During this Lenten season I have been reading a book by Romano Guardini first published in 1911. The book is called Sacred Signs. With his Italian-sounding name (he was born in Italy in 1885) he was German priest, author and academic, having moved to Germany with his family when he was one. He lived in Germany his whole life until his death in 1968.
The last article in the book that deals with things like “The Sign of the Cross,” “Holy Water,” “Incense,” “The Altar,” and “The Chalice,” is entitled “The Name of God.” I want to share it here with you for your Lenten consideration. Remember it was first published in 1911. It is relevant to the present!
Human perception has been dulled. We have lost our awareness of some deep and subtle things. Among them the zest for words. Words have for us now only a surface existence. They have lost their power to shock and startle. They have been reduced to a fleeting image, to a thin tinkle of sound.
Actually a word is the subtle body of a spirit. Two things meet and find expression in a word: the substance of the object that makes the impact, and that portion of our spirit that responds to that particular object. At least these two ought to go into the making of words, and did when the first man made them.
In one of the early chapters of the Bible we are told that “God brought the animals to Adam to see what he would call them…” Man, who has an ability to see an a mind open to impressions, looked through the outward form into the inner essence and spoke the name. The name was the response made by the human soul to the soul of the creature. Something in man, that particular part of himself that corresponded to the nature of that particular creature, stirred in answer, since man is the epitome and point of union of creation. These two things (or rather this double thing), the nature of things outside and man’s interior correspondence with them, being brought into lively contact, found utterance in the name.
In a name a particle of the universe is locked with a particle of human consciousness. So when the man spoke the name, the image of the actual object appeared in his mind together with the sound he had made in response to it. The name was the secret sign which opened to him the world without and the world within himself.
Words are names. Speech is the noble art of giving things the names that fit them. The thing as it is in its nature and the soul as it is in its nature were divinely intended to sound in unison.
But this inward connection between man and the rest of creation was interrupted. Man sinned, and the bond was torn apart. Things became alien, even hostile to him. His eyes lost the clearness of their vision. He looked at nature with greed, with the desire to master her and with the shifty glance of the guilty. Things shut their real natures from him. He asserted himself so successfully that his own nature eluded him. When he lost his child-like vision, his soul fell away from him, and with it his wisdom and his strength.
With the loss of the true name was broken that vital union between the two parts of creation, the human and the non-human, which in God’s intention were to be indissolubly joined in the bonds of peace. Only some fragmentary image, some obscure, confused echo, still reaches us; and if on occasion we do hear a word that is really a name, we stop short and try but cannot quite catch its import, and are left puzzled and troubled with the painful sensation that paradise is lost.
But in our day even the sense that paradise is lost is lost. We are too superficial to be distressed by the loss of meaning, though we are more and more glib about the surface sense. We pass words from mouth to mouth as we do money from hand to hand and with no more attention to what they were meant to convey than to the inscription on the coins. The value-mark is all we notice. They signify something, but reveal nothing. So far from promoting the intercourse between man and nature they clatter out of us like coins from a cash register and with much the same consciousness as the machine has of their value.
Once in a great while we are shocked into attention. A word, perhaps in a book, may strike us with all its original force. The black and white signs grow luminous. We hear the voice of the thing named. There is the same astonished impact, the same intellectual insight, as in the primitive encounter. We are carried out of ourselves into the far depths of time when God summoned man to his first work of word-marking. But too soon we are back where we were and the cash register goes clicking on.
It may have been the name of God that we thus met face to face. Remembering how words came to be, it is plain enough to us why the faithful under the Old Law never uttered the word, and substituted for it the word Lord. What made the Jews the peculiar and elect nation is that they with more immediacy than any other people perceived the reality and the nearness of God, and had a stronger sense of his greatness, his transcendence and his fecundity. His name had been revealed to them by Moses. He that is, that is my name. He that is being in itself, needing nothing, self-subsistent, the essence of being and of power.
To the Jews the name of God was the image of his being. God’s nature shone in his name. They trembled before it as they had trembled before the Lord himself in Sinai. God speaks of his name as of himself. When he says of the Temple, “My name shall be there,” he means by his name, himself. In the mysterious book of the Apocalypse he promises that those that come through tribulation shall be as pillars in the temple of God, and that he will write his name upon them; that is, that he will sanctify them and give them himself.
This is the sense in which we are to understand the commandment, “Thou shalt not take the Name of the Lord thy God in vain.” This is how we are to understand the word in the prayer our Savior taught us, “Hallowed by thy name,” and in the precept to begin whatever we undertake in God’s name.
God’s name is full of hidden power. It shadows forth the nature of infinitude, and the nature of him who is measureless plenitude and limitless sublimity.
In that name is present also what is deepest in man. There is a correspondence between God and man’s inmost being, for to God man inseparably belongs. Created by God, for God, man is restless until he is wholly one with God. Our personalities have no other meaning or purpose than union with God in mutual love. Whatever of nobility man possesses, his soul’s soul, is contained in the word ‘God.’ He is my God, my source, my goal, the beginning and the end of my being, him I worship, him I long for, him to whom with sorrow I confess my sins.
Strictly, all that exists is the name of God. Let us therefore beseech him not to let us take it in vain, but to hallow it. Let us ask him to make his name our light in glory. Let us not bandy it about meaninglessly. It is beyond price, thrice holy.
Let us honor God’s name as we honor God himself. In reverencing God’s name we reverence also the holiness of our own souls.