Philip Kosloski graduated from the University of Saint Thomas in Minnesota with a Bachelor’s in Philosophy and Catholic Studies and completed his Master of Arts degree in Theology with the Augustine Institute. He is a writer and author of In the Footsteps of a Saint: John Paul II’s Visit to Wisconsin. He blogs at philipkosloski.com and writes to help all Catholics master the art of prayer by conquering the practical obstacles that prevent a fruitful relationship with Christ.
What’s in a name? Do names really have power? Does it matter what I name my child? These are questions very few people ask in a culture of informality and where there is a quest to have the most unique (and popular) name possible. In the process, names have lost much of their beauty and power.
This is unfortunate, because the ability to name sits at the very fabric of our existence. In fact, our duty to name is a command that was given to us at the very beginning of Creation.
What are we to do? How can we recover a reverence towards names?
Before we can arrive at a solution, let us look at a few examples of how names have power and how there are good names and bad names.
Catholic author J.R.R. Tolkien loved words, especially names. In his world of Middle-Earth he could not resist giving multiple names to many if not most of his characters. Even more so, it was the names that preceded the great races of his mythology and from their names grew their history. Tolkien states that, "As usually with me they grew rather out of their name, than the other way about" (Letters, no. 157, p. 208).
In a certain sense this was also true with Our Lord. His name was prophesied by Isaiah, "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman′u-el" (Isaiah 7:14). The name "Immanuel" means "God is with us" and reveals to us the beautiful reality that God would dwell amongst us, taking on human flesh. The name of "Jesus" also has great meaning, for it comes from the Hebrew "Yehoshua" meaning "God Saves" and refers to Jesus' mission to save all humanity.
To dig deeper, Jesus is often referred to as the “Word” of God and is featured in the first chapter of the Gospel of John:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:1-5)
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
Jesus is the definitive and last “Word” spoken by God and all of Divine Revelation is summed up in Him.
Even Saint Paul recognized the power and significance of Jesus’ name:
“[A]t the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
As we can see, names have great meaning and serve a particular purpose. Names are not superficial and are meant to reveal a hidden truth. Peter Kreeft, in The Philosophy of Tolkien, quotes from Martin Heidegger on this topic:
“For words and language are not wrappings in which things are packed for the commerce of those who write and speak. It is in words and language that things first come into being and are. For this reason the misuse of language, in idle talk, in slogans and phrases, destroys our authentic relation to things.”
Kreeft reminds us that there are right words and wrong words; good names and bad names. We can misuse language and in so doing, we lose a certain connection to the world.
Along with the deep meaning behind names and the ability to misuse names, they can also have great power. As an example, the power of names is most obvious in spiritual warfare. Fr. Dwight Longenecker has a powerful story of a priest who invoked Jesus’ name often when confronting evil:
“Father Roger was just over five foot tall. A very spiritual priest, he was much involved in the healing ministry, exorcism and visiting prisons and mental hospitals. He told me that one day he was walking down the corridor of a mental hospital when around the corner came a huge man–well over six foot tall and three hundred pounds. He was bellowing out blasphemies and was rushing straight for Roger brandishing a kitchen knife.
Roger stopped and said, ‘In the name of Jesus, drop the knife!’
The man halted. Dropped the knife and turned and walked away as meek as a lamb.”
Even on a natural level we can recognize the power of names, for it is a special thing when someone calls us by our name. If we hear someone say our name it stops us in our tracks and we feel a desire to respond. Unfortunately we have wandered away from addressing other people by their name and instead use "Hey there!" much too often. I personally fall into this trap much to frequently and am resolved to correct it. Calling people by their names is not only polite; it is something at the core of our being.
Similarly, I always think it a tragedy when parents take the naming of their child lightly and choose names that are without meaning. We grow up with our names and often they define who we are and so it should be with great care that we name our children.
In the end, names are very important and hold great meaning as well as great power. Let us remember that God cares about the language we use and the names we give. It is not simply a human ability, but a God-given responsibility.