What’s in a Name?

What’s a name? A symbol of who and what we are. The good and the bad within each of us. And more. When I was born, my parents named me Sandra Lee. But when I was 17 and converting to Roman Catholicism, I chose Maria and dropped the Lee. (My dad even went along with posting the name change in the local paper.) Then when I was confirmed as a Catholic, I took the saint’s name of Rita. So I became Sandra Maria Rita – plus, over time – a different last name or two through marriage. But that’s another story.

When I became an Episcopal priest, parishioners wanted to know what to call me. They doubted I could be Fr. Levy (!), but what do you call a female priest? For high church Episcopalians, that puzzle was solved by simply referring to me as “Mother.” Or I guess if they wanted to be formal – since I had a Ph.D. – they could address me as Dr. Levy. I didn’t care – Sandi was just as good … or even “hey you!” as a joke.

Well anyway, what’s in a name, huh? Actually I think our names probably carry our sense of self in a profound way. In reading Martin Copenhaver’s book, The Gospel in Miniature – which I’ve referred to a number of times in this blog – I came across his little essay, “Addressed by Name.” (See second photo below.) But before I return to him and end this blog by sharing his main thought on the subject, let me take a detour onto the theater stage and discuss a play that immediately came to mind as I read Copenhaver’s piece.

In my 2008 book, Imagination and the Journey of Faith (see third photo below), in a section I call “Meeting God in the Story Told,” I discuss at some length Arthur Miller’s classic tragedy, The Crucible. (See lead photo.) I saw this play produced here in Richmond, Virginia, shortly before I wrote that book, and it had a profound effect on me at the time … and since. Written during the McCarthy political era, Miller wrote the work as a social commentary on the culture at that time.

If you haven’t seen the play, the basic issue is the struggle for self-determination and the freedom to be different in a culture that demands conformity – as organized cultures always do to some extent, whether you are living today in North Korea or China or even our own country and neighborhood. Miller’s story is set in 17th-century Salem, Massachusetts. And in that town a few impressionable teenage girls are infected by a kind of mass hysteria, claiming to having fallen under the devil’s spell. One by one the girls denounce each other, and soon the whole town and many of its leading citizens get pulled into a web of accusations.

The protagonist in the play is a religious nonconformist named John Proctor. Having been denounced as devil-possessed, Proctor is thrown into prison along with his pregnant wife and many others. Condemned to die, he confronts the truth of his tragic life – his weaknesses, his past sins, his flawed humanity. Struggling with his desire to live and save himself by lying – confessing to devil possession and repenting of this sin, but also implicating and condemning others in the process – he finally relents, telling the magistrate, “I will have my life.” I write:

But he sees his embrace of that lie as evil, and he cries out to heaven, “God in Heaven, what is John Proctor? What is John Proctor?” As that moment he sees that he is no saint, that he cannot be a saint, that even if he remains silent and does not tell the lie, it will make no difference – he still cannot be a saint. Whether he tells it or not, it is all the same. He is no saint. He embraces evil at the moment in his desperation to live.

However, Proctor does refuse to sign and have posted on the church door his written “confession.” In the most affecting lines of this play, when pressed as to why he will not let his name be displayed, he cries out, “Because it is my name! Because I cannot have another in my life! Because I lie and sign myself to lies! Because I am not worth the dust on the feet of them that hang! How may I live without my name? I have given you my soul; leave me my name!” (p. 93)
In my book, I go on to suggest that in realizing he will now hang, Proctor glimpses some truth about himself, maybe “sensing the meaning beneath his refusal to sign his name – that name being a symbol of his core integrity.” So he now says to the presiding cleric, “You have made your magic now, for now I do think I see some shred of goodness in John Proctor. Not enough to weave a banner with, but white enough to keep it from such dogs.” So in the style of great tragedy, Proctor goes to his death having learned a core truth about himself, some goodness in resisting evil, some personal salvation beyond the struggle.

Getting back to Copenhaver’s reflection on the importance of one’s name, he notes that scripture says God calls each of us by name; that our God is a personal God rather than an impersonal force; a personal God who engages us and calls each one of us into relationship with Him. He writes:

It is almost axiomatic that nothing is as musical to the ear as the sound of one’s own name. That is not from sheer vanity. Rather, we long to be addressed, for words to find us where we live. Each of us wants to be recognized as an individual. We yearn to be known, and known by name. The use of one’s name symbolizes such ties between people and can actually help create them. … That’s why, when God calls me by name, I am quite sure God uses the name I feel most addressed by. … That is, when God calls me by name, God doesn’t say, “Rev. Copenhaver” or “Marty.” rather, God calls me Martin, because that’s not just my name – it is who I am. (p. 199)
In other words, like John Proctor, God calls us by name: frail, sinful creatures that we are. As St. Paul says, “By the grace of God, I am what I am.” Because it is my name, a symbol of who and what I am. Confronting our full humanity, the good and the bad within each of us – really looking and sensing what our name symbolizes – perhaps like Proctor, yearning for goodness, there is a kind of intuition of the Sacred calling out to each one of us on our journey.