Tag Archives: Amen

Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Amen

Harry and Blanche Jakes

It is a strange thing when you find out that a name actually fits the person or thing that it has been attributed to. For example, Harry means not “Duke of Sussex” but “Lord of the House,” and in the case of my grandfather, Harry Jakes, the latter title was indeed a very good fit. The name of his wife, my grandmother, was “Blanche.” I’m not sure how “white” was a good fit for her, albeit she was quite fair skinned; so, I suppose it could work. The name of her mother, my great-grandmother was Elizabeth, meaning “God is an oath,” itself meaning, of course, that God keeps his promises, which He certainly did in Elizabeth’s life and legacy. To which I can here give a heartfelt Amen, if belated, as Lizzie Ann passed away quite a long time ago; yet, her legacy lives on (e.g. in her great-great-great-grandchild, named Zoey, a name suited for its living on in) through the lasting remnants of the love she bestowed so freely.

But that’s people. What about animals? Well, my mother had a cat named Biggest that was curiously small; she named it as a kitten, and thus, when that name didn’t work out, there was a lesson to be learned: don’t name kittens based on their potential size.  

Her cat named Dammit got me into trouble at school. “What is your cat’s name, Yvonne?” Mrs. Hendrickson asked my class when I was but a small child.  

“Mittens,” Vonnie Ort replied.  

“And yours, Gregory?”

“Fluffy,” said Greg Pauwels.

“And yours, H.R.?”

“Such an awkward name,” I thought, even as a child. But then I didn’t hesitate any longer but quickly responded, and quite loudly at that, “Dammit!” Of course, in response to such apparent profanity (though it wasn’t profanity proper, as I was merely citing my mother’s cat’s actual name), I would wind up quite quickly in the principal’s office, and I deserved it, I suppose, as I relished being different than the other children.

But what about objects? For unknown reasons, my son named the car I bought him when he was graduated from high school, “Marty.” As it turned out I had a good friend named Marty, but that was mere coincidence. In any case, I inherited Marty the car because I am a writer and writers don’t make a lot of money, so they inherit their children’s hand-me-downs, rather than the other way round as happens in normal middle-class families. And I drove Marty (the car) until he died. Elaine named her last car Matilda. I named one of our dogs Hilda Pennington-Mellor Munthe, after Axel Munthe’s second but by far best wife. I think I would have been in love with Hilda had I lived in her age and come into her orbit, for she cared about the poor and was graceful at all times, it seems to me at least. Maybe she also loved animals like Axel Munthe, which is one reason I love him, as well.

Drawing of Axel Munthe by Salvatore Federico.

But that doesn’t solve the question about naming objects.  To shed some interesting light on it, however, I offer an item that has been in the news of late. This past week, in fact, two teenage friends, Tyler Smith and Heather Brown, students at Christ’s Church Academy, went swimming at Vilano Beach near St. Augustine, Florida. A riptide or the like pulled them quite a way off shore; according to the account in the news, some two and a half miles. They desperately tried to swim back to shore, but to no avail. Just when they were running out of energy, they prayed to God (where else?) for help.

Meanwhile, a crew of men on a boating adventure had set out some time before from Delray Beach, New Jersey under the guide of Captain Eric Wagner. (For those of you unfamiliar with American geography, that is quite a long distance from Vilano Beach.) Interestingly, Wagner said they had decided to go out to sea despite seeing threatening waves caused by possibly inclement weather conditions.  And, as it happened, Wagner and his men heard the young couple’s by now fading cries for help. It a matter of minutes, Wagner and his men pulled the flagging couple to the safety of what must have seemed an ark of refuge, even if Wagner and his men were not, to my knowledge, transporting any animals. When the young couple learned the name of that vessel, they burst into tears. Why? That craft’s name turned out to be, strangely enough, Amen. Yes, that is its name, and boats are not often christened Amen any more often than pet baboons are Billy.

It’s a strange thing when you find out a name fits. In the case of that vessel, the name is far more fitting than my having named one of our dogs Hilda Pennington-Mellor Munthe or, in the case of my mother, a cat Biggest or her monkey Betsy; yes, Elaine had a monkey and she named it Betsy, thinking it would make a good sister for me. You can read about it on pages 85-98 of the Curious Autobiography. And, by the way, Axel Munthe also enjoyed simian company, if enjoyed is the right word. In fact, he had a baboon named Billy, which lived with him in his apartment in Rome, an abode formerly inhabited by John Keats.  

