Say His Name!

George Harrison

You don’t need a horoscope or a microscope
To see the mess that you’re in
If you open up your heart
You will know what I mean
We’ve been polluted so long
Now here’s a way for you to get clean
By chanting the names of the Lord and you’ll be free
(George Harrison)

A young monk was anxious about the eternal salvation of his father, an old miser whose every thought was about money. The Prior of the monastery sent for the old man and promised to give him a penny every time he should recite the Lord’s name; he had only to present himself every evening and tell them how many pennies were owing to him, and he would be paid on the spot. The old man, thoroughly delighted, now spent all his leisure moments in this occupation, and used to come to the monastery every evening to be paid. All of a sudden, they missed him. After a week, the Prior sent the young man to find out how his father was. It was then discovered that the old man had now become so absorbed in reciting the name of the Lord that he could no longer keep count of the number of times he did so; which was what had prevented him from coming to claim his money. The Prior advised the young monk not to do anything further and simply to wait. Some little while afterwards, the old man arrived at the monastery with shining eyes, and related how he had had an illumination
(Simone Weil)

Jesus, remember me
when you come into your kingdom.
Jesus, remember me
when you come in to your kingdom.
Jesus, remember me
when you come in to your kingdom.

(Taizé )

In 2014 and again in 2020 some activists responded to the shootings of black men by US police officers by repeatedly chanting ‘Say his name!’ The idea was that to be an anonymous victim of what was perceived to be police violence was much worse than to be a named victim of the same. That is, there is something about a name which raises a person out of one category of life and death and puts them into another one. Over roughly the same period a number of journalists and commentators responded to what seemed to be an epidemic of mass shootings in the USA by refusing to name the shooters. They were following the same logic as the Black Lives Matter protestors but applying it in the opposite direction. To deprive a person of their name was to fundamentally alter their status for the worse.

This upsurge of nominalism and the appearance of angry crowds of nominalists in American streets is both a novelty and a rediscovery of an old truth which the rationalists of the 20th century did their utmost best to discredit. Anyone who reads the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures will often come across references like this ‘our refuge is the name of the Lord our God.’ (Psalm 19:8, Knox bible) One of the criticisms levelled against this sort of formula (and by extension against the religions associated with it) is that it represented a kind of irrational type of magical thinking. a name, so the argument went, is just a name but to use it in this fashion is to imply that it has some sort of special power able to transform categories of life and death into their opposites. It seems though that the once all-conquering rationalist thinkers may have been merely a brief interregnum to an understanding of the significance of names which unites Orthodox Rabbi’s with Oregon rioters.

The three quotes at the head of this post refer, respectively, to Krishna, Amitabha Buddha and to the Christ. Between them they represent a tradition that spans millennia of time and thousands of miles of space. The tradition supposes that if you fill your mind and tongue and lips with one thing- particularly if that thing is a name or names- then not only will you exclude all other things but that you will take into yourself some of the potency of the name(s) which you are invoking. Although saying that a name is more than a name may be contrary to certain crude forms of rationalism it is by no means contrary to Reason as such.

A name is a thing that stands as a representative of another much more complex thing. One could say that, in a sense, each name is a narrative summary; it represents the story of a person or a country or an idea or whatever and it invites you to call that story to mind if you know it or to investigate it if you don’t. This is why protestors invoke names, they are asserting that a person has been killed not that a mere incident has occurred. A name is also a symbol. In modernity we tend to think of symbols as visual images or, sometimes, as ritualised actions but in more classical times words were also understood to be symbols. The ancient Christian Church, for example, referred to its Creed (a long summary of the essential dogmatic truths of Christianity) as being the ‘symbol of faith.’ A name then can be a brief symbol which stands for a more complex series of truths about the cosmos and about the meaning of life. In that sense the ‘Name of the Lord’ is the symbol for everything that a particular belief system attributes to its central source of values and to ‘Say His Name’ is to engage in a kind of relationship with those complexities.

It does not follow that anyone who invokes a name in this fashion is a well informed theologian or philosopher with a comprehensive understanding of everything that the symbol encapsulates but they will have a mental image of some of those meanings. This will be particularly true if the person inhabits a culture which has been saturated by the Name she recites for generations. While it is true that if they chant the name a thousand times a day they will not have a thousand discrete, coherent and analytical thoughts about that of which the Name is a symbol but they will have a thousand infusions of a something connected to their existing feelings about that Name and what they associate with it.

Since a name is always more than just a name George Harrison’s proposition that chanting the name of the Lord will set you free is based on the assumption that for someone who knows something about Krishna to direct a portion of their self- mind, tongue, lips- towards Krishna for prolonged periods of time is for that person to enter into a transformative process which would be different from what would occur if they were instead to chant ‘chocolate, chocolate, chocolate’ or ‘adultery, adultery, adultery.’

The Names which I have mentioned thus far- Jesus, Krishna, Amitabha Buddha- are what might be called apex non-predators. To become immersed in that which they embody and of which their names are symbols is to be transcendent to the daily things of life; not necessarily to leave such concerns behind but to evaluate them at something other than face value: to see that life is more than the sum of the parts which passion and desire for material objects might suggest to us.

Among such daily things of life might be concerns anent racism, police brutality and the free availability of guns to people with the potential to indulge in mass shootings. These are only of direct concern to the people who are directly affected by them. They have become the concern of others not so affected because those others have imbued a sense of what is just and what is good before hearing the names of the killed or of the killers. That sense is associated with the Name of at least one of the apex non-predators whom I have included in the quotes at the top of this post. And the more people there are who frequently say His name in this kind of way the fewer occasions there will likely be where we have to say (or deliberately not say) their names.

Sometimes activists have occasion to chant ‘Say her name!’ since not all controversial incidents between police and members of the black public involve men. The ancient traditions have got this angle covered as well since frequent repetition of the names of women who mirror the values of the Name-which-is-an-ultimate-symbol have the same effect as focussing on the original Name. George Harrison, for example, chants –
Jai radhé, jai radhé radhé
Jai radhé, jai sri radhé.

This shows devotion to the consort of Krishna. Similarly the Buddha of light, Amitabha has an associated bodhisattva called Avalokiteśvara or Guanyin who is worshipped by many as the female embodiment of all that Amitabha represents. On 12th September the Catholic Church celebrates a feast specifically dedicated to the ‘Most Holy Name of the Blessed Virgin Mary’ which includes the following prayer-
Concéde, quǽsumus, omnípotens Deus: ut fidéles tui, qui sub sanctíssimæ Vírginis Maríæ Nómine et protectióne lætántur; eius pia intercessióne a cunctis malis liberéntur in terris, et ad gáudia ætérna perveníre mereántur in cœlis.

Grant, we beseech You, almighty God, that through the protection of the most holy Virgin Mary, Your faithful people who delight in her name may, by her loving intercession, be delivered from all evils on earth and be found worthy to attain everlasting happiness in heaven.

thoughtfully detached has a Facebook page.

My *other* blog is thoughtfully catholic.

The picture is George Harrison taken by Barry Feinstein

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