Posted by: Mark Nielsen | February 20, 2013

“So Be It” – Contemplative Linguistics, Lesson 1

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I had a minor epiphany in the shower today.

These things happen. Maybe because I have cultivated the soil of my soul with a certain kind of consistent listening or poking at the ground, these realizations or spiritual encouragements happen for me occasionally… in the shower, on the road, or maybe when I’m just sliding gradually out of an evening’s slumber (unless an alarm wakes me abruptly, that is).

The phrase that pays which came to me in the shower is as follows:

“It is not so because I say it is so, but I say it is so because it IS so.”

I came to this conclusion by thinking about the role of speech in the making or interpreting of meaning, how the act of speaking (or writing) certain words in a certain way might actually matter. In essence, I was applying basic linguistics principles to an analysis of the word “amen”.

The standard definition of “amen”– which has its origin in Aramaic and/or Torah (the ancient Hebrew scriptures) — is “so be it“. Or “truly”. Or if you are more modern or musically inclined, perhaps you prefer “Let It Be”.

Here is Wikipedia’s more extended write-up on the word “amen”. I found some amusement in their discussion of liberal vs. conservative pronunciation in English usage of the “A” (briefly, liberal/traditional/Catholic = short = “ah-men”,  while evangelical/modern = long =”Ay-men”). Me? I think I say it both ways, depending on the situation or my mood, but I tend toward the “ah”, as in a doctor telling me to “Say ah…”

But more importantly, here’s why I say the word at all: I say Amen to affirm divine and earthly Reality AS IT IS. It is beautiful, ugly, complex, challenging. It is what it is, and by saying amen, I submit myself to it and hopefully learn from it.

Some of this thinking about language and prayer definitely comes from my having watched a few too many Laurie Anderson interviews on YouTube the past two days. (Hint: one of this very heady performance artist’s better songs is called “Language Is a Virus”.) But some of this thinking about language also came about because of my present church experience. In my small group bible study last night at a slightly liberal-minded Lutheran church, we were looking at Acts Chapter 2, Pentecost. So naturally, we had an extended discussion about speaking in tongues.

confession, for the first time ever on the record: I pray in tongues on occasion. But I was one of only two people in the room with any direct experience on the subject. The other person was a black man.

But I’m not here today to talk about the gift of tongues per se, or different denominations, or race. If you know me, or want to write me, we can talk about any of those in private if you’d like. It’s just that this “Amen” thing has gotten me thinking about the act of speaking itself, from a spiritual or religious perspective. In other words, if I say “so be it” and I have faith that I am speaking or acting within God’s will, does that automatically make it so? I have my doubts, but let’s explore this a bit.

As I understand it, there are some people who apply a bit of cosmological or theological sleight of hand to the act of speaking. They believe that by speaking about something in a willful or wishful way, or by harnessing some inner power, you can possibly bring that something into actual existence. However, while I firmly believe in the existence of supernatural occurrences, or trans-rational and non-scientific causality, I think it is dangerous to go too far down that road, since the human condition is also subject to some actual and absolute limits which cannot be ignored.

I only have a little experience with the New Age sorts of ideas put forth in such texts as “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne. So probably I shouldn’t over -generalize. But I’m gonna anyway. (Hey, she did it first.) In my experience, looking at the logic and self-serving philosophy behind such ideas as her “law of attraction”, I think this view of human potential is just wrong. It’s flawed. It puts all of what we are in one column or one side (the “good side”) of what is actually a two or three or three hundred column description of the human animal. We may be part angel, but we are also part beast.

Furthermore, I’m not in control as much as they’re trying to convince me I am, or can be. In other words, I think this approach tends to put the main Actor, the God of the Universe, the Universal Consciousness, in a supporting role that God will not tolerate. It is human pride gone viral. It’s not even all that new or modern… the Greeks were thinking and talking like this over 3000 years ago.

Yes, we are beautiful. We are powerful. We were made to be free. Sometimes we even actually are free. But my saying something is so, or should be so, does not by itself make that reality come any closer to actually existing. I cannot think, feel, attract, or desire something into existence. I may even be a tool in the hand of that Higher Power in bringing something new into existence. But saying I helped– or I submitted my gifts and my will to the service and plans of the greater will –is not the same as saying I willed something to happen and it then happened.

To use a more poetic metaphor: I can get on the train, I can even move around willfully and skillfully within its cars, but I don’t actually make the train stop or go.

To borrow shamelessly from my African American preacher brethren:

Can I get an “Amen” !?!

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