“Can the sister get an Amen?”
She’d get it, too, from little Black kids to aging white bishops. A Franciscan whose death at 52 cheated the Church, Sister Thea Bowman spoke in a moving mixture of Yazoo City vernacular and her linguistic Ph.D.
She used the “Amen” not just as a tent preacher rousing the crowd, but as an invitation to turn believing into being.
The word shows up early in Hebrew Scripture as an affirmation to a covenant with God. Many languages use reduplication, like chop chop or Walla Walla, to intensify or form a plural.
David used “Amen. Amen.” in Psalms to underscore his blessing. Jesus starts stories with it, perhaps hinting at the multiple layers of meaning in what He is about to say.
In Jewish liturgy, the hazzan signals for an Amen after a prayer. More than a perfunctory finish, it is understood as a virtual repetition of what has been said.
From the Sign of the Cross to the final blessing, Catholics recklessly repeat the Amen throughout the Mass. It is a conditioned reflex, a proper prayer-ender we say because it is in the script.
Unlike Sr. Thea, we would never shout “Amen” if the preacher named a hard reality of our lives or nailed a piece of relevant truth. It’s a cultural thing, but not using the word on our own diminishes its power when we repeat it in rote.
“Amen” is our acceptance of a revealed God in our creed and a revolutionary vision in the Lord’s Prayer. But perhaps the word has no greater role than it does when we come to the table. It yearns to be more than a confirmation of what lies under the veil of bread and wine. It speaks my desire to become what I am eating, a bread broken for the hungry, a fruit offered for another’s thirst.
It is a surrender of who I am to who I can be; a hope to be transformed and enriched, a commitment to take to the world this feast of love and sacrifice.
Ultimately, though, it is only a word, and, as Humpty Dumpty said, a word “means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
But at least the old egg thought about it. We might want to do the same.
Can a brother get an “Amen?”
This reflection was originally published in Aug. 10, 2012, edition of The Catholic Missourian.