Knowing By Name

At Mount Aloysius College in Cresson, Pa., back in 2004, one of the nursing professors had the following question on her final exam: What is the name of the person who cleans this hall? For the Roman Catholic Religious Sisters of Mercy, who sponsor that college, respecting people is fundamental to “Mercy values.” The professor rightly pointed out that to learn people’s names is part of taking them seriously. It is humanly decent to notice and appreciate those who help us in life, however menial their task might be.

I knew the person who cleaned my hallway; I talked to her. But her name? I drew a blank.

One of my rectors used to say: Everyone has a right to his or her name. It frustrated him anytime he met a parishioner whose name escaped him. His standards were high, grounded in a serious respect for other people; yet even he sometimes fell short.

The wires crossed, and when asked to autograph a new book, I wrote the wrong name. It was in ink. I couldn’t fix it. Thereafter, I often ask people how to spell their name. It’s embarrassing when the answer is “J - O - E.”

In an oral exam, I couldn’t remember the name of Alcibiades, a major character in Plato’s “Symposium.” He arrives late to the dialogue, already drunk. He tells about trying to seduce Socrates. Everyone knows Alcibiades—but I couldn’t recall his name.

As brain function diminished, her ability to recall words slipped away. She was bright and thus able to find work-arounds; you might not even notice her deficits. I remember once she was struggling to find the word “sidewalk.” She said, “You know, where it ends.” I got the reference: Shel Silverstein’s book, Where the Sidewalk Ends. It made me love her all the more.

The black and white TV of my childhood was an RCA Victor. Down in the corner of the case was a dog listening to a gramophone; the caption said, “His master’s voice.”

The Good Shepherd knows his sheep by name. I am neither good nor a shepherd, and I sometimes think that when he sees me he might pull my leg a bit: “I know you . . . the old RCA thing with the listening dog.”

It would make me love him all the more.

Out & About. This Sunday, February 20, I am to preach at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas at the contemporary services, 9 and 11:15 a.m. I am also to preach at the traditional services there on Ash Wednesday.

The next “Good Books & Good Talk” seminar will be at 5 p.m. on Sunday, March 20, on Children of Men by P. D. James.


You have to Say No Before you Say Yes

    In making my case for holding close the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, I first argued for its orthodoxy. One strong point in its favor is the baptismal rite. On pages 302–303 there are six questions asked of those being baptized. (If they are too young to speak for themselves, their parents and godparents answer on their behalf.) These are remarkable questions.
    That they are spread out in this way, as six separate questions, is distinctive to this Book. The first three are questions about renunciations. Before you can say yes to God, you have to say no to all that which is opposed to God. Traditionally, the three things to be renounced are “the world, the flesh, and the devil.”
    For the first time in our American Prayer Book, here the devil gets his name: Satan. He appears in the first question: “Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?” Implicit in this question is the acceptance that Satan is real, that he has rebelled against God, and that there are “spiritual forces of wickedness” that are aligned with Satan in his rebellion. To be baptized, one must first face this reality and say no to it: “I renounce them.”
    Then comes the renunciation of the world, but in clearer language. We do not renounce the world as the creation of God; after all, as Saint John tells us, “So God loved the world” that he sent Jesus. Rather, we renounce “the evil powers of this world” whose consequence is the corruption and destruction of God’s creatures.
    Thirdly, what was traditionally referred to as “the flesh” is renounced in terms of desires that are also real: “all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God.”
    Having said no to Satan, evil worldly powers, and sinful desires, one is ready to turn to Jesus. The three questions that follow have to do with sticking to Jesus. The first is a simple evangelical faith. “Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?” Then, having accepted him, “Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?” And if so, “Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?” My Savior, whose grace and love I trust, is the Lord of my life whom I will follow and obey.
    It is a small but significant point in its favor that the 1979 Book here names Satan and calls anyone who would be baptized to renounce him by name. This is, to my mind, a clear improvement upon previous language. Far from downplaying the reality of evil, our Prayer Book takes it very seriously. The reality and the seriousness of spiritual forces of rebellion, evil powers of the world, and sinful desires are impressed upon us every time we participate in a baptism, or indeed, whenever we pick up the Book and thumb to page 302.
    Out & About. This Sunday, February 13, I am to speak at St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas about my book, Friendship: The Heart of Being Human. It’s at 4 p.m., and any one interested is invited.
    Sunday, February 20, I am to preach at Church of the Incarnation in Dallas at the contemporary services, 9 and 11:15 a.m.
    On the Web. Here is the exact address for my piece on the feast of the Presentation at First Things online:

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The Rev. Canon Dr. Victor Lee Austin is the Theologian-in-Residence for the diocese and is the author of several books including, "Losing Susan: Brain Disease, the Priest's Wife, and the God who Gives and Takes Away."