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What’s in a Name?

Sister Doreen’s Reflections

On May the 6th we keep the Feast of St John. Why did our Mother Foundress choose St John the Divine as our Patron Saint?

I imagine that a very simple explanation could be that she was fond of the name, it was the name of her parish church, the Church of St. John the Divine in Kennington, England, which she attended while she lived with her husband in London, England. Her great love and the tremendous influence of that Church I am sure left an indelible influence upon her life and spiritual formation.

It was probably the latter, the indelible influence upon her life and spiritual formation that also influenced her choice of St. John the Divine as her choice of a patron saint for the Community. The name John is derived from the Hebrew Johanan meaning ‘graced by God’. In looking at some of the attributes ascribed to the name John – written in books for choosing a name for a child – this name is referred to as a solid, traditional name that exudes strength, intelligence, and kindness. The personality of the name is often referred to as honest, compassionate, brilliant, often inventive, full of high inspirations, courageous, honest, determined, original and creative. This name is also a very Biblical name, and all of these attributes and personality descriptions embody what we experience when we read the Gospel according to St. John.

“Our names are an incredibly important part of our identity. They carry deep personal, cultural, familial, and historical connections. They also give us a sense of who we are, the communities in which we belong, and our place in the world.” (Iman Baobeid, University of British Columbia)           

To those of us who live the vowed life under the name of the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine we are also deeply influenced and marked by the comments made in a letter to our Reverend Mother Hannah, at our founding in 1884 by a beloved friend of the community. Written September 4th, 1884. The Rev. G. H. Houghton wrote: “May the name which it is to bear, be an indication of the Love which is to pervade and animate it; that all the members are indeed in a special sense “beloved of the Beloved”; are ever mindful of the words “Little children, love one another”; and that the things and thoughts and aims heavenly, are things and thoughts to which they are given.”

Along with this, our Mother Foundress Hannah, left us a legacy in pointing out that “The object of a community is first, Personal Sanctification; second Active Charity. The life of prayer and devotion must come first, or the Community will soon sink down into a society of persons living together for the work they can do, instead of a Society gathered together in the Church to live in loving devotion to Almighty God, irrespective of the work each member may accomplish. From this side of the Sister’s life, she draws her strength, her courage, and her inspiration for her active works of charity.”

John and his brother James we know were fishermen, who left their father Zebedee’s fishing business and followed Jesus with their whole hearts. They are often referred to by a nickname ‘ Boanerges’ which means Sons of Thunder – passionate was their love and zeal as they left everything to follow Jesus and to spread the good news.

What does all of this tell us about John as our patron saint – and so about us as a community? Why St John the Divine? The word divine is used to describe a theologian, and in the Orthodox church John the Divine is known as John the Theologian. John and the Johannine community that grew up around John lived into a new creation and saw this messianic gift as the light of the world. The spirituality of the Gospel according to St. John embraces God as light, and the intimate and mystical relationship to which God calls us.

As quoted from our own “Journey Just Begun history book”: “The heart of John’s gospel and Johannine spirituality is expressed in the well-loved verse from John 3:16 – ‘This is how much God loved the world: God gave his Son, his one and only Son. And this is why: so that no one need be destroyed; by believing in him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life.’ (Message Translation) This love is passionate, open, and inviting for the whole world, with no exclusions. The life of John the Apostle exemplifies this love. As we remember him standing at the foot of the cross, watching his best friend and beloved teacher die, we are invited to delve deeply into the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection through our own life of prayer to find the ultimate message of God’s love for the world.

The Apostle John knew what it was like to have his life turned upside down, to move from a life of privilege to having everything taken away from him, from the familiar to the strange, from security to dependence on others. In Jesus and through his example It was his deep trust in God, a loving relationship with God that called John to bear witness to God in the difficult environment in which he lived. Often an experience of walking in darkness, John was deeply rooted in prayer. His faith had an essential interior dimension and an essential communal dimension.

With John as our patron saint, we are called to be a community where faith is alive, where healing touch is felt, where words of comfort and compassion are heard, where people are supported, and where the Word of God inspires. As a community, the Sisterhood of St. John the Divine over these 140 years has tried to humbly embody this faith and these values. Throughout the years we have lived a life of prayer and service, quietly opening our home to others.

Mother Hannah I believe chose St John the Divine to be our patron saint believing that the community that she founded could and would, like John who was strong and courageous, humbly embody these values, and build a community of love and hospitality, an ongoing journey into the future and for the future and the life of the world in which we live.