural disaster,
of corruption, inefficiency, and downright degradation. There are no doubt
glimmers of light, but no sober reading of the history of our race can
ignore the more puzzling pessimistic side.
The first point I want to emphasize here is that it is not any part of
the Catholic tradition to deny or minimize this depressing reality. We
are warned to prepare for it, to expect it, to suffer under it. A naive
utopianism that refuses to see these possibilities, that thinks that they
can be totally eliminated by some rearrangement of property, family, or
state is probably the most dangerous ideological background we can imagine,
one that causes more grief and sorrow than any other single view.
Secondly, it is also part of the Catholic tradition to insist that this
bleak picture is not the only side of reality far from it. But
this contrasting, more positive affirmation is not to be seen, in any
sense, as obscuring what happens in the history of our kind. The other
side of this realistic approach, however, is to wonder about the happier
aspect of things, about, as I like to say, "what is to be done when
all else is done?" Aristotle, in using a medical analogy, noted that
the purpose of a doctor is defined by health, which the doctor does not
himself create or define, but only restores or serves, according to what
health already is. The last person we want to see when we are healthy
is the doctor, qua doctor.
The more important question is not what is it to be healthy when we are
sick, however admittedly important this question is. But, we want to know,
once we are healthy, what are the "activities" of health? of
normalcy? Indeed, I would suggest, that it is perhaps more important to
get it right about what are these higher activities than it is to have
an adequate understanding of evil and disaster and pain, or even of what
it is to be physically and mentally healthy. We are a people obsessed
with health rather than what to do with it when we have it. Both sides
are necessary in a complete picture, but we are more likely to miss the
activities of well-being and what that means than we are to miss considering
the suffering and disorder of soul that occur all about us. I have long
contended that it is much more difficult in theory to explain joy than
sadness, more difficult to understand delight than pain. And it is to
this latter observation that I want to extend these remarks on praise
On Monday, March 30, 1778, James Boswell was at Streatham, at Samuel Johnsons
friends, the Thrales. It was a Monday. Boswell was down at breakfast before
Johnson. There he chanced to encounter the lady of the house, Mrs. Thrale,
a woman of some literary repute in her own right. Hannah Thrale remarked
to Boswell, "I do not know for certain what will please Dr. Johnson:
but I know for certain that it will displease him to praise anything,
even what he likes, extravagantly."
This remark was obviously meant to compliment, yes, to praise of Dr. Johnson.
But it also contained a philosophic insight into the very conditions of
our well-being, a reminder of Aristotles mean in finding the norm
or standard of any virtue. There can be a too much and a too little, both
of which were inappropriate. Aristotle said that there could be a too
much or a too little, but not too much of the mean. Not even the things
we like are to be praised too much, out of proportion, though they are
indeed to be highly praised in proportion. We conclude that Johnson did
not object to due praise, but delighted in it when he knew that it was
deserved, right time, right place.
As in the case of flattery, we do not want too much
of a good thing. But we should want good things. Good things exist to
be wanted, to be desired. We are constituted with appetitive powers to
achieve this purpose to possess as ours what is good. We should
want what is worth wanting. We want what is appropriate, neither too much
nor too little. Oftentimes we think that another virtue, humility, means
that we never acknowledge anything good, especially in ourselves, especially
when noticed by others. But humility, in fact, means giving and receiving
proper acknowledgment to what is, in its own order. Humility is
founded on truth. We are to praise what is to be praised, and this generously.
Nothing gets us outside of ourselves more than our genuine notice, appreciation,
and praise of what is not ourselves. We are beings who know ourselves
first by knowing what is not ourselves.
The vice of envy, a most subtle vice whose consequences are too often
neglected, arises precisely from our willing refusal to acknowledge what
is good in something, particularly in another human person. This very
vice suggests the too little noticed existence of a spiritual world, as
it were, beyond the surface of the visible world, something with its own
order and exigencies. This spiritual world, in which praise and envy are
elemental functions, indicates that the world and the things in it require
for their completion their own existence, their own standing outside of
nothingness. But they also demand, somehow, the proper acknowledgment
of their existence by us, almost as if to say that we are challenged at
every turn to say of what is that existence is worthy. We are to
know and acknowledge the relative and absolute worth of things. We are
to live and know that we live in an ultimately ordered world.
