Home Page

A Prayer of Praise

by The Most Rev. Edward M. Egan

Neither I nor the friend with whom I was traveling had ever experienced anything like it. We were standing on the Brazil side of the Iguassú Falls, looking toward Argentina in the distance.

A swirling river, two miles wide, rushed beneath us. From one side of it to the other stretched 275 mammoth waterfalls, each plunging 280 feet over black basalt rock. A rainbow encircled the scene. Bright, cobalt-blue butterflies glided carelessly above the mist. And the roar of the plummeting water was unlike any sound I had ever heard.

A group of tourists came up behind us as we approached a catwalk that led under one of the gigantic cascades. "Who can witness this," their guide asked somewhat theatrically, "without praising the glories of the Creator?"

As we made our way back to the tourist lodge in which we were staying, I drew from my camera case a guidebook about the Falls which I had purchased the day before from a street vendor. "`Iguassú' means `Great Water'," I declaimed, gently mimicking the guide. "No one can admire it without. . . ." My mimicking came to an abrupt end as I read the altogether unexpected words that followed: "without shouting into the heaven, `O Lord, how great Thou art!'"

* * * * * *

After supper that evening we sat on the porch of the lodge paging through newspapers that had been left here and there on tables for the guests. On the front page of one from Sao Paulo was a photograph of two young soldiers, each with a child in his arms. According to the story beneath the photograph, the soldiers had rescued the children from a collapsing building at great risk to themselves. One was asked to explain his action. "I did it because I knew from something inside me that it was right," he replied. "Nothing more than that. I just knew that it was the right thing to do."

I leaned over to my friend to read the story aloud. He was, however, absorbed in deciphering the sports page of another Brazilian newspaper. Hence, I decided not to disturb him, returned to the article about the soldiers, and found myself whispering to myself, "O Lord, how great Thou art!"

* * * * * *

Those six words soon became for me the leitmotif of the rest of the trip. One night in the Teatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires we heard a recital by the brilliant Spanish pianist, Alicia de Larrocha. The first half was all Chopin - ballades, impromptus, études, and nocturnes. The second half was a series of dazzling works by De Falla, Granados, and Albéniz. As we rose to join the audience in a thundering ovation, I found myself once again whispering to myself, "O Lord, how great Thou art!"

But nowhere along the route of our travels did I utter those words with more feeling and conviction than in a veterans' hospital in a suburb of Valparaíso in Chile. Waiting for a chaplain friend who was to drive us to Viña del Mar, I noticed a religious sister gently wiping phlegm from the face of an old gentleman seated in a wicker chair on a stretch of lawn in front of the hospital. His body was twisted, and every few minutes he was thrust to the side by a kind of spasm. The sister seemed not to notice. She held on to his arm when the spasms began, wiped his face when they were over, and chatted cheerily with him throughout the ordeal as though nothing untoward were happening. Not once, but several times, the words formed on my lips: "O Lord, how great Thou art!"

* * * * * *

I had all but forgotten the recurring theme of my visit to South America until I picked up the new Catechism of the Catholic Church and began reading Section Two of Part One, the section that treats of the First Person of the Most Blessed Trinity, God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. It is made up of seven brief chapters, each of which might fittingly climax with the words, "O Lord, how great Thou art!"

Chapter One recounts the manner in which the Eternal Father made His name known to the Chosen People of the Old Testament. "I am Who am," He told Moses; and the self-revelation by no means ended there. Rather, He further unveiled His reality as the God of power and might, to be sure, but also - and especially - as the God of truth and love, even the God of tenderness and mercy.

At every step the new Catechism recalls passages from Scripture and citations from the Fathers, theologians, and saints of the Church to develop and clarify this image of the Almighty. Indeed, Chapter One closes with a poem of Saint Teresa of Avila which in its simplicity achieves a summation of all that went before. "Let nothing trouble you," she writes. "Let nothing frighten you. All will pass. Only God remains ever the same. Patience overcomes all. Who have their God want for nothing. He and He alone suffices."

My response: "O Lord, how great Thou art!"

* * * * * *

Chapter Two is a masterful disquisition on the doctrine of the Trinity. It insists that there is but one God and, having made this point over and again, moves on to the reveals reality that the one Divine Nature of that one God is shared equally and indivisibly by the three Divine Persons - the Father, the son, and the Holy Spirit.

The chapter repeats the powerful declarations regarding the Trinity made by the ecumenical councils of the early Church, particularly the Council of Nicea in 325 and the Council of Constantinople in 381, and throughout laces the text wit exclamations of praise for the Triune God. In fact, it concludes with a prayer of Blessed Elisabeth de la Trinite which in part reads as follows: "My God, the Trinity that I adore,. . .may I never forsake you. May I always abide in You, alive in faith, worshipping, and abandoning myself totally to Your creative powers."

Again, the response: "O Lord, how great Thou art!"

* * * * * *

Chapter Three deals briefly with the power of God, while Chapter Four discusses in considerable detail the fact that the Almighty has brought all creation-what is seen and unseen-into being out of nothing. In this fourth chapter the theology of Providence and the problem of physical and moral evil in a world created by an all-good God are explored at some length. It is, however, the segment which is entitled "the World Was Created for the Glory of God" that seizes the attention of the reader. And well it might, for it announces, in terms largely borrowed from Saint Bonaventure, that the Lord has created all things not to enhance His glory, but to manifest it and to share it. "Our God has no other reason to create," it adds, "than His love and His goodness."

Yet a third time the familiar words well up in my soul: "O Lord, how great Thou art!"

* * * * * *

The remaining chapters unfold Church doctrine concerning, first, the angels; then, the visible universe apart from humanity; and finally, man and woman created "unto the image and likeness of God" but fallen through the sin of Adam and the sins of self as well.

At no point does the new Catechism "sugar-coat" the reality of human history or human existence. Life is conceded to be often a painful struggle in a vale of tears; and sin is recognized for what it is - a mindless rebellion against the will of the one, true God.

Still, the entire section - all seven chapters - ends with a shout of praise launched into the heavens. "You Have Not Abandoned Us to the Powers of Death," it reads in bold print, thus clearly forecasting what is to be discussed in the pages that follow: Jesus Christ, the Lord and Savior. Small wonder that Saint Augustine is given the final word as he proclaims: "O happy fault, that has merited such and so great a Redeemer!"

Small wonder too this reader again prayed, "O Lord, how great Thou art!"

* * * * * *

I closed the Catechism and asked myself why it is that I did not bring my prayer of praise back with me from South America. Hardly a day passes in my life that I am not struck by the power of God in nature, by the love of God reflected in the virtuous and often heroic lives of those around me, by the beauty of God made manifest in the arts, and by the tenderness and compassion of God revealed in the kindness of men, women, and children on every side. I must recapture the practice that was begun after seeing a waterfall in Brazil and recalled while reading a theological masterpiece in Connecticut, I told myself. I must begin again to react to the glories of the Creator with a spontaneous prayer of praise, and I know none better than "O Lord, how great Thou art!"

Home Page