In this throw-away culture, what has staying power? What can truly last without growing stale, wearing out, or being rendered obsolete? One thing seems pretty permanent in our lives: our names. They arrive before we do (usually concluded upon by parents before we’re born), and they remain on earth after us (carved onto gravestones). They don’t come off like a necktie at quitting time, and they can’t be scraped like skin against the pavement. They’re more stable than that because, in a sense, our names go deeper than clothes or even our skin.
If names gives us a sense of stability, they’re also meaningful because they help us know ourselves, as well as others, in a way no other words can. For a guy developing a crush on the young woman across from him in a college lecture hall, his first hope is to somehow find out her name. Learning that fact begins to ground his affection in reality. She becomes more real. Similarly, I’ll grant Juliet’s argument to Romeo: a rose by any other name would indeed smell as sweet. However, if you had no idea what that flower is called, whatever the name may be, your ability to enjoy it and communicate that enjoyment to others would be diminished. “Here, dear. A dozen… flowers I don’t know the name of, just for you.” Nice try.
Names can come to possess an ineffable power over us, as well as a dignity that corresponds to our inherent human dignity. There are many Judys in the world, but only one Judy is my mom. So Judy means something unique to me, even though it’s common enough. That name is also shorthand for a lifetime of particular memories, associations, and sentiments for me, ones that will never be the same as any other person’s for the Judy in his or her life. W.H. Auden gets at this idea when he asserts, “Proper names are poetry in the raw. Like all poetry they are untranslatable.”
Names may not be translatable, but they can be transformed. Not by us, but by God’s prompting. We do not refer to Abram as our father in faith. Simon is not the rock upon which Christ built the Church. Like Abraham and St. Peter, we who encounter the Lord do not return the same person we were before. We are made new, and for some, so are our names.
But the process is more personal, more involved than submitting a change-of-name petition to a judge. In my case, before entering the Dominican Order I was very attached to my baptismal name. When my mom was pregnant with me, my parents had decided on Timothy for a boy’s name. And then I just so happened to be born on the feast of St. Timothy, which the Church celebrates today (in lieu of gifts, by the way, send prayers please!). This coincidence strengthened my devotion to St. Timothy and always left me with the sense that God had something special in mind for me in my “Timothy-ness.” And so even though I wanted to take a religious name upon entering the Dominican novitiate (indeed, the revered Dominican, Blessed Jordan of Saxony, chose me as much as I chose him. Another story for another post), it was a little bittersweet to hear the prior declare at the vestition ceremony:
In the world you were known as Timothy. In the Order you will be called Brother Jordan.
Then I reflected more on the verbs in this statement. Indeed, in the world I had been known, and I liked being known. Nevertheless, now I had been called. Furthermore, I realized my “Jordanicity” was actually the fulfillment—not the diminishment—of my “Timothy-ness.” The Church asks for and acknowledges our name at our Baptism. The sacrament seals us with an indelible spiritual mark; once baptised, always baptised (CCC 1272). So, in that way, once Timothy, always Timothy. But Baptism only initiates us into the life of the Church. We have a specific vocation that springs from Baptism: to matrimony, the priesthood, consecrated religious life, or consecrated single life. Therefore, I could not become Br. Jordan (a vowed religious) without first being Timothy (a baptised Catholic). And I could not be fully Timothy without becoming Br. Jordan.
Such a process begins in the saving name of Jesus. His coming in the flesh is “the definitive translation of the meaning of God… and he does this without losing anything of the fullness of the Original,” writes Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis (who also happens to go by a new name now as a Trappist monk, Fr. Simeon). Jesus translates God in a way we can understand because God becomes human in Him, like us in all things but sin. Because Jesus is fully divine, however, He can perform a translation more perfect than Auden or anyone else could imagine possible.
Jesus not only translates the Father’s inexhaustible love with the words of His teachings, but also, through the Crucifixion, transcribes that love onto His Body for all to read. It is inked with His Blood, upon the parchment of His Body, the nails and a lance doing the writing. In this case, Divine Love by any other name would not—could not—appear so profound. Because this Word spells out our redemption, and enables us to be named the Father’s adopted sons and daughters, sharers in His Son’s glory.
Image: Gustav Klimt, Roses Under the Tree