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.