Catholicism is a religion whose essence directly concerns praise and celebration
not too much praise, not inappropriate praise, but still praise.
Indeed, the very structure of our lives concerns our capacity to praise
what is to be praised. And, as Aristotle has indicated, there is curiously
something beyond praise. Praise is given for virtue accomplished, whereas
celebration is in a way beyond praise, an acknowledgment of something
already in existence beyond ourselves or given to ourselves. It is no
accident, for example, that Catholics say of the Mass that the priest
"celebrates" it, that it contains within itself both a call
to praise on our part and a call to celebration, a rejoicing in what
is. Let us see if we can make sense of these remarks as something
worthy of consideration for what we are about both in this world and in
We tend to look upon religion and philosophy as if they were merely aids
for our living, whereas more properly our living, at its deepest meaning,
is that we may worship, praise, philosophize, and celebrate. We can find
descriptions of heaven that limit themselves to the dark-eyed virgins,
to eating, drinking, and being merry. But without denying the reality
of our corporeal being, even in the Resurrection, we suspect that the
activities of praise and celebration are nearer to what it is all about,
to what C. S. Lewis in Perelandra described as the "Great
Dance." The "Great Dance" is before and within creation
not primarily as something originating from our own making, but as responding
to the discovery and beholding of what is the glory of God in Himself
and in all things, including things fallen and redeemed.
Praises are considered "valuable" in so far as they incite us
to do something worthy. Aristotle himself noted that praise "makes
us do fine actions." By the word "make" here, however,
he did not mean that it "forces" us to do fine actions. An action
that is performed out of strict necessity is not really even a human action.
A human action requires our doing the action because of knowing, of choice,
and in freedom. Aristotle means praise "inspires" us to fine
actions; it encourages us to know that they are fine. It is true that
we praise certain apparently necessary things a sunset, for instance,
or the beauty of a rainbow trout freshly out of the clear water. Yet it
is quite possible, as Chesterton remarked, for such things not to exist.
At the same time, it is quite possible for us to observe before our very
eyes beautiful or noble things and be totally unaffected by them. "Tell
me what you praise, and I will tell you what you are" might be an
apt formula for what I am trying to get at. Education and culture in part
consist not only in learning what is worthy to be praised but to acquire
the discipline or virtue that actually enables or incites to do so.
In a Peanuts cartoon for April, 23, 1994, we see Charlie Brown
in bed at night lying on his back under his thick, stripped comforter.
Snoopy is sleeping contentedly on Charlies stomach. Charlie, however,
is wide awake, pondering the ultimate questions. "Sometimes I lay
awake at night," he says out loud to himself and the sleeping Snoopy,
"and I ask myself, Why am I here? What is the purpose
of it all? Does my life have any meaning?" Sober,
ultimate questions indeed, questions found in many a great mind from Leibniz
to Eric Voegelin to the Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes.
But in the second scene, with a frown on his face, Charlie continues,
"Then a voice comes to me that says, Forget it! I hate questions
like that." But when we laugh at Charlies predicament,
we realize that the questions he asks himself in the night are pretty
fundamental ones that we all should address at one time or another. Why
are we here, indeed? What is the purpose of it all? Does our life have
any meaning? The reason we "hate" questions like that is that
they imply that we are here for a purpose, that meaning can be found if
we look and are ready to live according to this purpose and meaning. We
are not free simply to ignore such questions and remain the kind of beings
we are made to be.
What I want to contend here is that, if we are Catholic, we can expect the
answers to these questions to be more likely to be rejected when they tell
us that we are made for joy than when they tell us that we walk here in
a valley of tears, which we obviously do. The great temptation to the faith
is not that it promises too little but that is promises too much. Paradoxically,
Catholicism is rejected in all likelihood because it is too plausible, not
because it is insufficiently intellectual. Catholics act at times almost
as if they are afraid of what the faith implies. The claim to truth is a
very counter-cultural position. Modern "dialogue Catholicism,"
as I call it, has taken the non-confrontational tack of insisting on exchange
but not in insisting in conclusions to dialogues. Dialogue seems to go on
forever with everyone afraid to conclude anything that would "offend"
any position. The world seems to be filled with people afraid to discover
the truth of things.
