When I say “amen” at the end of a prayer, what am I really saying?
A word we say with remarkable frequency, by being so ubiquitous, tends to lose its meaning, its gravity, its depth, and its power. It is a very good question to consider, since “amen” so easily falls from our lips in mere vain repetition of empty phrases (cf. Mt. 6:7).
— אָמֵן | ἀμήν | amen —
“Definition: verily, truly, amen; at the end of sentences may be paraphrased by: So let it be.”
(Strong’s Concordance, 543)
It strikes me as funny, and telling, that “amen” would have become one of the definitions of “amen”; that is how deeply embedded the word is in our language – its own definition has become sui generis. Such is the importance, vitality, and singularity of “amen” – and yet we do not think of it because, in part, it is already our thought. In this way, “amen” reflects (appropriately enough) the lexical life of “God”, another word/name/signifier that so deeply informs and shapes our thought that we rarely think much about it [to say nothing of that which it signifies]. Look, for instance, at all the different ways we use “God” today – politically, casually, economically, expressively – certainly the word doesn’t mean the same thing in all those contexts, does it? Do the Saturday night drunkard, the Sunday pastor, and the Treasury Department truly have God in common simply by virtue of having “God” in common?
But enough of that digression; let’s get back to “amen” which, further research shows that it’s related to the Hebrew word,אָמַן (aman), meaning support, confirm, uphold, trust. In a biblical context, that word was translated into Greek by way of the root, πιστεύω (pisteuó), which means I believe, have faith, trust, have been persuaded by [the Lord]. As Roman Catholics, we should also be interested in how this moved into Latin and on that question we find the familiar word,credo/credere, and its meanings: think, trust, loan, place confidence in, and of course, believe. Finally, from the theorists of Proto-Indo-European language, we find credo to be an echo of the even more ancient k̑r̥d-dhe- (kerdhe). This last [first?] word contains in its literal translation perhaps the most direct expression of the meaning for which we’ve been searching: to do in [one’s] heart.
Why have I taken us on this journey? Well take a look back and note that we came from amen to credo, while maintaining such consistency in meaning and relation that two words are practically synonyms. Now, as we came fromamen to credo, there is a much more important text that proceeds from Credo to Amen: The Apostles’ Creed. In the light of this investigation, then, we see that the beginning and the end [the Α and the Ω] of the Creed is the same expression of faith, belief, trust, support, and a confirmation that we loan our intellect and will with full confidence completely to God.
We find this conclusion similarly described by Bishop Wuerl,
“In the confident assurance that we do not walk alone and make our way aimlessly through a meaningless reality, we can face each day with that peace of mind and that assurance of soul that belongs only to a person of faith. We can continually say, ‘Amen – I believe’ in the face of difficulties, trials, disappointments, inconveniences, tragedies and even death.”
“We reaffirm with an ‘Amen’ that our faith is for us the beginning of new life that is everlasting. Amen – I believe!”
Yet again, this same response is to accompany us in our approach to Scripture. We are reminded in Dei Verbum that “in the sacred books, the Father who is in heaven meets His children with great love and speaks with them” (VI.21). Scripture itself relates this back to our search for “amen” by telling us directly how the devout and thankful receive the word of the Lord—
And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was above all the people; and when he opened it all the people stood. And Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God; and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands; and they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. (Neh. 8:5-6)
But responding with the word is not enough. “Amen” is not “abracadabra.” We must ask the question of meaning, find its answer, and convey it to all who would pray. For as St. Paul also asks and enjoins us—
What am I to do? I will pray with the spirit and I will pray with the mind also; I will sing with the spirit and I will sing with the mind also. Otherwise, if you bless with the spirit, how can any one in the position of an outsider say the “Amen” to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying? For you may give thanks well enough, but the other man is not edified. (1 Cor. 14:15-17)
Rising to meet the spirit of this call to edify we are offered additional aids that, guided by the Holy Spirit, assist us in tuning our minds to consonant harmony with the divine meaning.
“It is clear, therefore, that sacred tradition, Sacred Scripture and the teaching authority of the Church, in accord with God’s most wise design, are so linked and joined together that one cannot stand without the others, and that all together and each in its own way under the action of the one Holy Spirit contribute effectively to the salvation of souls.” (Dei Verbum, II.10)
It is thanks to the light reflected [only reflected, because the light itself is the Lord] by this deposit of faith in the interlocked forms of Tradition, Scripture, and Magisterium that we can say together and in edification of all:
Blessed be the Lord , the God of Israel,
from everlasting to everlasting!
And let all the people say, “Amen!”
Praise the Lord! (Ps. 106:48)