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On Taking An Orthodox Name

Print my name. I am proud of it. I am a Christian and I have Christ’s name. You ethnics want your own names and think that this is important. If you had Christ you wouldn’t. I read Mr. and Mrs. Cownie’s book, what you call your priests, about using Orthodox names. How about confessing Christ instead of worrying about names. My priest does not have the big degrees that, from what I hear, you just claim. But he can tear you to shreds. The first Christians he says didnt [sic] pay any attention to this. There were no saints names to take. Touchay [sic]! They confessed Jesus. Make fun of us all you like. My faith isn’t in names. It is in my Lord. (R.J.L., CA)

In their Guide to Orthodox Life, Father David Cownie, a Priest in our jurisdiction, and his wife, Presbytera Juliana, make reference to the ancient Christian custom of taking the name of a Saint at Baptism, a custom which we have discussed numerous times in past issues of Orthodox Tradition. This is a very important Orthodox custom, since it reifies the bond which is established, at Baptism, between a Christian and the Saint whose name he bears. When we are addressed by others with this name, whether they are Orthodox or not, they show honor to the Saint and invoke his or her blessing. We also directly show pious honor to Christ Himself, when we accept and use a Saint’s name, since Saints are precisely those who have been joined to Christ, "small Jesus Christs within Jesus Christ," to quote one Father.

In placing such great emphasis on this tradition and in expressing our regret that so many converts to the Orthodox Church ignore it—see, for example, our remark in this regard about Frank Shaeffer in the foregoing question—, we mean no disrespect. Rather, our comments are centered on the concern that we have for the cultivation of a genuine Orthodox spirit in the West, and especially in America. It is essential, indeed, that converts take the name of an Orthodox Saint, use it in all circumstances, and begin their journey towards spiritual maturity with this spiritual weapon in their basic arsenal of safeguards against sin and spiritual delusion. Such an act of humility and spiritual submission was so important to St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, a man committed to the rebirth of Orthodoxy in the West—even to the point of such an excess as experimentation with the Western Rite, which he deeply regretted in later life—that he refused to commune converts who used their pre-Orthodox names or ethnic Orthodox who dishonored the names of their patron Saints by using impious diminutives and nicknames.

As for the Early Church, your thinking and that of your Priest are quite wrong. In the first volume of his excellent commentary, On the Divine Liturgy (Belmont, MA: Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, 1986), Metropolitan Aug[o]ustinos of Florina, the most conservative of the New Calendarist Hierarchs of Greece, makes the following insightful comments, demonstrating that ignorance among Christians with regard to the importance of Christian Orthodox names is not limited just to converts or to the Orthodox diaspora. Speaking of the Baptismal customs of the primitive Church, he observes that

[w]hen the catechumens had been taught everything that they were supposed to, their teachers would lead them back to the bishop, and the bishop would recommend that they change their pagan names and adopt Christian ones, names to remind them of holy persons or of virtues (e.g., Agapios, from agape, "love;" Elpidos, from elpis, "hope;’ Irenaios, from eirene, "peace..."). As you see, the Early Church attached great importance to a person’s name. Yet certain people insist on giving their children names which have nothing to do with the glorious history of Christianity, or even the names of atheists and unbelievers who waged war and still wage war against Christianity. The names of Christians must be re minders of faith and virtue.

In contemporary times, following the exact same tradition that prevailed in the Early Church, we take on the names of the Saints who have sanctified our Church and whose intercessions uphold our faith and our spiritual efforts.

From Orthodox Tradition, vol. XIV, no. 4, pp. 19-20.