Two years ago, on July 24, I received an unexpected “Happy feast day!” greeting. It was unexpected, because I was not aware of any special feast day that my family and I celebrate.
The greeter was Spanish, which should have given me a clue. The Spaniards take name saint days more seriously than we do; in fact, I have read that in some Spanish-speaking countries, people celebrate their name days instead of their birthdays (although when I was living in Spain, most people celebrated their birthdays.)
A search through Google confirmed that July 24 is the feast of St. Christina – or rather, of two St. Christina’s. One is a third-century martyr. Another is a medieval mystic, often called “St. Christina the Astonishing” because she was taken for insane because of her mystical experiences and her extreme penances. A search through a name dictionary reveals that “Christina” means “Christian”.
A friend of mine once told me that one’s name is a clue to one’s vocation. I believe that contrary to what the nominalist philosophy holds, names are not empty. Names express the essence of a person or thing.
Biblical scholars know this. In the Bible, when a person was given a new mission, he was given a name to go with it.
The writers of secular literature also know this. Fiction writers often choose their characters’ names carefully, and in the best fiction works, the characters’ names give a clue to their traits and to their roles in the story. Entire plots have revolved around a character’s need to know a word or a name. Poets carefully choose their words. Try an experiment: take a song or poem you like, choose a word from it, try replacing it with another word of the same meaning, and see how it changes the over-all effect of the poem.
The importance—indeed, the power—of names and words has consequences beyond literature appreciation.
For one, it highlights the care with which parents should choose their children’s names. A child must not be given a name simply because it is trendy or unusual-sounding.
It also highlights the importance of being aware of our name-saints and of having devotion to them. I do not know if this idea has been theologically tested, but I am convinced that when we are drawn to a particular saint, it is that saint himself or herself who is reaching out to us. It has been said, for example, that the desire to walk the Camino de Santiago is in itself a call from St. James (whose feast day is also this month). Perhaps being named after a saint is another way of that saint’s (or saints’) way of reaching out to a person.
Reflecting on our names and on whom we have been named after is a clue to our identities, to our missions. It is the first step to discover who we are, and to be whom we were meant to be.