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.


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."