To all that, all I have to say is a hearty Amen. You never know when your prayer will be answered and you’ll be scooped up by someone when you’re feeling lost at sea, someone you never thought you’d meet, someone who set out into a storm, metaphorical or otherwise, in spite of the danger. Yes, in a way he couldn’t have anticipated, by the grace of God, Captain Wagner, who did just that, was a hero. And Heather and Tyler know that their prayer was truly answered, for which no doubt they will always be thankful. May we all be courageous enough to put out into deep water to rescue another. And, should the situation arise, may just such a wayfaring hero happen upon you, courageous enough to pull you out of life’s sometimes overwhelming tides just when you need it. To which, I hope you’ll join me in pronouncing yet another Amen.

beautiful-sky“Different from what?” someone might legitimately ask about a title of this sort. “You need a ‘than’ or a ‘from’ if you’re going to say different.” You can’t just say different unless you’re talking philosophy, as if you were the famous twentieth-century philosopher Jacques Derrida and you’re talking about la différance—the idea that words can only have meaning in terms of what they are not, in terms of the way they bump into and off other words to create meaning, or really the pursuit of meaning, meaning that is itself continually put off, endlessly differed. And that is la différence (note the change in spelling from la différance). So, if we look closely enough, we can see that even Derrida would admit—not only admit but welcome—a “than” or a “from.”

Yet unlike Derrida or just anyone who might object to this title, I would like to speak about something very different, so different that it defies being compared to anything too directly, however implicit a comparison is when the word different or difference is used. And what is that difference? Well, it happened to me on a street corner this morning, that of North 15th St. and Colcord Avenue. And there I stood at those crossroads, for I was trying to assist someone to find a place to park. Then a lull. Then an elderly woman was trying to cross the street and spoke to me. “What a beautiful day!” she said.

“Yes, it is,” I replied.

“Anjubilee-marketd it’s a great day for the neighborhood. That Jubilee Food Market is going to make all the difference in this neighborhood,” she said. “I remember when there were just drug dealers here, and prostitutes. But Jimmy came in with his mission and cleaned it up, it all up. And now a grocery,” she said. “It is going to be so nice to be able to walk here to buy groceries.”

“And at a reasonable price,” I added, for I knew a bit about the grocery store that community leader and mission director Jimmy Dorrell had put so much effort into establishing, in particular how one of the goals was to provide the neighborhood with an opportunity to buy nutritious foods at a good price. I felt as if I were awkwardly offering an advertisement for the new market. Perhaps I was. And that was enough for the woman, and she began to go on her way.

“You’re a nice man,” she said, glancing over her shoulder. “I don’t even know your name, but I know that you’re blessed.”

“What is your name?” I said, genuinely interested, hoping to garner at least that much before she departed.


“Bertha, may you be blessed, too.”

And then she paused, and drifted back toward me for more conversation. “What about yours?” she said, “What is your name?” The sun beamed down on her, on us both, warming us on that beautiful, if brisk, December morning.

I told her, before adding, “Do you live locally? Will you be able to walk to the store?”

“Oh yes,” she said. “It will be such a blessing. God is good,” she added, “so good! He has provided this store, provided so mercifully for me. When my husband died two years ago, I thought it was all over for me. But he is good! He loves me, and has shed his mercy upon me.”

“And has,” I added. “He surely does love you.”

To which she added, “Amen,” and then more. “He loves you, too.”

To which I added, “Amen.”

“And his mercy never ends,” she said.

“Amen,” I responded again.

amenAnd this kind of liturgical exchange went back and forth several times in a cadence that was something between preaching and conversation, something between one human talking to another, and two people at once talking to God. It was, to be sure, a kind of sidewalk liturgy. Here and there, too, there popped up, in the midst of it, another or two quotations from the psalms, or various citations of the words of Christ from Mathew, Mark, Luke or John.

“Now that was,” I thought to myself five minutes later, as Bertha walked away, “something quite different.” It was not exactly praying, not exactly a conversation, not exactly singing; it was remarkably different. It was two people from vastly different backgrounds who might otherwise never have had occasion to speak, talking to each other (and to God) about the blessing and provision of God that they had differently—but not so differently—experienced in their own lives. Both of us had suffered losses, both knew pain, but, as Bertha pointed out just before she left, “We know Him; we know Him.”

And this was the close of the liturgy, a fitting one, I thought, a bold claim, one that defies logic. Perhaps it could even frighten someone, or, after having read what is above, even cause someone to say, “Those folks who blew up the twin towers were very religious, and look where it got them. Look what a terrible toll religious fervor wreaked that day upon humanity. My advice is to take your sidewalk liturgy and. . . .” Well, you can fill in the rest.

To that honest objection, I can only say this: on that street corner I was not experiencing any religious fervor, nor was I laying claim to any perception or misperception of divine revelation. Rather, I was only sharing a moment, a unique wrinkle in time in which an apparent gap was mystically bridged between an elderly African American woman who had grown up and lived much of her life in less than generous circumstances and a white dude (me), who, though he hailed from a background of less than prosperous Welsh coalminers, had himself never known poverty. Yet bathed in the warming sunlight of a December morning, we indulged in a sidewalk liturgy, the shared experience of a generous and prodigal God. That brief encounter, that unlikely experience washed away all external differences and blessed us both there on the corner of 15th and Colcord.

“King David wrote,” Bertha added, “His mercy endureth forever. Mercy never ends, love never ends.”

“Amen,” I said as I thought to myself, “And that makes all the difference.”