Names are powerful. I had a professor in college who I have gotten to know well since I graduated, and I still cannot call her by her first name. Conversely, I have graduate professors who insist I call them by their first names. Then there’s my local parish priest back home whom I call “father” because nothing else fits. Maybe our names don’t belong to just us. There’s people who still call me by old nicknames that transport me back to the past, to another world. Lately, I have been reflecting on and praying with names, and in all these reflections, I am reminded of T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Naming of Cats.”
But above and beyond there’s still one name left over,
And that is the name that you never will guess;
The name that no human research can discover—
But THE CAT HIMSELF KNOWS, and will never confess.
When you notice a cat in profound meditation,
The reason, I tell you, is always the same:
His mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
Of the thought, of the thought, of the thought of his name:
His ineffable effable
Deep and inscrutable singular name.
These name reflections began after watching Francesco, a documentary about the life and work of Pope Francis. The documentary gives a moving and frank (forgive the pun) account of Francis’s life along with his vision for the future. After the movie kept coming up in my prayers, I boldly told my brother Jesuits that I was going to take Francis as a vow name.
“But Andrew, you already took vows,” many said. It’s true, I had already taken my vows months earlier. Oftentimes, at that moment when men enter more fully into the Society of Jesus, they take a vow name. A vow name is kind of like a confirmation name, a devotion, a connection to a particular saint. Oftentimes, these vow names are taken from a Jesuit saint such as Ignatius or Peter Canisius, or Miguel Pro. The taking of a vow name is devotional and reflects a connection to the person we are asking to be our guardian and patron. However, when I was preparing for my own vows no saint stood out in a special way. As I had prayed back then, I felt no strong desire to take a vow name.
Perhaps I was being defensive. I have lived with St. Andrew my whole life and felt a connection to the Apostle. There’s a pride when I tell people, “Ya know, St. Andrew was the first-called of the Apostles?” Then there’s my middle name. Steven. When I think of St. Stephen, I am always reminded of his courageous example of martyrdom, standing for his faith. He’s also the first martyr, so I get two firsts. The thing about names is we all have them, and we all have a relationship to them. Some of us may feel that our names perfectly define us or give us an aspiration to become the kind of person we want to be. Others among us may feel boxed in by our name. We may have a unique name from a different culture which makes us stick out in uncomfortable ways. For myself, both St. Andrew and St. Stephen have been that source of aspiration but also that challenge to be better.
So what happened to me with this Francis thing? On February 5th, our Jesuit community renewed our vows in the University chapel here in Chicago. When the time came to say our name, I included this new vow name: Andrew Steven Francis Milewki. I’m not sure if it’s permissible, canonical, or means anything to anyone but me and God, but I did it. Of course, I might also be greedy, because with Francis I don’t get one saint but a collection of them:
- First, there’s Francis of Asisi, who is aspirational for his social ministry and service to the church. It might also be because I’m a vegetarian and love animals.
- Second, there’s Francis Xavier whom I feel strongly connected to through my own interest in and travel to Asia. We just finished the Novena of Grace, a Catholic devotion addressed to Saint Francis Xavier, running from March 4 to March 12, so I have been praying to St. Francis Xavier quite regularly as of late.
- Third, there’s Frances Cabrini, the strong woman of the church who built schools and hospitals. My home church is on Saint Francis Cabrini Avenue in Scranton, PA, across from one of those old school buildings which she helped build.
- Fourth, there’s Francis Borja, the Jesuit saint, who despite coming from a wealthy and prestigious family, gave up public life and joined the new and little-known Society of Jesus after the death of his wife. He is a reminder not to cling to the past and to be open to what God is asking of me.
When I thought of these holy people and the friendship with God they must have shared, I felt consoled. I felt that I too wanted to emulate the types of lives they led. However, there was also my own father, Frank, who shares that name with my grandfather and my older brother. What’s funny is that my dad actually went by that name very rarely, opting for a nickname. Maybe that’s because the nickname felt more personable. Maybe it put people at ease. He passed away shortly before I took vows, and the name also gave me a connection to him too. It’s a reminder to pray for him and to ask for his prayers. In that way the name is a sacramental, an icon, a vessel of grace that transforms the pain of his loss into something else. Something unnamable.
I continue to pray with this name, Francis, and with the concept of names in general. For our names will always be with us, following us around like a shadow, like a companion who will never leave us. In this way, they are also reflections of God, Himself.
Please share your own name story in the comments. Our names are our stories, and I would love to hear your own name-story and how it affects your prayer life.