We are ever busy finding what is true, or at least plausible, in other religions
and philosophies, but we seldom find or speak what is wrong in them. No
one is to be "offended," in a world in which, contrary to its
own heritage, we dare not admit some things are wrong, some things are not
good. Little urgency is found in the pursuit of dialogue. Yet, dialogue
in the classical sense had something pressing about it, something demanding
a resolution to asked questions about ultimate things. Platos dialogues
and Augustines dialogues all reach conclusions. It is not as if erroneous
positions are not lived out in practice. Philosophies and religions produce
their own culture in which their subtle theoretical positions are embedded
in practice. Dialogue is not merely theoretical, but cultural. If we hold
in theory that all is relative, that no position can claim any truth, that
we can pursue our own "values" whatever they are, that we have
a "right" to do as we think, whatever it is, then we live in a
world of lethal chaos. Theory justifies action and action flows from theory.
Modernity has sought to replace theology with anthropology. That is, everywhere
we look, we see not God but man. Human works and ideas are embodied not
merely in personal lives but in society and even in nature. The human mind,
no longer dependent on a theory of nature and natures God, depends
on itself alone. What it makes or conceives, simply is, with nothing to
which to compare it. No alternative exists except a change of mind, which
is always possible and contains the same justification as any other the
original effort to make a man-made world.
The question we ask here then is not merely one of a praise of fine actions,
but whether there is anything to celebrate, anything not made by us. Catholicism
is a religion of Incarnation. Most of the historical heresies of our faith
have arisen around the truth of whether God became man, or better, over
a rejection of this possibility. There is a curious irony in the fact that
the Incarnation meant that the Word, the second Person of the Trinity, became
man. In one sweeping act, as it were, God, man, and world were united in
one being within the universe. This meant that while searching the universe,
we did somehow encounter man, but not merely human man, but Word, eventually
Word made flesh.
It has been the belief of modern atheism that if we eradicate God from man
and the world, we will keep everything for ourselves. And when we have succeeded
in this effort, what we have left is ourselves, only now it is an ourselves
deliberately functioning minus those reaches within ourselves that take
us beyond ourselves, with neither grace nor acknowledged being. For there
is now nothing beyond ourselves. Catholicism says of the world that it need
not exist, but it does exist. The reason it can affirm this truth is because
it has a theory of God that allows it, a theory of the super-abundant inner
life of the Godhead, what we call the Trinity. Catholicism argues that God
would be God even if the world did not exist. Thus it logically argues that
the world would not be the world if God did not exist. If we think God out
of existence, we think ourselves and the world out of existence. Yet, we
cannot and do not give ourselves existence.
Catholicism does not hold, however, that the divine creation of man and
the world means that man has nothing meaningful to do within the world.
It holds in fact the opposite, teaching that what is to be done in the world
is a free imitation of what is the inner essence of the Godhead out of which
the world was created. And at the peak of this world stands the free human
creature whose inner purpose in his very creation was beyond himself. He
was created for something more than, beyond the world, beyond even the natural
capacities of his own rational being. And this is why man is not really
at home in the world, even though it is his natural habitat.
If this paradox is the case, any effort to pretend that the world is sufficient
for man is bound to distort his very essence or purpose by implying that
some other end is available to him. Well, there is another end available
to him, that is, himself, forever. This is the essential definition of hell,
that there is only himself. This alternative of the self is deliberately
chosen in preference to an end that man did not create or give himself but
one to which he is invited, even though he cannot by himself quite know
what he is invited to until he accepts the invitation.
The essential search of man in this world has been for an explanation of
what he is and why he is. It has been an effort to find out the meaning
of his existence, the giving of which he is not the cause. His essential
temptation is to choose too lowly, to prescribe for himself an end that
is not worthy of the one to which he is properly invited. Marx said, in
his Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, that everywhere we look
we want to see only man, in nature, in society, in culture. All marks of
God are to be replaced by human rational that would indicate that man does
not have a transcendent origin beyond himself. The principal and perhaps
the only alternative to this view today is that of classical Catholicism,
though there is Islam, which denies both Incarnation and Trinity and sees
man as only subject to Allah. What is under fire is not the Catholicism
that is in agreement with a world evaporated of both nature and Incarnation,
but the Catholicism that is not.
