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February 26, 2008
I awoke this morning with these words in my head: In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I might even have spoken them aloud, I'm not sure: Ben the Cat did seem a bit startled. Something has to follow that phrase -- a sermon, maybe -- but Q was already downstairs and only Ben was with me, so I elected not to preach. Or else In Nomine comes at the end of something -- a sermon, maybe, as a way of finding one's way out of it and sitting back down. In nomine can't just stand alone -- it carries with its own ellipses. It has to be in the name of something.

People often begin sermons with it. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, they say, feeling the need for something to start them off, some humble expression of their hope that the sermon will go well. Or they'll say it in a more gender-neutral manner: In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier, which sounds a little bit like God's resume but certainly fills the bill. Sometimes they'll declaim the Bible verse they're preaching on -- maybe even reading it from an actual Bible held in one hand, a nice touch, and they'll do this while all the people are still standing. Then they'll tell you who it's in the name of, and everybody but them sits down.

What does it mean to do something "in the name of" something else? I once had a bridegroom who balked vehemently at repeating his wedding vows "in the name of God" -- let alone the Trinity -- because he said he was marrying in his own name and was offended at the idea that he should need to invoke anyone else's certification of his intent. While I thought we were being a little sensitive, I know what it is to be young and working hard on building up a potent and workable sense of self. That's what a young person does: he builds a self. Then he spends the second half of his life learning how to take it down again, how to take it apart and examine the pieces of it, when to surrender a part of it that no longer makes sense. Each of these is a sacred vocation. All of us must do both. One is preparation for life. The other is preparation for the survival of meaning in the face of death.

Maybe everything we do is in the Name of God, whether we know it or not. We brought nothing to this world and we will take nothing out. Everything we find here comes from somewhere -- even the things we design are not made from scratch. Maybe we assemble things, really, rather than creating them.

I think about this as I stare at the computer screen, searching for words. Where do they come from? How do they combine? Why is one arrangement of them graceful and another silly? People's brains light up when they write or speak or sing or listen, I am told, different areas active for different things. But the ideas themselves, the things we make or sing or write or paint or invent -- from what ether do we pluck them?

I close my eyes and see the Sistine ceiling, that famous touch of fingertips: God giving Adam life and more than life, giving us everything of the spirit and everything of the mind, animating a mortal body with an eternal soul. All of life, I see for a moment: it is all In Nomine.

And then it is gone. I go back to work. But I go more cheerfully this time, more confident that whatever blocks may appear are temporary. I am not alone in this or in any striving. My own name is not all-sufficient, and it doesn't have to be. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
This Sunday afternoon, March 2: Staten Island's Lenten Event with Barbara Crafton at St. Alban's Episcopal Church. For directions or more information, call (718) 984-7756.
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