Still the Name Above All Names
Most of our culture’s cuss words probably sound like peevish but meaningless grunts and barks to God’s ears. But what of his very name?
“You shall not take the name of the Lord, your God, in vain,” we are commanded in Exodus 20:7. “For the Lord will not leave unpunished him who takes his name in vain.”
Meanwhile, it has become common to hear the Lord’s name tossed around like just another swear word in public places, on TV and in the movies. Indeed, the Second Commandment may be the least respected and most frequently violated of the Ten.
It has not always been so. Even though Scripture does not specifically prohibit pronouncing the name of God, the Jews of antiquity avoided uttering it to the point that the true pronunciation of the Hebrew word (YHVH) is not known with any certainty. Even today, devout Jews will not write the word “God” or “Lord” on a piece of paper, for fear of the paper being torn or discarded. Such is the respect accorded to the holy name.
Franciscan Father Jonathan Foster, founder of Mayslake Ministries in Westmont, Ill., notes that the reason for this is partly cultural. To the ancient mind, a name contained the essence, the very nature, of the thing or person. For this reason, ancient people chose names carefully and spoke the name of God only in the context of prayer or instruction. The Catechism states: “The name is the icon of the person” (No. 2158).
“A name today does not carry that kind of significance for us,” says Father Foster. “But it still has that kind of meaning for God. To bandy his name around for trivial reasons is offensive to him.”
The increase in offenses against God’s name has at least one major historic precedent. In 1274, Pope Gregory X asked the Dominican order to preach specifically about the holy name of Jesus in response to a prevalent heresy of the time, Albigensianism, which asserted that Jesus was merely human, thereby insulting his nature and name. By 1564, Pope Pius IV conferred his papal blessing and approval on a confraternity called the Society of the Holy Name. It is still in existence throughout the world, fostering increased devotion to the name of God. And the feast of the Holy Name is Jan. 3.
Perhaps we should not be surprised to hear God’s name used so irreverently out in the wider world. After all, we can hardly expect people who profess no religion to observe the tenets of our faith or to speak God’s name only with respect.
But the sad fact is that, today, even Christians make slipshod use of the holy name.
What’s in a Name?
Father Foster believes that, most of the time, the misuse of God’s name is matter for confession because it offends God, who can always hear us.
By comparison, garden-variety vulgarity, while not an attractive habit, “would be matter for confession only to the extent that it offends or gives bad example to another person present.” (In other words, a person who habitually uses coarse language is going to have a hard time evangelizing, catechizing and witnessing to the faith with any kind of authority or credibility — and may well give scandal by his evident hypocrisy.)
By its nature, the taking of the Lord’s name is in a different category altogether. The Catechism points out: “Respect for God’s name is an expression of the respect owed to the mystery of God himself and to the whole sacred reality it evokes” (No. 2144).
Greg Walton, a theology teacher at Father Ryan High School in Nashville, Tenn., says that sins against the Second Commandment are more than using God’s name wrongly. “It’s failing to respect and revere anything God made for good,” he notes, “and instead misusing it needlessly.”
This means anything holy, and this includes our sexual faculty. “Anything good that God made is a foretaste of heaven,” says Walton. “The life-giving union of man and woman is a parallel to our relationship with God as our true spouse. When we treat such a thing wrongly, or speak of it coarsely, we offend God.”
In his book The Fire of God (Crossroad, 1986), popular Catholic singer-songwriter John Michael Talbot wrote: “Many Christians are forgetting their genuine call to holiness. This is especially true in the area of speech. … The more we talk, the more we think, and the more we think, the more we talk. Soon our words are no different than the words of the world.”
The key to solving this problem is to break the think-talk cycle that leads to habitual misuse of language.
Father Foster recommends the practice of a slight bow or nod at every audible mention of the name of Jesus, especially during Mass or the recitation of the rosary.
When making the sign of the cross, don’t say, “Father, Son, Holy Spirit” and wave your hand in the manner of someone brushing away flies, he says. Make the gesture carefully and reverently, clearly pronouncing each word of the formula: “In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”
Other ways to increase reverence for God’s name: Consider joining or starting a Holy Name Society chapter at your parish. The National Association of the Holy Name Society has a website at holynamesociety.info to help you get started.
The website of the Dominican Friars of St. Louis Bertrand is also useful. Located at stlb.org/holyname.htm, it encourages members to “avoid disrespect to the name of God, of Jesus, and of what is sacred, and [to] abstain from all improper language, such as blasphemy, perjury, cursing, profanity and indecency.”
Finally, increase your devotion to the holy name by saying, “Blessed be God; blessed be his holy name” or “Blessed be the name of Jesus” in reparation every time you hear or accidentally utter an offense against the Second Commandment.
If it is prudent, say it out loud with the same volume as the offense. Otherwise simply say it quietly. This habit alone will sensitize you to the rampant misuse of God’s name. You may start to wince as, wherever you go, you hear the name of someone you love being dropped as if to the dirt. Keep at it, and you will find yourself slipping up less and less — and often the people around you will start to modify their speech.
And, always remember the words of the psalmist: “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”
Clare Siobhan writes from Winfield, Illinois.