Magazine article U.S. Catholic

What's in a Name? When We Accept the Name "Christian," We Enter into an Unending Covenant-To Love One Another and Be Loved in Return. (Testaments)

Magazine article U.S. Catholic

What's in a Name? When We Accept the Name "Christian," We Enter into an Unending Covenant-To Love One Another and Be Loved in Return. (Testaments)

Article excerpt

I RODE MY BIKE to the top of the hill and looked down at the town spread out below me. I was 12 and facing the most serious decision of my young life. This hill was the place where I did all of my important thinking. Seeing the whole town in front of me gave me a sense of perspective and, at the same time, a strange degree of detachment.

There was my parents' house, a mere dash visible mostly because we lived on the last street before the railroad tracks. More prominent was the avenue where the four church steeples rose in a row. Between the tracks and the avenue lay the rest of the town, sleepy and silent from my elevated position far above the valley. Between my house and the churches was also the matter that absorbed me on this particular day. I was hoping that, today, at this spot, I would be able to do some high-level discernment.

I was about to be confirmed, and I had to choose a name under which

I would be known as a soldier of Christ.

Taking on a new name was significant and exciting. My original name had been chosen by my parents as a special tribute to my mother's sister. I had been baptized with that name and known by it all my life. I liked my given name. But this was different; this was a chance to choose my own name, a name that would call out of me who and what I was to become. Sister had told us in school to think of someone who was a hero for us, someone we wanted to grow up to imitate.

I had wanted to take the name Victoria. It was the name of a heroine in a soap opera I watched regularly on TV. She was beautiful and she was virtuous and therefore persecuted by the dangerous man who loved her to obsession. To my young way of seeing things, that made her practically a saint. It also made her very much like some of the real-life women I knew in my small town. To be a woman in those days carried with it the stereotype of virtue and victimhood. In my limited experience, I thought of that as a noble destiny.

Fortunately for me, at school Sister discouraged my choice. "Victoria is not a saint's name," she informed me. Oh. So back to the drawing board. After giving it another long session of discernment, I rode my bike back down the hill. At school tomorrow I would propose the name Laura. And Sister would accept: "A derivative of Saint Lawrence the martyr!"

Only I secretly carried into my encounter with the bishop the knowledge that my choice had nothing to do with Saint Lawrence. I had recently seen Doctor Zhivago and was full of wondrous admiration for Omar Sharif's mistress. Julie Christie, pray for us!

LOOKING BACK DECADES LATER, I WISH I MIGHT HAVE HAD A little more guidance. In our culture, too often the process of naming is co-opted by tradition (Henry Swarinski IV) or fashion (Heather! Jennifer! Brittany!) Although I would be rich today if I had a nickel for every Catholic I knew named Mary or Joe over the years, one can't deny that they are eminently more suitable as patron saints than Yuri Zhivago's lover.

In most ancient cultures, the business of naming was both a matter of considerable gravity as well as a fluid process. A name wasn't simply a decorative "handle" or a way for your friends to get your attention; it told something significant about you. One named a child with expectations of who the child might be. One also moved through life with the understanding that those expectations could change, and a new name might become more fitting.

Adam, for example, is a pun on the word for earth, because he was formed from the clay of the ground. Eve derives from the word for life and therefore is "the mother of all the living," as Genesis tells us. Isaac means "laughter," reminding us that his elderly mother Sarah laughed when she heard she was to conceive in her old age.

When Rachel, Jacob's beloved but long-suffering wife, gave birth to her second child on her deathbed, she named him Ben-oni, or "son of sorrow. …

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