Taking a title after one’s name has been a Carmelite tradition for many years. St. Teresa of Jesus, our Holy Mother, and St. John of the Cross, our Holy Father, both took titles that were dear to them. It is often said that the mystery your title expresses often plays out in a special way in your own life as a religious. This definitely held true with St. Teresa and St. John. The Carmelite, by choosing a title full of personal meaning, is able to embrace a specific mystery of the faith or a favorite saint with the hope that they might find fuller expression in his life for his salvation and that of others.
When I first began to hear the call, I was reflecting on Christ Crucified. I was thinking about how Jesus, our Lord, gave Himself entirely to me through His sacrifice on the Cross. The words of Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity express the movements of my heart at that time:
A Carmelite . . . is a soul who has gazed on the Crucified, who has seen Him offering Himself to His Father as a Victim for souls and, recollecting herself in this great vision of the charity of Christ, has understood the passionate love of His soul, and has wanted to give herself as His did.
Letter 133 (Aug. 7, 1902)
I wanted to give myself to our Lord for His glory and the sanctification of the world. This sentiment has stayed with me into my religious life. During my postulancy, as I was reflecting on a possible title, I wanted it to reflect this ‘first love.’ I thought of some different possibilities, but eventually the Cross grabbed me and never let go.
St. John of the Cross & St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross
Another reason I chose this title was due to my devotion to St. John of the Cross, our Holy Father, and St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, the Jewish Carmelite martyr of Auschwitz. I love both of them very much and their writings have been extremely important for my own journey. St. John of the Cross was particularly instrumental in teaching me about prayer at a time when I was really struggling to comprehend the Lord’s work in my heart. Taking the title of the Cross enabled me to express my devotion for these two amazing saints while also emphasizing the mystery of complete self-gift.
Sharing in Christ’s Work of Salvation
Another theme that has been important to me is sharing in Jesus’ work of sanctifying and saving the world. While I was discerning my vocation with the Carmelites an apostolic thrust was beginning to grow in me. I was coming to see more fully that my life is not just for me. In the words of Samwise Gamgee, “There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo . . . and it’s worth fighting for.” I wanted to fight for the souls of all of my brothers and sisters in this world who are broken and burdened with life’s troubles. Knowing that even the little I can do to help save souls does not amount to much, I looked to the Cross of Christ. St. Teresa of the Andes sheds light on this mystery: “
[The Carmelite] immolates herself on the cross, and her blood falls on sinners, pleading for mercy and repentance, for on the cross she is intimately united to Jesus Christ. Her blood, then, is mixed with His Divine Blood.” (Letter 58) United to Jesus on the Cross, my blood and His Blood are one. In this mystical way I am able to share in His great work of salvation.
Upon entering religious life, a zealous young man or woman has lofty desires and longs to do something great for the Lord and His Church. St. Teresa Benedicta though is quick to remind us that the most essential activity is not ours, but the Lord’s. As she was seeking entrance at the Carmel of Cologne, the Mother Prioress was hesitant about being the one who took such an intelligent and influential woman out of the world where she could do much good. The future saint responded with these words: “It is not what men can accomplish which helps us, but the sufferings of Christ. To share in that is my request.” I beg her, my sister in Carmel, to come to my aid and share with me her resolute desire to share in the Cross of our Savior, Jesus Christ. Perhaps then I will, in my own little way, help to save the world.
As Discalced Carmelites, we have the opportunity to take a new name, a ‘religious’ name, when we enter the novitiate, the second, most foundational stage of formation. During postulancy, the first stage, we are able to think and pray about whether or not we would like to take a new name and, if so, what that name might be. This process has been done differently throughout the years. Our current Novice Master has left it mostly up to us, yet he still has to give his final approval and retains the right to say no.
My baptismal name is Alexander. I certainly appreciate the fact that my parents gave me that name and it is important to me in that respect, yet I have never felt any great connection with any of the St. Alexander’s in the Church. Even from the first months of the postulancy I had the idea that I really might want to take a new name. And so the search began! I thought of many different things, such as James (my middle name), John, after St. John of the Cross, our Holy Father in Carmel, and Joseph, among others. But very early on, during the first half of postulancy, I thought of the name ‘Gabriel.’
