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.