Friday, 15 April 2011

The Name of God

“[W]e have to be clear about what a name actually is,” writes Pope Benedict XVI. “We could put it very simply by saying that the name creates the possibility of address or invocation. It establishes relationship." The most archetypal act of naming is God’s naming of himself. 

In the encounter with Moses at the burning bush, God names himself “I am”. He tells the reluctant prophet, “Say this to the sons of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:15). God’s name is himself. It is so sacred that the Jews only allowed the High Priest to pronounce it once a year in the Holy of Holies. When God says "I" it is the act of Being, the primordial act of language, the principial Word. Thus it is not we who name him, but God who names himself, or rather who gives us sacramental tokens to use as names – tokens of his presence. In particular he names himself "Jesus". The many other names by which human beings try to identify an object for worship, such as “the Just” or “the Merciful”, and even “the Creator”, describe aspects of him only, paths of approach, angles of sight; like colours in a rainbow compared to the white light of the sun.

The Name creates the possibility of invocation, and the invocation of God under a variety of names is one of the fundamental methods of prayer. We associate the "Jesus Prayer" - the constant repetition of the phrase Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on me a sinner - with the Orthodox East, but repetitive invocation is important in the West too (and use of the Jesus Prayer itself is increasingly common among Catholics). Even the Rosary, though a more elaborate formula, is based around the repetition of the divine Name "Jesus" at the heart of each Hail Mary: "...Blessed art thou, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb Jesus...". The other words around these are just a setting, like a monstrance, to lead us to Christ at the centre. Many saints recommend the use of short prayers that can easily be coordinated with breathing in and out.

Prayers may be endlessly repeated not in order to be "mechanical", but to fulfil the teaching of Scripture that we should endeavour to "pray constantly" (Luke 18:1 and 1 Thess. 5:17). The aim is to lead our constantly changing thoughts and feelings into a single conduit. Normally our minds are in a state of distraction, and this often takes the form of an interior monologue, a stream of consciousness like that portrayed in Joyce's novel Ulysses. The repeated prayer, especially if it contains the Holy Name, absorbs and quietens this babbling stream, smoothing the water as it it flows straight to God.
Illustration: Names of God by Athanasius Kircher

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