Friday, 31 March 2017

Marilynne Robinson and ‘Just’ Prayers

I don’t hear many ‘just’ prayers these days. You know the sort of prayer I mean—the sort of prayer that treats the word ‘just’ almost as punctuation. ‘O Lord, I just really want to praise you Lord, because, Lord, you are just such an awesome God who is just wanting to just really bless us.’ That sort of prayer. And I tend to look down on this sort of prayer because such prayers are usually extempore and not the works of considered supplicatory genius I have come to expect during Sunday intercessions.

Enter Marilynne Robinson, whose expansive vocabulary and prose are adored by roughly 97% of the English-speaking world, including 63% of theologians:

I am thinking about the word ‘just.’ I almost wish I could have written that the sun just shone and the tree just glistened, and the water just poured out of it and the girl just laughed – when it’s used that way it does indicate a stress on the word that follows it, and also a particular pitch of the voice. People talk that way when they want to call attention to a thing existing in excess of itself, so to speak, a sort of purity or lavishness, at any rate something ordinary in kind but exceptional in degree. So it seems to me at the moment. There is something real signified by the word ‘just’ that proper language won’t acknowledge.

Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (London: Virago, 2004), p. 32, italics original

I suppose that anything that helps the rhetorical effect of a prayer to elicit the all-important ‘amen’ at its conclusion is invaluable. Perhaps I should tolerate the limited—and perhaps the not-so-limited—use of ‘just’ and similar adverbs in extempore prayers. Or does John Ames (the protagonist of Robinson’s Gilead) simply not understand that however much a signifier intends to point beyond itself, sustained repetition will do little more than draw attention to itself?


  1. "We just really, Lord, really want to just thank you for being here today, Lord, this morning..."
    Maybe these filler words are instead of 'er' and 'um' but people feel they can't say that when it's a prayer?

    1. P.S. I have yet to hear supplicatory genius from any source. It tends to be either the 'just really this morning' type prayers of the free-praying(?) Evangelicals - who sound like they have the theological wherewithal of a liquorice allsort - or the 'I-sound-so-bored-my-voice-actually-makes-paint-dry-quicker' of the liturgical types. Why *do* they sound so bored? How on earth do they think that anyone will ever think 'ooh, I want what he's got'? Meh.
      Christians: gotta love 'em ;-)

    2. Yes, we do gotta love 'em. Our Lord commands it. ;)

      I suppose the 'justs', 'reallys', and 'want tos' could well be filler words, but I find it interesting, then, that people would find it more natural to use these rather than 'um' or 'er' and be consistent in doing so.

      I'd love to meet someone (well, I probably wouldn't, but still . . .) whose voice can actually make paint dry quicker. That's like a superhero power!