What’s in a name?

While driving to work the other day, I turned on the radio and caught the Jim Croce song “I’ve Got a Name.” I smiled at the words, “I’ve got a name / And I carry it with me like my daddy did / But I’m living the dream that he kept hid.” They reminded me of the short story “Seeing Around the Corner” from the book “Kitchen Table Wisdom” written by Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen. In this story, she shared the experience when her mother explained to her that she was named after a woman characterized by the Hebrew word “Chesed” (meaning “loving kindness”). Remen’s story had touched me so deeply that it got me to explore for whom I had been named. As it did for Remen, the search helped me better understand who I am and who I wish to be as a person. So, that morning I joyfully joined Croce in singing about living my dream. 

My search began with my family’s repetition of what I had been told as a child, “You are named Helen for someone who died before you were born.” However, this time I pestered my dad for information on my great-grandmother Helen. As I stood respectfully by her gravestone, I wondered what she would think of her namesake. My middle name Jean is from my grandmother on the other side of the family. In retrospect, it is a good thing my mom paid respect to each side of the family in the naming of her first child as my siblings are male! 

As I reflected upon what all this meant to me now, I suddenly remembered my mom’s answer to me when, as a child, I griped about it being unfair not to be able to meet the person for whom I was named. My mother told me, “Your name is Helen Jean. You are unique. It is really up to you to define what that name means.” Until recently, I never appreciated this explanation for the wisdom that it is. 

In “Seeing Around the Corner,” Remen explains how she received a similar insight from her mother. Remen’s mom was ill and hospitalized. She was having a vision of her own mother. Remen listened carefully as her mother proceeded to introduce Naomi to Naomi’s grandmother Rachel. This grandmother Rachel was the woman described by the word “Chesed.” Remen’s mom told Naomi what her grandmother had said. Before she died, Remen’s mother said, “I am glad you both are here. One of you will take me home.”

Remen reflected deeply on this. All her adult life, she had gone by her middle name Naomi. Dr. Naomi Remen had been one of those few women who survived medical school, and she had also been one of the few women doctors at her hospital. Remen recognized sadly that her life had not been characterized by loving kindness. However, the more she thought about it, a person of loving kindness was who she truly wished to be. 

At age 50, Remen committed to living this life of loving kindness by asking to be known as Rachel. In the name change to reflect her mission for God, Remen reminds me of St. Paul. The Greco-Roman translation Paul for the Semitic name Saul (Acts 13:9) is reflective of Saul’s commitment to his mission of preaching to the Gentiles. 

Perhaps a full name change seems too dramatic for us lay people. If so, we can accomplish something similar by tweaking or even changing the definition of our name. This weekend, we will be reminded of the Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13:9). Let us each consider one special way we currently and would like to affirm more strongly that Commandment. Next, let’s each write a “Name Poem” (directions found at http://www.canteach.ca/elementary/poetry4.html). Don’t worry, there are no rhymes to make or syllables to count. In completing the poem, we are called to briefly answer (one sentence) who is significant to us, what they taught us, and who we want to be. You understand? We each get to redefine what our name means according to who we choose and wish to be in the service we desire to do for our Lord. 

The Book of Revelation speaks about the victors receiving a new name: “I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it” (Rev 2:17). Perhaps with prayerfully writing and living that “Name Poem,” we are already receiving the name we will find engraved upon that white stone. 

Returning to Croce’s words, they are more significant in light of the ministry of encouragement we have for each other. Croce sings, “I’ve got a dream / I know I could share it if you want me to / If you’re going my way I’ll go with you.” After all, aren’t we all hoping to be heading home to be with our Lord? 

Anchor columnist Helen Flavin is a Catholic scientist, educator and writer born and raised in Fall River. She is a member of St. Bernadette’s Parish and received her Ph.D. in neurochemistry from Boston College and teaches in the Chemistry Department at Rhode Island College. She can be reached at biochemwz@hotmail.com.

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