Essay / Misc.

The Faithful Live by “Just”

Why do so many people use the word “just” when they are praying aloud? Have you noticed how ubiquitous this word is in extemporaneous prayer? “Lord, we just want to just thank you for just blessing us.” What does the word “just” add to such a prayer?

When you consider that the word “just” is a minimizing word, meaning “merely” or “nothing more than,” it makes no sense for it to be the seasoning word sprinkled throughout our prayers. “Lord, we merely want to simply thank you for doing no more than blessing us.” Why do we minimize every other word in a prayer? It’s just a flesh wound! It’s just praying! I just sinned and just need forgiveness, that’s all! It’s no big deal, all I’m doing is bringing my life before the face of God.

So goes the gripe, and the stand-up comics of devotion have an easy target to shoot at when mocking the habits of the simple believer at prayer. I admit to having such thoughts myself while trying to pray along with a brother or sister whose words wander too far into the “Lord just Lord just Lord just Lord” range. Of course I blame myself for having such a hyperactive inner critic that when I ought to be saying “amen” to the prayer of a friend, instead I’m saying “bad sentence, man.” But beyond legitimate self-reproach, are there any steps to take that might actually make me better disposed toward such a widespread speech pattern?

Recently I found some help in the novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson’s 2005 Pulitzer-winner. A few pages in, the novel’s narrator (an old preacher) pauses after telling a story, to reflect on the way he’s been using language:

In writing this, I notice the care it costs me not to use certain words more than I ought to. 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 that word “just” that proper language won’t acknowledge. It’s a little like the German ge-. I regret that I must deprive myself of it. It takes half the point out of telling the story.

Robinson’s old narrator is right, and I’m embarrassed to admit that before reading this passage it had not occurred to me how “just” is used as an intensifier. It isolates and emphasizes the word that comes after it, with a kind of preliminary down-beat to exalt the following word as “a thing existing in excess of itself” in a “purity or lavishness.” The word can’t work that way in print, but whenever somebody is speaking aloud freely, they may reach out for a figure of speech to raise their words to the level of their thoughts and feelings… well, that’ just fine. JUST fine.

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