Names are Important

I planned on sharing Madeleine L’Engle’s Glimpse of Grace “Named, Not Numbered” on March 4th, the day I read it, but was unable to find the time. It turns out that it’s just as well since, at that point, I had not yet read something that ties in nicely.

Last week, Jack got a gift from his cousin: The Chronicles of Prydain boxed set by Lloyd Alexander. Since I wasn’t sure about the story, I thought I’d have a go at it first. I finished book one, The Book of Three, and planned on starting the second book, but Jack is already well into that one, so I’ll wait until he’s finished. (With the way he likes to share all he’s reading, however, I may know the whole story before I ever turn to page one.) The Book of Three is a good story, with many echoes of The Lord of the Rings. What’s especially interesting, though, is one line near the end of the book that happens to be about naming: “Once you have courage to look upon evil, seeing it for what it is and naming it by its true name, it is powerless against you, and you can destroy it.”

It seems that everything comes back to the words of Mother Mary Francis:

… since evil is the lie. It can never have any expression of itself except some form of untruthfulness. …

The first lie that the world tells us is that it is a lasting city. …

Once we subscribe, even in small measure, to this deception, all things assume a disproportion. If the world is our lasting city, ipso facto and instanter, our values are changed. The world keeps insisting, “I am what endures. Pitch your tent here. Put your roots down in me.” Once we lose our healthy sense of the world as a lovely stopping-off place, but passing, fading and ephemeral, once we lose the sense that we are pilgrims in via ad Patrem … and clasp it to ourselves as a lasting city, all things are distorted. From this first lie of the world, that we have here a lasting city, we ask Jesus to defend us.

If evil is the lie, how do we defeat it? By calling it out, using its real name. We refuse to call the killing of babies “a woman’s choice,” we stop calling surrender “peace,” and we recognize who is really being hateful.

Here is the selection from Glimpses of Grace for March 4. It comes from L’Engle’s book, And It Was Good.

I do not know my social security number. I have no intention of ever knowing my social security number. I can look it up if absolutely necessary. But if we don’t watch out, society may limit us to numbers. I wonder if I could pray if I lost my name? I am not at all sure that I could.

If we are numbered, not named, we are less than human. One of the most terrible things done to slaves throughout the centuries, from Babylon to Rome to the United States, was to take away their names. Isn’t one of the worst things we can do to any prisoner to take away his name or her name and call them by numbers? If you take away someone’s name, you can treat that person as a thing with a clear conscience. You can horsewhip a thing far more easily than a person with a name, a name known to you. No wonder the people who were put in Nazi concentration camps had numbers branded on their arms. When Adam named the animals he made them real. My dog is named Timothy and my cat is named Titus. Farmers do not let their children name the animals who are going to be slaughtered or put in the pot. It is not easy to eat a ham you have known as Wilbur or a chicken called Flossy.

When we respond to our names, or call someone else by name, it is already the beginning of a community expressing the image of God. To call someone by name is an act of prayer. We may abuse our names, and our prayer, but without names we are not human. And Adam and Eve, no matter what they were, were human.

A passage from L’Engle’s Walking in Water: Reflections on Faith and Art also seems to fit in nicely here, even though it is not specifically about naming. Rather, it is about the power of words:

But I am a story-teller and that involves language, for me the English language, that wonderfully rich, complex, and oftimes confusing tongue. When language is limited, I am thereby diminished, too.

In time of war language always dwindles, vocabulary is lost; and we live in a century of war. When I took my elder daughter’s tenth grade vocabulary words up to the school from which she had graduated, less than a decade after she had left, the present tenth grade students knew almost none of them. It was far easier for my daughter to read Shakespeare in high school than it was for students coming along just a few years after her.

This dimunition is world-wide. In Japan, after the Second World War, so many written characters were lost, that it is difficult, if not impossible, for the present day college students to read the works of the great classical masters. In Russia, even if Solzhenytzin were allowed to be read freely, it would not be easy for the average student to read his novels, for again, after revolution and war, vocabulary fell away. In one of Solzhenytzin’s books his hero spends hours at night reading the great Russian dictionary which came out in the late nineteenth century, and Solzhenytzin himself draws on this work, and in his writing he is redeeming language, using the words of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, using the words of the people of the street, bringing language back to life as he writes. …

We think because we have words, not the other way around. The more words we have, the better able we are to think conceptually.

Walking on Water was originally published in 1980. I wonder what L’Engle would think of our vocabulary now.

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