My primary reflection from the beginning was the actual meaning of the name: the strength of God. I thought that this would be such a great motto of sorts for my entire religious life. As our Lord Jesus says, we can do nothing apart from Him. Psalm 127:1 says, “If the Lord does not build the house, in vain do its builders labor.” We are so dependent on God. He must be our strength. For us as consecrated religious, the faithful fulfillment of our call (or any call for that matter) is possible only by His strength and grace. Yet it is very easy to lose sight of this truth. I hope that by taking the name Gabriel I will be reminded of the importance of always clinging to God as my strength.
Leading up to the time of our retreat before the clothing with the habit and the beginning of the novitiate, I had put some thought into a few other names, but none of them stuck with me as Gabriel did. When I went on the pre-clothing retreat I had the opportunity to meet with my soon-to-be Novice Master and present to him my name request. But before I actually talked to him, I went to the chapel and was praying about the name change. Part of me was a bit hesitant, perhaps because of the minor upcoming human shock of being called by a new name. So I asked the Lord, “Why do you want me to change my name?” I didn’t hear any voices or anything extraordinary, but a powerful insight came immediately to my heart.
My baptismal name, Alexander, means ‘defender of mankind.’ By going from ‘defender of mankind’ to ‘the strength of God’ I am making a shift, by His grace, to be ever more God-centered. As St. John the Baptist said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn 3:30) This is what the Christian life is about: to die to self, to selfishness, and to be opened out in self-giving love by the Lord’s grace. Changing my name to Gabriel was a way for me to affirm that God is my strength; that He must always continue to be my strength; that He is the center of life and the center of my life; that by His strong arm He will bring me to share in His holiness when I cease relying on my own resources and trust in His power to save me.
My Novice Master immediately gave approval for the name Gabriel after I explained to Him these motivations. My name continues to be a reminder for me that God is my strength. By His mercy, I hope that I will never come to forget this most important truth.
I picked the name Br. Michael of the Holy Face and the Sorrowful Mother. In our province we are asked to choose a religious title that speaks to us about our draw to Carmel and how we think that the Lord is leading us.
The title is a tradition going back to our earliest historical roots where Carmelites adopted a title for the sake of equality and anonymity. In an age where one’s nobility and social status could be easily recognized by one’s surname, it was a practice to drop the surname and replace it with the title so that all religious were held in equal standing within the community. The title nowadays represents how we feel specifically called in our vocation and how we believe the Holy Spirit is leading us to Christ.
I chose the Holy Face because the Holy Face represents the face of Christ as He underwent the crucifixion. It stands for the heart of Love that is scorned and tortured by our sins and how Love reveals those pains in its face. It is closely tied with the Sacred Heart and I received much of my inspiration from St. Therese of Lisieux and her understanding of it.
I chose the Sorrowful Mother because of my love for Our Lady and how Our Lady is inseparable from the Passion. She walked alongside her Son in body and in heart, and it is in this passion of sorrow that the love of Our Lady shines all its glory. The Sorrowful Mother also stands for our call in that “The carmelites task is to gaze on the Crucified” (Bl. Elizabeth of the Trinity) and it is a deep part of our spirituality to provide love for the Lord to sustain Him in the sorrows He bears from our world today.
When I was clothed in the Habit of the Discalced Carmelite Friars, I was given the name “Pier Giorgio” after Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati.
Who is Blessed Pier Giorgio? He was a young Italian who died at the age of 24 in 1925. I’ve kept Bl. Pier Giorgio as a patron saint and heavenly friend for several years. I grew up in the Adirondack mountains and spent most of my childhood and young adulthood climbing up mountains and skiing down them.
Someone introduced me to Bl. Pier Giorgio because he also was an avid skier and an expert climber. Over the years I have grown to be devoted to him in other ways, namely the simplicity of his spirituality and the heroic love he had for his friends, family, the sick and the poor.
While I’m still the same person I was before my name was changed, being called “Brother Pier Giorgio” is a daily and ordinary reminder that I am called also to be a saint. Discalced Carmelites are also given devotional subtitles like mine, which is “of Christ the King”. This is a tradition which denies any preference that might have come from being born in a wealthy or prestigious family. Our Holy Mother Teresa of Jesus herself came from a wealthy family and saw the preferential treatment she was given as a stumbling block for true poverty and humility.
While I still remain the son and brother of my family members, my subtitle serves as a sign of the purpose of my life in religion, that is, to faithfully serve in the Kingdom of Our Lord and King Jesus Christ. If one observes the lives of the Discalced Carmelite saints, it quickly becomes apparent of the ways in which they closely resembled or fulfilled their titles in their actions and life of prayer.