What’s in a name?

Detail from the door at the Passion Facade of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.
What’s in a name? part 1. Recording of this post to make life a little easier for my dyslexic friends. Reads up to T S Eliot reading his poem, play this and then the reading of the next part and the song at the end. Enjoy, and please forgive any reading inconsistencies.

Recently, when a friend told me the name of a baby girl that he had learned from her parents, I responded with:

What a beautiful name!

He agreed and had been moved by it. I am fussy about my own name and by what I am called. I use both of my first names, and it does not contain a hyphen. It is not so unusual where I am from, but where I am living now everyone consistently tries to shorten it. It started when I went to university and my mum gave me some very good advice at the age of eighteen: she told me that if I wanted to be called by both names, I had to insist on it, otherwise I would end up always being called by only my first name, as had happened to her. So, I insist upon it.

As a teacher, whenever I meet a new class and I’m doing the register for the first time, I ask the students if they want to be called by their formal name , or do they have a shorter version of it they prefer: Joe instead of Joseph, for example. Quite a few of them tell me they do not really mind, and it always surprises me. I think it matters. Others do insist that I pronounce their names properly – quite rightly, and good on them.

So, what is in a name? Why is it so important? I read fantasy books during the holidays – these are my “trashy” novels that I like to relax with, escapism if you like. There are a couple of premises that run in the fantasy genre. The first is that the real name of someone or something is more than what it is called, it is what it is. It is the difference between a simile and a metaphor: not he is like a lion, but he is a lion. The sword in Christopher Paolini’s book Brisingr is not so much called fire, as it is fire.

The word brisingr is an ancient Old Norse word meaning “fire”, which Paolini found while reading through a dictionary of word origins.

https://en.m.wikipedia.org › wiki › Brisingr

In this genre, to know the true name of something or someone, gives you power over it or them. Eragon spends time learning the language of the elves, from which the true names in the natural world originate, so that he can improve his magic: In “The Gentleman Bastards” series, Locke Lamora never gives his true name to anyone, lest the Magicians learn it and use it against him, as they do with his friend Sam. In The Name of the Wind, the prologue of which is one of the most beautiful, poignant and haunting pieces of prose I have ever read in my life, Kvothe is able to call and control the wind at will, simply because he knows its name.

And this concept does not just belong to the fantasy genre. In Jesus A Pilgrimage, in relation to the healing of the demoniac, James Martin raises the point that it was a belief in the time of Jesus. He says:

In the ancient Near East, names held great significance and power.

Jesus A Pilgrimage. James Martin S.J.

When people are renamed in scripture; Abram as Abraham, Simon as Peter, it signifies a divinely ordered change of identity, a new life and mission.

Moreover, knowing a person’s name was believed to give someone power over that person…Thus, when Jesus asks the demon’s name, he poses a direct threat. “What is your name?” means “Let me have power over you.”

Jesus A Pilgrimage. James Martin S.J.

And the demon answers Jesus:

My name is Legion; for we are many.

Jesus A Pilgrimage. James Martin S.J.

The name is what it is, more than what it is called, it is the essence of being.

When we ask ourselves the big question:

Who am I?

what we are really asking is:

What is my name?

and even more than that, it is:

What is my name, the one that He gives me?

Who am I to Him?

To know who we are in God, to see ourselves as He sees us and to live accordingly is to make an election, it is to discover our personal vocation, the deepest desire of our soul, the state in life that draws us more deeply into Him. It is not what we do, it is who we are. It is to be free. And it takes God time and prayer: contemplation of God and of how God looks at me; of how God sees me.

I asked Him once:

Who am I to you?

and He gave me an answer. During my formation as a spiritual director “Discovering your Personal Vocation” by Herbert Alphonso S.J. was required reading. He closed the book with the poem:

The Naming Of Cats by T. S. Eliot
The Naming of Cats is a difficult matter,
It isn’t just one of your holiday games;
You may think at first I’m as mad as a hatter
When I tell you, a cat must have THREE DIFFERENT NAMES.
First of all, there’s the name that the family use daily,
Such as Peter, Augustus, Alonzo or James,
Such as Victor or Jonathan, George or Bill Bailey–
All of them sensible everyday names.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
Some for the gentlemen, some for the dames:
Such as Plato, Admetus, Electra, Demeter–
But all of them sensible everyday names.
But I tell you, a cat needs a name that’s particular,
A name that’s peculiar, and more dignified,
Else how can he keep up his tail perpendicular,
Or spread out his whiskers, or cherish his pride?
Of names of this kind, I can give you a quorum,
Such as Munkustrap, Quaxo, or Coricopat,
Such as Bombalurina, or else Jellylorum-
Names that never belong to more than one cat.
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover–
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular Name.

T. S. Eliot‘s poetry book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.
What’s in a name? part 2

And it dawned on me that there is another Name, an adjective, and I’ve heard myself called it all my life, but dismissed even the thought of it as arrogance on my part. It is how He sees me, who I am to Him, and it is a name that is deeply affirming and leaves me in no doubt about being loved. So here, I invite you, if you have not already done so, to ask Him in prayer:

Who am I to you?

And I leave you with my response to hearing Him call my Name.