And the essence of this struggle concerns whether there is something worth
celebrating, some proper form of celebration that sums up, at the same time,
why there is so much evil in the world and why there is something
worth having simply because it is. In the end, man cannot give himself
what is worth celebrating and rejoicing about. The sacrifice of the Cross
has to be united to the Resurrection of the body in order that the final
purpose of the actual creation outside of God that we were given may be
made manifest. This celebration is what the Mass is ultimately about, why
it is not something that we concoct for ourselves but something that is
given to us as the primary contact that we have to the Godhead that sums
up the purpose of creation. God associates other free beings in their very
intelligence to Himself in that response of delight and wonder that alone
is something for its own sake, something that redeems the time and restores
the effects of the Fall.
"Religion has for centuries been trying to make men exult in the wonders
of creation," Chesterton said in his famous essay, "In Defence
of Nonsense," "but it has forgotten that a thing cannot be completely
wonderful so long as it remains sensible. So long as we regard a tree as
an obvious thing, naturally and reasonably created for a giraffe to eat,
we cannot properly wonder at it. It is when we consider it as a prodigious
wave of the living soil sprawling up to the skies for no reason in particular
that we take off or hatshttp://ignatiusinsight.comhttp://ignatiusinsight.com" It is in this background alone, I think,
that we can begin to wonder what it is that there is to celebrate. Something
exists that need not be, a something that includes ourselves, something
so wondrous that we can only behold it in awe, in both silence and in dance,
which is really in a solemn way what our liturgy is about. But it is about
this world too for it is the Sacrifice of the Cross in which all that could
be saved, would be saved. What would not choose to be saved, not even God
We "praise God from whom all blessings flow," as the hymn goes.
But we celebrate what is because we did not create it, because it
is something that is not ours to make but only to behold and in which to
rejoice after the manner in which human, finite things rejoice. And it is
through the Word made flesh that we discover the purpose of why we exist
in the first place. We exist, briefly, to worship God, to celebrate in what
is given to us as the only proper way to worship God, something all men
have been seeking to discover from the beginning, even when they think they
are only seeing themselves in all that is. Dialogues that do not proceed
to the end of the argument are dangerous enterprises. The questions that
Charlie Brown asked during the night, "Why am I here?" "Does
my life have any meaning?" "What is the purpose of it all?"
these are proper questions of our kind.
Samuel Johnson rightly warned us not to praise something "too extravagantly."
Yet, when we come down to the central given meaning of "celebration"
in contrast to praise, we are to spend our lives, as Plato in his Laws
said, almost prophetically, in "singing, dancing, and sacrificing."
The extravagance of God in creating what is out of precisely nothing
bears all the marks of a divine madness or wisdom. It leaves us in an awed
silence that such things should be, that we are taken seriously in our freedom
so that we could be "unserious" also in our glory.
It is no accident that the Mass is a "Eucharist," a thanksgiving.
But it is a thanksgiving achieved at great cost, for it is a thanksgiving
that includes the redemption of our sins, even of those who choose not to
be redeemed. We are, ultimately, created to participate in the inner life
of God, something that transcends what we are. We are made for praise and
celebration. No lesser gift did God choose to give us. The heart of the
rejection of God is thus the claim that He gave us too much. We are not
prepared to accept that we are not sufficient to ourselves, that our glory
is more than what we can give ourselves.
The heart of the acceptance of God is simply the praise and celebration
by which we are to worship God not in the way we give ourselves, but in
the way He gave us, the way that includes the Cross on the road to Glory.
"Praise is given to virtue http://ignatiusinsight.com. but celebrations are for successful
achievements." The worship by which we praise is at the same time already
a "successful achievement."
We are not to attempt to create for ourselves what is already given to us,
and that superabundantly. But we are to celebrate what is in the
only manner worthy of its celebration, something that we do not and cannot
give to ourselves. Ultimately, we receive glory if we are free enough to
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James V. Schall, S.J., is Professor of Political Philosophy at Georgetown
He is the author of numerous books on social issues, spirituality, culture,
and literature including Another
Sort of Learning, Idylls
and Rambles, On the Unseriousness of Human Affairs: Teaching, Writing,
Playing, Believing, Lecturing, Philosophizing, Singing, Dancing,
and A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning.
Read more of his essays on his
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