What is in a name?
A reflection on using of names in a monastic community.
When Jesus said to “call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven,” he is using an expression that has deep roots in the Hebrew Scriptures. To “call” someone by a “name” in the Hebrew tradition meant something closer to “identifying the essence” of a person. John Bersgma OSF
The issue has arisen in our community whether we should us titles like brother, father, sister and mother in our community or only call each other by our Baptismal or Christian names. Most monastic communities use titles to speak something of their members and their relationship with their members.
Brothers are used for lay professed and Fathers are used for Ordained Priests in many Male monastic communities for example.
Perhaps we should start our discussion, with the fact that Benedict is very clear in his Rule that little distinction should be made between Ordained and non Ordained members of a Benedictine community. Clericalism has little or no room in a Monastic Community where all are “Family”. At the same time, there are roles that each member of the monastic family play which include the Superiors, and those assigned significant duties eg. The Porter, The Cellar, The Lector, The Guest master, The Abbot, The Prior, The Deans, etc. So names are assigned to members of a community because they fit a duty or task which a member has within a community. In that way a name given to a member such as Father or Mother because they are ordained, makes sense if we are speaking of a public function within the Christian community. It seems that using those titles does not go contrary to custom or use, always when we see titles as in reference to a function, and role within a community, not establishing of a hierarchy of persons.
This being said there are communities that choose to use only brother or sister as titles within a community. No other.
We are living in times when names, gender, titles, he, she they, have great meaning and importance in our social interaction. Thus using any title or pronoun is a way of respecting another brother or sister and giving them their full worth as children of God. Perhaps it is here we can begin to find an alternative to what names or titles we might use within a Monastic Community. We also must remember that these names or titles have overlaps with other designated use of names…father or mother can be parent as it can also be male or female priest. Brother or Sister can be sibling, it can also be a Monastic, nun or monk. Names such as Reverend or Monsignor or Bishop are more ecclesiastical titles but are not so much part of Monastic vocabulary. Neither are Mr. Mrs. or Ms. are part of Monastic vocabulary.
If I may, I would like to suggest that in a contemporary monastic setting names or designations not be erased or forbidden, but instead an option that individuals may choose just as people have the freedom to choose their pronouns, he, she, they and those pronouns are then to be respected in a community setting. Each member of a monastic community should chose what title or name they choose for themselves. (with the name fitting the title). I for example use Pater Vincent in formal settings which is the term used in Germany for monks who are a priest, not Vater which means parent-Dad. Pater is Latin in origin. At the same time for me, in informal settings I am never opposed to people using my christian or baptismal name Vincent. I seldom use my Monastic name which is Boniface, at my life profession, yet am keenly aware that this is the name I chose like my Confirmation name ( Bonaventure). I chose as a young man.
I also believe there are formal and informal moments and circumstances where using titles or names are more than appropriate. For example, How would you feel seeing your President giving a speech in sneakers and gym pants and a sweat shirt? We live in an age where formal address and informal address should be part of our learning to socialize and engage with each other. Many languages like german, french or spanish have two forms of addressing another individual, formal and informal. This is part of social edicate and behavior. These forms are also constantly changing as social norms also change.
It makes sense to me in a Monastic Community of equals not to eliminate titles but to allow each individual decide how they would like to be called by name and pronoun in both formal and informal situations. We should have that distinction.
Is weekly prayer online formal or informal? Probably informal.
Are gatherings with other communities in a monastic setting formal or informal? Probably formal.
We must not forget that Names and titles were always used and kept in minority communities because they were usually disrespected by their colonial powers who oppressed them. (African Americans). A title was a means of respect and dignity of each member within the community which few were given by their oppressors. Using titles or names need not be hierarchical, and may be a means of respecting what the Hebrew intention is…a name that speaks to your essence and to your being. As a child of God.
I offer this reflexion as our community continues to discuss how we use both names and pronouns. If we keep pronouns, we should also find room for names and titles of our members remembering always the intention of Benedict to not make a distinction by title but only by function. We do the same in the Liturgy where various persons in the community have a unique function in the Liturgy (Lay, Deacon, Priest, Bishop) clearly spelled out in the Rubrics.
Our diversity as lay and ordained within the New Benedictine community give us the flexibility to use our names, titles, and pronouns in different ways and in different social settings. It also allows others to be more comfortable with us depending on the trust we build within our community and outside.
+ Pax Bene Vincent
What is in a name you may ask?
Quite a bit!