Tuesday, 12 October 2010


"In the world you were known as......In the Order you will be known as...."
Peter and I heard these solemn words sixty years ago. There we lay prostrate on the highly polished floor, with outstretched -cruciform arms -between the choir stalls of our novitiate priory. We'd just been clothed in the Dominican habit, (cf.Peter's previous posting). We'd just become Dominicans! Now we waited apprehensively, wondering what new name the Order would give us to mark this radical development in our Christian vocation. We realised that with a new name we would assume a new, Dominican, identity.

What would that be? In a spirit of apparent democracy we were told to select three names -the only condition being that none of them had already been taken by a living member of the English Province. Quite a problem, with large numbers joining the novitiate in the 50s -twenty in our year. So we scoured lists of saints to discover decent names which hadn't yet been appropriated. Our choice was important, since we expected to be stuck with our new names for the rest of our lives. There weren't many left that appealed to us.
But there was a catch to our being given a new name. Even if we did manage to find at least one reasonable name that didn't mean we would be given it. Just the opposite! In fact our choice guaranteed we wouldn't get the name we wanted. God only knows why we were put through the pantomime of having to select names which our superiors would certainly reject. Perhaps this was meant to teach us obedience, as we embarked on Dominican life? To raise our hopes and then dash them? To make us realise that while obedience involves consultation our superiors always have the last word?

Peter and I presented a special challenge for those selecting names for us twenty novices. They decided it would be smart for us twins to be given the names of two brother saints. That drastically limited the options. As we lay spread-eagled in our newly acquired Dominican habits we waited apprehensively for the prior to say, "In the world you were known as...In the Order you will be known as....

Up till now...."Peter"....from now on.... "Leander." Whaaaat! Who on earth was he? Sadly not the tragic romantic Greek character who drowned while swimming the Hellespont to be with his lover, Hero. This is certainly not the ideal role model for a Dominican novice! Instead Peter's Leander turned out to be the saintly, but less colourful, bishop of Seville. As for Isidore, he was Leander's younger brother, who succeeded his elder sibling in the same bishopric -nothing like keeping the episcopacy in the family! Saint Isidore is now proposed as patron of the internet. Since he's also my patron I think I have a special claim on his assistance when my computer misbehaves.

Our new names gave both of us an identity crisis. When someone used them we naturally thought they were referring to someone else. At first we took no notice. It takes time to grow into a new name and accept it as being yours. A newly-wed bride must have the same problem when she takes her husband's surname.

Peter had a special problem with his name -"Leander". Living in the West Indies, it was almost inevitable that people would shout, "Fr. Oleander!" -identifying him with the beautiful, but poisonous, flowering shrub, oleander. But after a few decades the joke became tiresome. It's not always true that the old jokes are the best. So Peter reverted to his Christian name. That was possible because we Dominicans had already dropped the name-giving custom. It caused him too much confusion having dual identity -civil "Peter", aka "Leander" -professional title.

But in the UK there was already a confusing number of brethren with my Christian name, Robert -or to family and friends, "Bob." Reverting to either of these names would have added to the already existing chaos. In my priory at Leicester there were already a Robert and a Bob. And there were more with the same names in other houses of our Province. To have added yet another one would have created further chaos, especially in answering the telephone. So, for better or worse I've decided to stick with 'Isidore.'

Celebrating the 60th anniversary of our receiving the Dominican habit, together with our new names, got me to musing about the importance of names.

These mark our individual identity and distinguish us from other people. If we lose our passports, or in wartime our identity cards, we become suspect non-persons. We're de-humanised when our name is replaced with a number. But we're delighted when someone remembers our name and doesn't refer to everyone as 'You.' One of our brethren, who had a poor memory for names, used to call everyone. "What's-his-face" -not to their faces! Another called every woman "Gladys."

Parents usually give a lot of thought to naming their babies. Sometimes they want to pay tribute to a special friend. Often the same name is handed down from one generation to the next to express family continuity. This is certainly true with surnames, and sometimes with Christian names. That's the case in our family. On Dad's side there are generations of 'Thomases,' and of 'Benjamins' on Mother's side. I haven't yet discovered how"Wolwyn" got onto our family tree.

