There’s nothing so disheartening as not knowing what to call something. Nature abhors a vacuum; humanity abhors the unidentified. So we name. In our givenness to comfort, in our intolerance for the mysterious, we grasp for the familiar with every designation, label, and moniker.
Why? What’s in a name, anyhow? Juliet asked this. Torn between the anathema bound up in a name and an all-consuming desire for the name bearer, she pronounces, “that which we call a rose by any other name would smell just as sweet.” Shakespeare’s sapience reminds us—it’s the essence of a thing, not what word we assign it, that matters. Can a name hold all we hope it to? Does a name deliver on the promises we make with ourselves that by knowing what to call something we’re somehow more secure, more enlightened, or better situated among the whims, worries, and ancillaries of woe that so fill our existence?
I can’t help but think on how my younger self would have disagreed with Juliet. Naming was once an important part of life. Seminary trained in systematics with an affinity for learning languages, an educator and lover of appellations and linguistically grounded identities alike, I was primed to name. Academia is a vocation of naming. To label, to delimit, to assign, to enclose the boundaries of curiosity once one can identify a thing. I spent a decade trying to make a profession naming.
Contrary to a star-crossed Juliet, I don’t much need to defend the irrelevance of my beloved’s last name, but like her, I do, now, have less use for naming. There remains power in naming, no mistake about it. To name grief is the genesis of healing. To name a temptation is to begin to tame its allure. To know God has named his Son “Counselor” and “Prince of Peace” is to court those aspects of His nature. The name of the Lord is a strong tower, Solomon tells us, and in it we find refuge.
Still, in this season of life, I keep the company of more that goes unnamed than will accept an appellation. Maybe maturity brings with it that gift of acceptance. Age has brought with it clarity that most of my naming is about a desire for control.
I’m equally as aware that what I’ve named or known by a name doesn’t plunge the depths of the thing itself.
I don’t have to look far to find the truth in Juliet’s words. I named my first son “Justice.” I named him out of a desire to be a man of impartiality and fairness. He’s almost 9 as I write this, and I still hope he’ll live into his namesake’s virtues, but I’m increasingly made witness to the ways the light of his being bursts beyond the boundaries of his name. I know him as “Justice,” but who he is, the whom I love, expands deeper, higher, and wider than any word can hold. I know him by what I named him; I’m in awe of the parts of him I can’t. Those parts, I don’t have language for. To try to offer more than a whisper of what I see in him as he discovers some new revelation in this wild world, and I find the essence of who he is evade me.
Our sacred pages are filled with similar reminders that there are phenomena that cannot be named. The great stories remind us, much to our dismay but always for our good, moments that resist being assigned a name. When the birth of Samson, the judge and strongman of the Old Testament, was promised to a couple burdened by infertility, an angelic visitation announced the occasion. The angel of the Lord reveals to the couple that their coming son would grow to be a man of anointing and power. They’re left in understandable awe. The husband, Manoah, is so stricken by the numinous encounter that he wants to commemorate the moment with sacrifice. “We would like you to stay until we prepare a young goat for you,” he pleads. The angel makes clear, though he might stay, he won’t eat with them, and if offering is to be made, it ought to be to the Lord. Manoah, overcome with thankfulness and desire to hold this moment, wants to name the messenger, asks, “What is your name, so that we may honor you when your word comes true?” To which the angel replies, “Why do you ask my name? It is too wonderful” (Judges 13:18, NIV).
Manoah makes sacrifice, the angel ascends in the fire, and the moment passes with a name. Here, as in life, the insatiable desire to know comes up against a finite capacity to understand. The expectant couple is left in and to wonder. The divine appointment won’t be named, only experienced. Too ephemeral, too spiritual, too incomprehensible, too powerful. If naming facilitates the promise of familiarity, admitting our powerlessness to name restores the pause of wonder.
In a passage I’ve come to adopt as a personal liturgy, Rilke writes in Letters to a Young Poet,
“Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
We are prone to treat names like answers. Resting from exploration, ceasing from the stretching growth of the search, we can grow lazy once we come to the answer, once the mystery is named. Perhaps there are some names which, in time, we’ll come to know, some appellations that might answer our disquieting questions, but in the meantime, life lies within the question.
For now, just out my window, a heron sits stands in running water from yesterday’s rain. The water accepts him in his hunger. Beyond him, a giant tree split by the lightening of a forgotten storm, the peace of cold space between trees whose future is to bloom, and somewhere, the sacred habits of foraging deer before it’s time to bed. I sit with what I see but don’t know. I’m okay, here, in this living ensemble, though I don’t have a name for it.
Featured image is courtesy of Lancia E. Smith and is used with her kind permission for Cultivating.
Corey is a poet, writer, speaker, and educator. He holds Master’s Degrees in Religion, English, and Counseling, and a Ph.D. in Literature. He is the author of C. S. Lewis and the Art of Writing, and the forthcoming The Serve the Work: Stray Thoughts on Christ and Creativity. Corey has written articles and given talks on subjects ranging from C. S. Lewis, the theology of creativity, the neurology of the imagination, and the power of story to heal life’s wounds.
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