A man’s secret life of praise

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To my brothers in faith in our age of “toxic masculinity,” I ask: what is the state of your secret life of praise?

“The true test of a man’s character,” we each know deep down, “is what he does when no one is watching.” 

When no one is watching, do you praise your creator, or do you reach into the jar to grab another cookie (the smartphone, remote, mouse, bottle, whatever distraction or painkiller is at hand)? 

“Man was created in the image of God,” wrote Jesuit theologian Jean Daniélou, “which is to say that … he must acknowledge the transcendence of what surpasses him. A man who refuses to consider it, a man without adoration, is mutilated in his person.” 

For years I didn’t really get this. I was, in some sense, a mutilated man. My prayer life sputtered along the backroads of wordy and self-centered petitions, some intercessions, and a little thanksgiving. Praise or adoration seemed somehow remote and inaccessible. Like the Pharisees, I was preoccupied with the attaboys that often came when I prayed in public. 

“But when you pray,” Jesus instructed, “go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.” 

Jesus points us to the bedrock of a man’s integrity: he is the same in private and in public. To be clear, there is a place for a man’s public life of prayer: Mass, grace at meals, prayer with your spouse, to say nothing of family prayer. But if these street-corner moments are not buttressed by praise behind closed doors, then a basic threshold of spiritual integrity has yet to be met. 

The state of a man’s secret life of praise reveals with precision the degree to which he is either fulfilling — or repressing, suppressing, constraining or even mutilating — his own nature, made in the image and likeness of God. At one end of this spectrum we find a mutilated and diminished man who is addicted to cookies; on the other end we find a man who quietly tends to his inner room, who C.S. Lewis described as “healthy,” “unaffected,” and having the “humblest … most balanced and capacious” mind. 

But what do we mean by a life of praise? Like a strong relationship, your interior life of praise should pulse with attentiveness and conversation, pursuit and discoveries, frustrations and joys, silence and words. “Praise almost seems to be inner health made audible,” Lewis wrote. In a way analogous to the courtship of the woman who became your wife, you can’t help but want to be in her presence constantly, to know more and more about her.  

And like your marriage, your secret life of praise is no sappy Hallmark card. It is marked by clear-headed commitments. Our word “decision” comes from the Latin verb “to cut off”: men who decide to cultivate a secret life of praise are accustomed to cutting back on their access to the cookie jar in order to spend more time in the Psalms, Eucharistic adoration or other modes of praise.   

“Praise,” we read in the catechism, “is the form of prayer which recognizes most immediately that God is God. It lauds God for his own sake and gives him glory, quite beyond what he does, but simply because HE IS.” Full stop. 

Late one night soon after graduating from college, I was praying alone in a side chapel in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The stone beneath my knees was part of the 2,000-year-old Roman road, and I ran my hands over the grooves etched by the wheels of Roman chariots. I knelt there in wonder that the Son of God walked on these very stones and spilled his blood for me just a few dozen feet from where I prayed. I drifted off to sleep, awoke close to midnight, and realized that my legs had gone numb.  

Praise can be like this. As we slowly stand to leave the secret, inner room of praise, we falter with numbed limbs and inarticulate tongues. We may limp like Jacob. We have reason to stumble. HE IS. And somehow, quite beyond all understanding, we have been chosen to carry his image out of that room and into the world. 

Johnson is associate director of the St. Thomas More Institute.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2018