Can I Get An Amen?

As a child, I remember asking why we say “amen” at the close of our prayers. My parents told me that it was a way of expressing agreement. If my sister offered a prayer and I agreed with what she said, I should say “amen.” Being quite young, I went through a period of time when my clever mind would mischievously tempt me to withhold my amens. Armed with a completely legitimate excuse for breaking tradition, I felt an enormous sense of power for someone my age. “But you see, Mom and Dad, I don’t agree.” And what could my parents possibly say to that?

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve naturally grown out of such infantile temptations. Then again, I’ve also realized that the rote repetition of saying “amen” has virtually stripped the word of any real meaning. I’ve heard people say “amen” to prayers offered in foreign languages (without being bilingual). I’ve heard people say “amen” to the unintelligible prayers of those with serious physical and mental handicaps. And, unless I’m the only one who’s ever done it, I’ve heard people say “amen” to prayers that were simply too quiet to be understood. In short, a lot of people say “amen” no matter what.

I used to defend this behavior by telling myself an amen could, at least in some instances, merely seek to sustain the sincerity of the one praying. Sure, that old man may have prayed too softly for me to hear what he was saying, but as long as he gave his best effort, I might as well say amen. But is this right? Should we frivolously and carelessly offer amens, regardless of whether or not we understand the words prayed? If not, how much epistemic responsibility do we have before we are justified?

Undoubtedly, no one would say amen if a prayer seemed completely blasphemous, blatantly deranged, or otherwise severely misguided. But is this the only reason we should abstain? Is it right to say amen without really understanding the intent and purpose of the prayer? To say amen as polite social protocol? Further, do we need to agree with the prayer in its entirety before we say amen, or can the amen be internally selective in what it’s condoning?

By the way, I never understood the reason the person actually praying had to say amen. For all I ever knew, it was merely a coordinative technique used to demarcate the end of one’s prayer. And to be honest, I still don’t have any better ideas. All I know is that it would feel really weird to end a prayer without it, even when praying alone. After 25 years or so of praying, I guess that only makes sense.


amie-j said...

I have noticed that some of the prayers I have been learning have an amen and some do not.

Because old habits die hard, I always have to resist the temptation to say amen when the Father finishes saying the prayers to bless the communion, particularly because the words he uses are similar to the words used in the sacrament prayers I grew up with.

I noticed today that when the congrgation says (or sings) amen, sometimes the one saying the prayer(the Father) doesn't start it, he proclaims it with us, or we just say it after he does the sign of the cross. I guess that's the benefit of having a book to follow along with, you know when the prayer is done, and you know what to do about it. Alot of the prayers end in the sign of the cross. Now when I pray silently in public or with other people, I have to remember not to do the sign of the cross. Right now it has a significance to me, which I think is one benefit of coming into a religion from outside instead of growing up with the traditions, but I wonder if after a lifetime it will become just another habit.

A lot of phrases lose their meaning due to unnecessary repetition. The words "I LOVE YOU" stick out to me as a good example. I hear people use those words in place of "don't be mad." or "you're so funny." or "Mommmmmmm, I want you to buy me a new toy." or "I hope I can convince you to do something you don't feel is right" or "I'm ready to end this phone call now." or "I'm glad I survived this reunion, and I don't have to see you for another year!"

Should we ever say things we don't mean because they are expected? I find it offensive when people say things to me that they really don't mean.

Thanks for the food for thought bennyk!

Josh said...

You bring up a great point Benny. The "Amen" in Greek means, "verily," or "so let it be." Logically, it makes sense that we hear the word used in various services when a parishoner agrees with a point in the message, but in your case, simply saying "Amen" like any other word(s) in our language, i.e. "Huh," or "Like," or "Ya know," would be basically wrong, if we understand the Greek concept correctly. Your perception into why someone would say that following an inaudible prayer, or incoherent for that matter, would be (in my humble opinion) a bit troubling, and indicative of that persons misunderstanding of the nature of the word "Amen." Does that make any sense? Random thoughts don't always come out as sensible from me!

AndyOfVermont said...

When I was little there was an old man in my church who would say "Amen" periodically while the pastor was praying. I assumed he was deaf, and so kept thinking the prayer was over and saying "amen". I finally asked my mom about it and she was the one who explained to me that sometimes people will say amen in the middle of the prayer to agree with a specific point. Though I've never heard anyone say "boo" to disagree with a specific point. :) Anyway, she thought it was hilarious, of course, but even after being corrected I thought my original assumption was quite logical.

mama bear said...

Just want to let you know I was here. I always thought you said "Amen" just to close the prayer,like you put "the end" on the stories you write in third grade. That's not very reverent of me, but I've never thought of it till now. Often to me it seems awkward to say amen at the end of a prayer, because I'm not really finished. I may stop talking, but the thoughts continue in my head. I really appreciate you bringing it up and the comments found here. I hope I haven't been too flippant...that isn't my intention.