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JP Grace: Here's a primer for origins of sacred speech

Jan. 07, 2013 @ 10:55 PM

"Allelujah!" "Amen!" "Pray, church, Bible, God, worship...." What do these components of our "sacred language" have in common? For many believers, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim, they are words we use constantly, but often have scant idea of their etymological roots, and hence their deeper meanings.

What better way, it occurred to me, to kick off this new year of 2013 than to dig up some of these roots and plumb the meanings of what we say in our prayers.

"Allelujah" (sometimes spelled "Alleluiah") comes from the Hebrew "allelu," or the verb meaning "to praise," and "Jah," as an abbreviation of Yahweh. So it literally means "Praise God."

"Amen" also comes from the Hebrew and means "So be it" or "May it come to pass as you have said." or "We agree."

"Pray" is related to the French "prier," a verb meaning "to beseech," or even "to beg."

The English word "church" derives from the German "kirche," which in turn comes from the Greek "kyriakos" -- "belonging to the Lord" (or sometimes "the Lord's house").

Our word "Bible" derives from the name of a village located in what today is the nation of Lebanon -- "Biblos." On a trip through the Middle East when I was a university student, a guide took us to a collection of ruined temples and other buildings, just piles of stones really, and said, "This is Biblos, the town that gave its name to the Bible."

"God," is probably derived from the German "Gott," but also, conceivably, is a short form of the Old English "goode." One way for the human mind to begin to grasp the incomprehensible, the always existing and eternally enduring Creator of the Universe, is to think of Him as "the supreme good," "the good beyond all imaginings."

"Worship" -- and this I learned quite recently -- is related to the adjective "worthy." To worship God, then, is to recognize His incomparable worth, or value. Without God's creative love, none of us would exist.

As an interesting "add-on" here, let me also mention the possible origin of the term "higher power," as used in the Alcoholics Anonymous 12-step program, where it is taken to mean "the God of our own understanding."

The term as used in AA, however, apparently was coined by an early 20th-century Italian psychotherapist named Roberto Assagioli, a Florentine. Assagioli envisioned our spirit as a cone, with a "higher power" at the top, a sort of "middle ground" in the middle, and a "lower realm" at the base.

He theorized that each of us experiences a tug of war between inclinations that lift us to the "higher power," or "upper consciousness," the part of our spirit that is drawn to God and Godly ideas and actions, and the "lower unconscious," the realm which is mired in shame, fear and anger and prone to fulfilling carnal, or selfish, desires. Still in all we live a substantial part of our life in "the middle ground," where thoughts and actions are more humdrum and have no significant moral meaning, putting on clothes, brushing our teeth, walking the dog.

A human life is successful, in Assagioli's view, to the extent that the individual can direct as much of his thoughts and actions as possible toward "the higher power," including many of the humdrum activities of "the middle ground," and resist as much as possible having life decisions come from "the lower unconscious."

John Patrick Grace formerly covered the Vatican for The Associated Press as a Rome-based foreign correspondent. He also served as religion editor for The Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record. He is currently a book editor and publisher based in Huntington.



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