Thursday, January 19, 2017

It's Just a Name, Right?

By Brother Thomas

Throughout my childhood, in the back of my parents’ cedar-lined closet and resting on the floor, was a shoebox. Inside were photos that, for a variety of reasons, had yet to make it into the sleeves of an album and to be labeled accordingly. And among this loose stack of images was a single Polaroid of a dark-haired man standing among a small crowd, all in their mid-twenties. It is from this man that I was given my name at birth, and we have only a single photo of him; there aren’t more because soon after this gathering, he was struck by a car while driving home from a parish event.

I didn’t find this photo, or become aware of it, until late in my childhood. Until then, I would often wonder how my name, John Wesley, came about. Walking past our town’s Methodist church each Sunday, I often fantasized that perhaps I carried the namesake of that Anglican cleric and Reformer. Or maybe, having a father who taught English Literature and being a product of the Gothic South, I embodied Flannery O’Conner’s protagonists in Wise Blood and A Good Man Is Hard to Find; having this hope, I admit, did fuel a love for the literary genre. But then I found the shoebox, the single photograph, and by squinting intently, I made out the face of the man who carried the name before me. It was also at this moment I was informed that I was given Wesley in honor of a distant cousin not much older than myself; and so, learning of these two men I knew, and continue to know, so little of, my delusions of grandeur began to fade.

Names are important. For much of my twenties, my last name was hyphenated, and depending on which side of the family you spoke to, my possession of this surname would bring about great pride or resentment. The hyphen has since been dropped, and I’ve been able to carry the memories from this time; a few that are quite painful, but many more filled with immense joy. That is what names do for us; they connect us to something much larger than ourselves. They come as a package deal with moments of happiness, stories of struggle often ending in triumph, but also carry with them incredible pain, often tinged with guilt and bits of shame. As much as we may desire to sort through the baggage of what they carry, dispensing with what may be a bit too difficult to handle, keeping only what seems to serve our need, ultimately this is not possible. The possession of a name entails the acknowledgement of what that name brings to us, and of what was carried by those who share that name.

My name tells the story of a man struck by a drunk driver, which is ironic considering the events my own life would take. My name tells the story of divorce, many divorces, and how loving someone, coming from the Divine spark to be with someone, is ultimately learned through the sharing of experience. My name tells the story of alcoholism, of many alcoholics, and how my recovery is rooted in an awareness of my own powerlessness and acknowledgement to God, to myself, and to another human being the exact nature of my wrongs. My name is also the story of Dutch bakers who, on the eve of the American Revolution, found their way from the New Amsterdam environs, present-day Brooklyn, to Madison County, Alabama; only to flee the then-segregated South generations later and raise my mother under the sun of Miami. It is here, at a small Bible College, that she’ll meet and soon marry a recent veteran of the Vietnam War; and over the next several years, they’ll start a family, all the while building with their own hands the home in which they’ll raise those children. It is this name, and this family, that will realize that faith extends far beyond the walls of any church building, and over the years of gathering together each morning in prayer, and learning, to varying degrees of success, the daily process of living out that faith.

There is a tradition in monasticism, found in a variety of religious practices alongside Christianity, where the seeker will take on a new name within the community. In Christian practice, it is the name of a patron saint, of someone who came before you in the faith, who struggled in a particular way and whose life is an example that sanctity is present, that the process of holiness is readily available. That is a foundational practice here at New Skete. In other religious traditions, like Theravada Buddhism, this name is given to the disciple by his/her teacher and not only reflects the lineage of their teaching, but also is born out of a relationship between the two generations. This speaks to what lies at the core of our name, our identity, how we define ourselves. We do so out of knowledge of our past, that story our name brings to us out of the history of experience, but it is through an engagement, a relationship, with this name that we are able to speak to where we will go from here. 

This past September, in following this tradition and the process of becoming a novice-monk, I took on yet another name, Thomas, along with the moniker brother. Not long after hearing this name, people ask the why, of all the names that could have been. The simple answer is that many Thomases have shaped my route to this small community in upstate New York. It is the name of my grandfather, who made sure his son learned the faith that has done much to hold our family together. It is the name of a monk, two monks. One who continues to remind me that “the desire to please [God] does in fact please [Him]. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this [He] will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.”[1] It is also the name of another Thomas of New Skete, a brother who helped form this community and begin our work with dogs, in which I have an unexpected honor of being a part; although his death and my birth are separated by eleven years. It is the name of a disciple of our Lord who willingly let his humanity poke through in doubt, carried the gospel into India, and died in that land still quite foreign to him. And so the why is simple; seen in the light of these men, the other names seemed to fall away. What is ironic is that with three of these four Thomases, I have no personal relationship. But if we believe that one of the aspects of holiness, given to us through the Resurrection, is that death cannot separate us from one another, then these men are in full knowledge of the one who now shares their name, and many of their struggles. 

For those familiar with the recovery work of any “-aholism” and the Twelve Steps, it is the Ninth which remembers that we make “direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”[2] This work involves the seeking out of another person, and honestly acknowledging the often-damaging effect we had in a situation. This is a truly freeing process as we become more aware of how far the ripples of our actions have reached, and the ache that is felt comes with the knowledge that with some, for whatever reason, a direct reconciliation is not possible. This act of making amends is constant because each time we pause, often in prayer and often in silence, we become aware of who we are; our name reveals itself to us. This name allows me to nod to what is now present, despite any past feelings of disappointment, anger, and shame, and to smile at the incredible growth that may not have been possible without such experiences. My name reminds me of what I am capable, things I may not feel good about, but it allows me the space to make amends, to atone relationally for those transgressions, so that I may once again rest in the knowledge of those actions without being bound to them. Remembering my name is taking responsibility for the unrestrained grace which is given, living with the knowledge that our actions have consequences and responding differently while truly not knowing what is to happen next; but as in the process of resurrection, what we hope to be revealed comes when we have the eyes to see.

Remembering our name is about reconciliation with our past, and by living in this present moment of acknowledgement and grace, we are trusting in the outcome. We are not searching it out or forcing a correction; we are trusting that it will arrive. As this happens, we live in full view of our mistakes, and it is sometimes a pretty lonely place to be. In this process, we may lose some people we truly care about, but to not do so, we lose ourselves. So, despite our religious beliefs, let this be our practice; to not go away, to stay with ourselves and with our name, given to us by our Creator and spoken by others, knowing all that we are even if we don’t know where it may lead.

[1] Merton, Thomas. Thoughts on Solitude.

[2] Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions. New York: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 1981. 83.