“What’s in a name?” we might ask? “Is a name important?” we might add. How many of us know the meaning of our own name? I think our names are much more important than simple labels. Obviously, they give us a certain identification and acknowledgement. But names also shape us in some way; they give us personality and character.
We are given a name, and though it is possible for us to change this by deed poll most of us accept our name and grow into it the older we become. In so doing, I think something quite profound happens: we learn both to hear and to speak the word that we are.
Each of us, in fact, is a word spoken by God – a unique word, a distinct sound. Therefore, one of the most important challenges in our life is to hear the unique word we are and to pronounce this word just as it has been uttered: to name ourselves as we truly are – not as others have named us or how we think we should be named but as we actually are; to become who we are truly, not as others would like us to be, or as we think we should be, but as we are truly.
To speak out the word we are uniquely – this is the greatest art of life. It cannot be done easily or lazily; it takes a great deal of courage. Courage is an appropriate word for this enterprise. It comes from the word for ‘heart’. When we say, ‘have courage’ we could also say, ‘take heart’. When we take heart and act with courage, we have come home to the centre of ourselves, the irreducible part of ourselves, that point where everything comes together as one in ourselves. This is the most sacred part of ourselves. Sometimes we can spend our whole lives seeking that point. But when we have found that place, we have discovered the steadiest point in all that we might experience, the source of our real strength. We have found courage.
It takes courage to name ourselves; it takes heart. And one of the most important things we can do for someone else is to encourage them. The word ‘encourage’ literally means to ‘draw out the heart of the other.’ When we encourage one another, we give each other the space to be who we truly are. This is the beauty of friendship. Friendship is the wonderful space that allows us to be as we truly are, the space in which we can hear each other’s heart, the gesture that coaxes us to be truly ourselves with neither pretense nor defense. Who is the one who genuinely encourages me in my life? This person is one of the most important in my life. They are leading me to my heart; they are giving me courage, the power to celebrate who I am.
This is what is happening between Jesus and his friends in the Gospel we have heard this morning. In their friendship they are learning their true identity. It is a dialogue of both encouragement and courage.
And just as this is what is happening in their circle of friendship, so it might be for the circle of our own school community. My hope is that your years at school should be ones during which you experience encouragement and ones in which, as a result, you also find the courage to be yourselves, the unique person as you have been created. Everything in our school ultimately should be at this service.
This is why the name of our school is not incidental: St Leo’s. Personally, we might not know a great deal about this fifth century pope who was a great teacher. However, his name is important. It is a name that shapes us because of our daily association with it. Of course, Leo comes from the word ‘lion’ with which we associate the words ‘strength’ and ‘power’. These are the very qualities that we might wish for ourselves. Yet, what I want to suggest this morning is that our real strength and power come from the courage to be ourselves, just as we are, and from the encouragement we give one another to be such. Let us learn all the facts and figures that there are to be known, but above all let us learn who we truly are – then our schooling will have been effective.
So, on this feast day of St Leos’ College I pray this blessing for each of you, written by the Celtic poet John O’Donohue:
May you recognize in your life the presence
Power and light of your soul.
May you realize that you are never alone,
That your soul in its brightness and belonging
Connects you intimately with the rhythm of the universe.
May you have respect for your individuality and difference.
May you realize that the shape of your soul is unique,
That you have a special destiny here,
That behind the façade of your life
There is something beautiful and eternal happening.
May you learn to see yourself
With the same delight
Pride and expectation
With which God sees you in every moment.
 John O’Donohue, “For Solitude” in Benedictus: A Book of Blessings, (Bantam Press, 2007), 127.
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