As each of our children turned 1 year old, we planted a tree for him or her on our farm. Our twins Clare and Eva got their own willows, planted at the edge of the pond, and for Eli we planted a pin oak on the south side of our house. Six and three years later, respectively, the trees are still alive and thriving. Our children identify closely with their trees, and just recently they finally gave them names: Wheazy-Treezy Willow, Breezy-Freezy Willow and my personal favorite, Oakey-dokey.
These trees now belong to the fraternity of familiar, named trees, animals and places on our farm, such as the “secret field,” the “hugging trees,” “blackberry hollow,” “the old cherry tree” and a rooster I have been forbidden to butcher, since the kids took a shine to him and named him Fluffy the Roostery Chicken (a fate that may be worse than death).
Such naming may seem cute or quaint, but I have begun to see it as essential to the way my family and I live in our place. For that matter, names are part and parcel of being human. In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam the task of naming the other creatures. Jacob and other patriarchs gave particular names to places of struggle and revelation. The risen Christ changed one grieving woman’s entire perspective simply by saying her name, “Mary.” Abram, Simon and Saul took new names to mark profound turning points in their journey of faith, as do my Benedictine colleagues at Saint Meinrad Archabbey when they make their monastic vows. Newly combined parishes often rename their community to reflect the new reality of their merger.
Names are important because they are connected to the deep human longing to belong, truly and authentically. At our core, most of us hunger to feel that we are a meaningful part of a greater whole, that we matter, that the 13.7-billion-year-old universe is not utterly indifferent to our existence. But we often feel anonymous and alienated, isolated from others and insulated from the natural world. This is true, I’m afraid, even in our churches, if the droves of spiritual pilgrims who come for study or retreat at Saint Meinrad are any indicator.
True belonging is not a nostalgic, parochial fantasy that globalization and the Internet have made obsolete. I have caught glimpses of it among the monks and students at Saint Meinrad, among those with whom I minister in my small rural parish and with family and friends and neighbors. But communion is not easy—certainly not in the modern developed world, with all its distractions and digitally enhanced narcissism, and I suspect in no time or place.
Names make belonging possible because they cut through the abstraction that leads to alienation. Names always embody particular knowledge that comes from being in relationship and from paying serious attention to the named. A priest remembers his parishioners’ names not because he has memorized entries in the parish directory but because he knows something of their story and has even become a part of it, baptizing their children or burying their parents. Fluffy the Roostery Chicken has a name because he lives on a small farm where children interact with him instead of being one among thousands of anonymous broilers in an industrial slaughterhouse facility, where my kids (or any visitors) are not allowed to set foot.
Particular names and real relationships do not come without conflict, chaos and heartbreak. And naming can certainly serve darker human impulses toward scorn (“calling someone names”), ego inflation (“making a name” for oneself) and control. But what other way is there than through names to help bring about healing, to move beyond sound bites and shouting matches into authentic belonging?
Affection, tenderness, compassion and care rarely happen in the nameless, faceless abstract; this is the truth of the Incarnation. Christian tradition speaks not of a prime-mover deity far removed from our daily existence but of a living, loving, communal God—a mysterious God beyond all names, who nonetheless chose to take a name, Jesus, and so enter into an intimate relationship with the created order and all of its creatures and places. And this God, whose name we have been given to know, also knows ours: “I have called you by name: you are mine.”