Brother John Baptist, Brother Innocent, Brother Athanasius. What would possess a human being to take on these names so unfamiliar to our tongues? John Baptist we hear about in the gospels, okay, that’s easy enough. Innocent could stem from a child martyr in the early church under the Roman empire or might refer to one of the popes...so I’ll let that one slide too. Besides, it’s in the dictionary. But Athanasius? Really?
I’ll tell you right now these Brothers did not come into the world only to have their parents exclaim “He shall be named Athanasius after his father!” I’m willing to bet many have never heard of the name, let alone how to pronounce it. And the parents would have been far too considerate of the nurses taking down the child’s name to give them such a hard one to write. They also would have diligently tried to spare their newborn taunting or confusion later on in middle school.
I don’t say this to detract from Brother Athanasius’ name or to make fun, but to highlight a ritual and practice much of the world doesn’t understand. My own first true encounter with name changes happened at Our Lady of the Rock. Let’s review the Benedictine squad who I was with: Mother Felicitas, Mother Dilecta, Mother Hildegard, Mother Mary Grace, Mother Therese, Mother Ruth, Mother Catarina. The first three stick out as the most uncommon. Even my spell check is having a hard time. I had never even heard of the name Dilecta or met anyone in my lifetime actually named Hildegard. The Dominican brothers were no different.
“Sorry, one more time?” I asked as we all went around a circle last Wednesday night, introducing ourselves at the Dominican House of Studies.
“What did he say?” I whispered to Brother John Baptist—I had his name down.
Got it…kind of.
|Dominican House of Studies|
The act of receiving a new name when taking orders signifies the death of the old self and the rebirth of the new self as committed to Christ. All of those who participate in baptism experience this to some degree. Taking religious orders takes things up a notch…or several…by fully committing yourself to God in mind, body and spirit through your religious vocation. Seeking God, whether it be through studies, through pastoral care, through working with the poor, through social justice, through contemplation or through acts of service, becomes the purpose of life. Other vows add to this, most commonly: poverty, chastity and obedience. If this sounds unappealing or foreign, it should. Religious life is a life that’s part of the world, yes, but not necessarily “of” it. Upon taking vows, you are committing to this new lifestyle. A new name signifies this new identity in Christ. That’s Catholics also get Confirmation names, for example. Not all religious orders, however, give their members new names.
I think the practice is beautiful.
All the names mean something. They are not drawn out of a hat like in Harry Potter or assigned randomly. They are given after long consideration, mutual discussion with the novice and time spent getting to know them. Hildegard, for example, means “battle stronghold.” St. Hildegard was a strong woman. She was highly respected among intellectuals in the Middle Ages for her academic works. I think of Mother Hildegard barking out orders at the monastery, casually having a Ph. D in Child Psychology, and running things with guests, and don’t even have to use my imagination to know how she got her name.
I don’t know why the Brothers I met that night had been given their own names, what they mean for them or what drew them to certain ones and not others. But one of these days I’ll have to ask. I thought about of all of this as I followed the Brothers into the next room. But as our small group walked into the dimly lit, ornate chapel after discussing a book by Blessed John Paul II that night, the names no longer really mattered. An ancient looking structure lay before me, with the wooden pews you see in the movies of kings and queens. Old school.
|Dominican House of Studies Chapel|
I had never sat in pews like that, with arms rests separating each seat to designate it. I had also never seen what now occurred before my still-adjusting eyes. White cloaked brothers seemed to be flying in from all around me, quickly filling up the empty chairs. Young and old alike. Relative silence. Simple white starkly contrasting the rich wood behind them.The chants began after the 50+ settled in.
Never had a straight, rigid, wooden chair felt so much like home.