What’s in a name?

What’s in a Name?

On the occasion of the feast of John the Baptist, patron of St. John’s University, Vincentian Fr, Patrick Griffin, CM, reflects on the importance of naming our experiences of God. A Vincentian View: What’s in a Name?

After recounting the backstory of why,  unexpectedly, he was to be named John, a name so outside what others thought he should be named, he continued…

The choice of the name “John” for the child is not haphazard. With this name, both Elizabeth and Zechariah give expression to their experience of God in this new event. The name “John” means “The Lord is merciful.” Despite being without children for most of their married lives and into old age, they experience the blessing of God in the birth of their child and they want to acknowledge this gracious and caring action on their behalf. Every time that they call their son they will be reminded and they will reaffirm the truth of this experience. “The Lord is merciful!”

As we consider this story, we might be encouraged to give names to our experience of God as well. How can we give voice to our relationship to God in these days and in the time to come? Giving a name to that experience opens us up to receive the blessings which the Lord chooses to send into our midst. And it keeps us aware of this gift. A Vincentian View: What’s in a Name?

Taking up the challenge

His reflection sent me off in a number of different but still related directions.

The most obvious direction was his specific question about naming my experience of God. It brought me back to a familiar question. Who do I pray to? God as Father? God as Son? God as Holy Spirit?   I must admit that at various times in my life I have been more conscious of one than the others. Of course, there are many other names for God such as Creator, Redeemer, or Sanctifier, etc. Why does one attract me more than another?

His reflection also got me remembering! I recall Fr. Jim Reese, who was a beloved scripture scholar and Chair of the Department of Theology at his untimely death.  One of the ways he occasionally prayed was to open the dictionary and pick a random word. He would then reflect on how that word revealed something about the attributes of God. Words like ‘door,’ filled with possibilities; ‘tree’ with deep roots,  etc. became a springboard to prayer. Obviously, I have never forgotten about this practice of his. From time to time I have used it very fruitfully.

I went in yet another direction when I thought of the people whose names were changed in the scriptures. Abraham, Peter, and Paul come to mind immediately. They were among many others whose name change said something about who they were to become.

I also thought of the meaning of names we were given by our parents. What was in their minds when they gave us our name? DId they simply just honor someone in the family or did they consult lists such as those found online today? In my own case, I was named after a grandfather, but in later years came to appreciate the challenge to be an expression of God’s mercy. How nicely that fits with the surname, ‘Freund,’ which means “friend” in German. I am indeed challenged by my own name!

Each of these approaches has opened me to an awareness of the mystery of God.


What has been your experience of God?

  • Do you have a favorite name for God?
  • Has your name for God changed over the years?
  • Are you aware of any special meaning of your given name?
  • How would you name your experiences of God?

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