What's In A Saint's Name

(From 1999 or so....)

When my daughter was born, I was determined to give her a good name, a fine name, and one that would inspire her to do great things. I wanted her to walk in the shoes of a woman who’d been strong, smart and independent, ultimately faithful to the ways of God, not man. Take that any way you please.

It came down, in the end, to either Theresa (of Avila) or Catherine (of Siena). Catherine it was, since coupled with her maternal grandmother’s name, St. Catherineit sounded rather nice:

Catherine Louise.

A solid, old-fashioned, doubly saintly name which, of course, quickly became Katie Lou when sung to her wondering ears by a largely tone-deaf family to a Buddy Holly tune:

Katie Lou, Katie Lou, pretty prettty pretty pretty Katie Lou!

So she grew into her name, sometimes even to our frustration and near-regret, but between the spirit of her patron and the toughening influence of two older brothers, we’re confident we’re not raising any “wimp girl-“ the most dreaded epithet a little sister can have tossed her way.

But the other day, as I was reading a scholarly study that included a large section on St. Catherine’s asceticism and spiritual mortifications, I received a revelation that made me set the book down and look at my daughter and her name in a whole new light.

St. Catherine wouldn’t eat.

Her confessor, Raymond of Capua, wrote “Not only did she not need food, but she could not even eat without pain. If she forced herself to eat, her body suffered greatly, she could not digest and she had to vomit.”

I want you to know that I cannot count the number of times the following scene has been replayed at our dining room table:

Dinner begins. Our Catherine approaches the table full of promises that she will, indeed, be a good girl and eat her dinner. She consumes the one item out of three or four that interests her, then sits back. Everyone else has been ordered to ignore her, but we’re all secretly watching anyway.

Her brows knit, and she studies the rest of the meal. You can almost see her little brain working feverishly, asking the question: How am I going to get out of this one? Maybe tonight I’ll claim that I’m tired and that I don’t mind if I have to go in my room for the rest of the night? Or perhaps I’ll announce that I have a headache or my stomach hurts. Or if none of that works, I’ll just sit here with my mouth shut and see who wins.

(It reminds me of a line in The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen, part of scene in which a little boy is facing a meal full of despised foods:

His eyes went around and around his plate, but he had not been provident and there was nothing on the plate but woe.)

I hasten to add, I am really a pretty good cook.

I don’t mean to make light of St. Catherine’s heroic ascetism, but it struck me as just too funny that as I try to coax this child to eat every night, perhaps she is just living in obedience to the spirit of her patron.

It also led me to consider other unintended consequences of the rest of the family’s names – other, perhaps undesirable ways we resemble our patrons: David, for certain, has spent years battling a Goliath – his older brother.

Me, like the St. Amelia of ancient times, well of course, I’m a martyr. Sigh.

And Christopher – when this boy comes home from school he goes in his room, shuts the door, and basically doesn’t emerge until the next morning, leading us to wonder, as history does of his patron, if the boy really exists or not.

Modern parents sometimes fancy that inventing an entirely new name for a baby or naming it after a plant bestows a sense of individuality upon the child. That’s one way to look at it, I suppose, but I prefer to feel connected – to have family members, either by blood or in Christ, whose name I bear, who can inspire and strengthen me, and even give me oddities and foibles to bounce off of.

Of course we’re not done with Catherine Louise. Yesterday, we were riding in the car and I was reading aloud from that same book (Christopher was St. Louise de Marillacdriving, never fear!) for her benefit as we tried to figure out her costume for the school’s celebration of All Saints’ Day. I was relating rather gruesome tales of how Catherine allowed herself only thirty minutes of sleep every two days, and that on a wooden board, and that for a time she flagellated herself with an iron chain three times a day.

An awed stillness descended as everyone pondered such a life.

Finally a small voice broke the silence from a corner of the back seat.

“I wanna be St. Louise,” is exactly what she said.

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