Thursday, June 18, 2009

Column: Amen is a mystery in any language

All I can think about when I re-read this is Gannet Girl's struggles with Hebrew (not yet begun when I wrote the piece)- could that be why the translators left things alone?!

This column appeared in the Catholic Standard & Times on 18 June 2009.

Blessed be the Lord forever! Amen and amen.
Ps. 89:53

My four younger brothers would map their strategy before they sat down, jockeying for the best positions -- nowhere near the vegetables and as close to the mashed potatoes as possible. The dog would curl up between my father and the baby's highchair. My mother would sit down (sometimes I suspect for the first time that day) and take a deep breath. This was the calm before the storm.

Eight voices would sound as one "...which we are about to receive, from thy bounty, through Christ, our Lord. Amen. In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen." At this point chaos would erupt -- everyone trying to talk at once, dishes crisscrossing the table, accompanied by the inevitable overturning of a glass of milk.

When I was growing up, woe unto any of us who touched our forks or sipped our milk until that final amen left our lips. I suspect if you'd asked any of us at the time what "amen" meant, we might have said "Let's eat!" Amen was a beginning.

Press me now, four decades and a bit later, and I might be more inclined to say that amen is an ending. The doxology and doublet of amens tacked to the end of Psalm 89 closes not the psalm, but a whole collection of psalms: 73-89. Amens likewise wrap up each prayer I say, a sprinkling of commas and semi-colons that bring release to the pauses in my day, until I say it one last time and bring the day to a full stop.

In reflecting on John's Gospel, on all the passages in which Jesus begins with "Amen, amen I say to you" St. Augustine notes that none of the Gospel writers and the translators that followed them "dared" to put the Hebrew "amen" into Greek or Latin -- though they knew full well what it meant. He supposed that they intended "that it might be honored by a veil of mystery, not that it be disavowed, but that it be not cheapened by being laid bare."

Amen means "so be it" or "truly" - an affirmation of belief - and is a traditional and eminently sensible ending for our prayers. But if I stop there, with its meaning laid bare, its place in my life well established, does the word that, according to St. Jerome, once shook the temples of Rome like thunder, go flat? Have I missed the mystery?

For Augustine, amen goes well beyond punctuating a prayer or checking off a box on a list of what we believe: "If, therefore, you are the Body of Christ and His members, your mystery is presented at the table of the Lord, you receive your mystery. To that which you are, you answer: 'Amen'; and by answering, you subscribe to it."

With one word we simultaneously confirm our belief and are confirmed by God in living out that faith. To say amen is not to subscribe to certainty, but instead to assent to be changed by the mystery that is Christ's death and resurrection.

Amens are not cheap but could and should cost me dearly. I'm not sure I dare say it now, unless I mean it.

Eternal Father, confirm me; Eternal Son, confirm me; Holy Spirit, confirm me; Holy Trinity, confirm me; My one and only God, confirm me. Amen. --From the journal of St. Ignatius of Loyola


  1. When I first started preaching, as a Lay Reader, Hugger Steward was 3ish & knew very well that Amen meant an he would stand up on the pew when he'd had enough and say
    "Amen" with great persistence...clearly wishing to convey
    "That's quite enough of THAT let's all get on home"

  2. For me, amen is an opening.

    I haven't done the Ignatian exercises yet but I center with a group of women - many of whom have done them.

    It took me a long time to find a word that worked for me. I tried various English words, some Latin, and some Greek. I thought the other languages would help keep the meaning centered on the spiritual. Nothing worked until I started saying amen - I agree, I will, I believe, I am...

  3. Kathyrn,

    I love the story about Hugger Steward! I think he was intuitively with Augustine, though: amen is a call to action...

    Kathyrn J,

    what a lovely litany of "amen"