Sometimes babies are given the names of current pop stars, such as "Elvis" or "Kylie." The names of TV soap stars are also popular. I've heard of a child being called, "Beaver," -after the make of a piece of heavy excavating machinery his Dad drove. He was lucky it wasn't a "Caterpillar!"

Nicknames are fascinating and are usually a sign of friendly familiarity. So, Dad, like many Clarke's of his generation was called, "Nobby." The late opera singer, Joan Sutherland, was called, "La Stupenda," on account of her magnificent voice. And I've heard of someone being called, "Donkey Meat," because that is what she is said to have eaten. Some of the saints were given nicknames. To quote one example, Thomas Aquinas is called the "Angelic Doctor" -on account of the sublimity of his writings. His fellow students were less kind and called him a "Dumb Ox." Then there was the English theologian, Alexander of Hales. He was known as the "Unanswerable One." It must have been difficult living with someone who was always right -never open to contradiction!

After pursuing these fascinating red herrings my muse turned me towards our baptisms. As we're christened in the name of the Blessed Trinity we receive our family identify as the children of God, sharing in His own divine life and happiness. With our baptism our human identity is enriched. When a child of man is born again, from above, he or she becomes a new creation as a child of God.

My grasshopper imagination then leaped off in another direction. Certain people were given a new name to indicate that God had chosen them for a special task. Abrahm's name was changed to Abraham when the Lord made His covenant with him. At Saul's conversion he was given the name, "Paul." So, when we Dominican novices were given new names these denoted that we had been given a new identity and special mission as members of the Order of Preachers. That was a fresh dimension to our Christian vocation.

Sometimes the name denotes the particular task for which God has chosen someone. Simon was given the name, "Peter" -meaning he would be the "Rock" on which Jesus would build His Church. And of course the name, "Jesus" means "Saviour," "Christ" or "Messiah," anointed as priest, prophet and king.

"Emmanuel," meaning "God is with us," reassures us that God will never abandon us. The Emmanuel theme and our names come together as Isaiah comforts us with the words, "Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine...Do not fear, for I am with you," (Is. 43. 1,5). Almighty God has loved us with an everlasting love; He has called each one of us by our personal names. That is our only hope of salvation, which Jesus repeats when He speaks of His knowing each of us, His sheep, by name.

God revealed His presence to Moses in the Burning Bush and instructed him to speak to Pharaoh. When Moses asked in whose name he should speak the enigmatic reply came from this mysterious bush -ablaze, but not consumed by the flames, "I AM, WHO AM" -or in Hebrew, "YAHWEH." He is the One-Who-Is, as distinct from false deities or idols, which are nothings. The Jews hold that name in such reverence that they will not utter it.

What about us Christians? Jesus Himself has encouraged us to address God as, "Father." He has promised that the Father will grant requests made in His Son's name -"Jesus." The sacraments are administered in the name of the Blessed Trinity; we bless and conclude our prayers in its name. Such should be our reverence for the name of our Saviour that the Letter to the Philippians tells us, "Therefore God has highly exalted Him, and gave Him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father," (2. 9-11).

As I kicked around the topic of names I was struck by how precious they are to us. We resent those who treat our names with contempt. That's a sign they despise us personally. If this is true for our names, it is far truer for God's. And yet we are liable to be casual with the divine names, and even use them in swearing. If we think about it, that's an insult to God Himself. It's dreadful that the divine name should more often be used as a curse, rather than as a blessing.

Mywaygodsway of meeting God must including loving and respecting His holy name, and certainly not abusing it.

Isidore O.P.

Next week Fr. Peter will meet God in "Petty Cash."

1 comment:

  1. I, of course, am ultimately privileged in the names I have : names I took at my Reception into Holy Mother Church . . . names I loved, but which I was terrified of my presumption in even considering : I'm just eternally grateful that the Dominicans who were responsible for my Reception seemed to feel that I might be allowed to presume so far.
    That said, I slightly envy fr Peter . . . for the name he doesn't use : but then I suppose it's inevitable that someone who's been into rowing for so many years would have a fondness for that name !