The first word of the prayer ‘Saum’ is ‘Praise,’ and it is an excellent way to begin a prayer, inasmuch as ‘praise’ is a word that can unlock the gates of heaven, if we understand it well. To praise is to set a value upon something, implicitly a high value, or in other words to see something as a ‘prize’ (a word which has the same root as praise). To praise is, metaphorically, to look upward. Words of praise are mentioned in Nirtan, where it says,
Sweeter than honey
are the results of one’s toil;
more fragrant than flowers
are the words of praise…
Observing what it is that another person praises can illuminate that person’s nature and character more clearly than a searchlight, for one praises what one recognises; a cobbler might praise a person’s shoes, whereas a dancer might praise the movements of the feet. And it may happen that if two people describe a person who makes a good impression, one may praise the appearance, while the other may praise the character. In other words, one speaks of the physical form, and the other of something finer.
Such a searchlight is even more useful if it is turned in the other direction; we can ask ourselves, “What do I praise?”–although the first question should really be, “Do I praise at all?” It is easy for us to become so self-absorbed, so caught up in our own worries and concerns, that we never think to offer a few words of praise to those around us. And yet it is a kindness that costs us nothing.
Returning to the prayer Saum, it is natural to begin with the act of praising, as we are seeking to awaken our connection with the Divine Presence through prayer, but if we wish to make a living offering and not a mechanical repetition, there should be some feeling of what it is that we are praising. In Vadan, we find the saying, One cannot praise God unless one makes of Him an ideal. As God is all, and beyond all, unlimited by any name or form, we must clothe the Divine with our ideal in order to offer praise: the perfection of love perhaps, or beauty without limitation, or the unceasing life of the Generous Creator, or whatever we prize above all.
When we hold our ideal so clearly in our mind and heart that it becomes a reality to us, we will discover that ‘heaven’ is not a location but a condition, experienced in the all-pervading presence of the Divine.