In a reflection that first appeared on FamVin, Fr. Pat Griffin of the Eastern Province of the Congregation of the Mission, reflects on the importance of our names. He takes it a bit further in asking a question about our respect for the names of those we serve.
Recently, I participated in a day of reflection. The speaker spoke about the meaning and expressions of love. She told about a class of children who were asked to describe how they knew that they were loved. One of the children said that she could tell that she was loved by the way that the other said her name. If I remember nothing else from the day, I will remember that story. I know its truth. I feel the way in which it pulls me deeper into myself even as it demands that I look outwards towards others.
There were seven children in my family—five boys and two girls. Growing up, those not familiar with my family would frequently confuse our names. I could be Michael, Johnny, Timmy or Danny as well as Patrick—thankfully, I was rarely Eileen or Kathleen. I confess to some annoyance when someone got my name wrong. I liked it when people remembered me as me. I recall how my name was spoken in many different tones and in various circumstances, but I remember best of all the way in which someone who truly knew me uttered it with love. This other wanted my attention and urged me to draw closer.
Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” has a number of memorable lines. One that stays with me flows from the lips of Juliet as she describes her love, Romeo. Though they are from warring families, Juliet proclaims: “What’s in a name. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” Though I understand the meaning of the statement in context, I also want to argue with it. A name is a precious and personal possession. It describes the other as a unique being and invites a reflection on all that makes the other an individual.
In the Old Testament, God reveals the Holy Name YHWH to the people Israel. This title describes and calls upon the Almighty. Out of reverence, the Jewish people did not say this name aloud. In the New Testament, the community comes to recognize the name of Jesus as sacred. Remember Paul’s Phillipian Hymn:
Because of this, God greatly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name
that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11)
Clearly a name is important as we address our God as well as our brothers and sisters. When we speak the name of another, we can express our love, respect and reverence for that child of God or we can have a host of less worthy intent. That realization draws me to be more attentive to the way in which I use people’s names—how I address them and how I speak about them. I would like people to know my love for them by the care with which I use their name.
When I bring these thoughts into our Vincentian world, one idea stands out: we need to know the poor by name. The marginalized among us cannot simply be the featureless other, but a human being whom God created in the divine image and likeness. Our Maker has associated the divine self with them in a particular way. When I name the poor, I reflect that awareness and love.