“The Holy Name of Jesus and Blessed Henry Suso, OP” (2019)
Fr. Ignatius John Schweitzer, OP
“Pray always,” enjoins St. Paul (1 Thess. 5:17). But how? The Catechism says, “The invocation of the holy name of Jesus is the simplest way of praying always” (par. 2668). We might rightly think here of the East and its long tradition of the Jesus Prayer. But in the West too there arose an ardent devotion to the holy Name of Jesus, in part through the work of Dominicans.
Pope Gregory X and the Council of Lyons in 1274 entrusted to the Dominican Order the task of spreading this devotion. So Bl John of Vercelli, the 6th Master of our Order, spearheaded a vast wave of preaching on the holy Name; he established what was to become the Holy Name society; and he even required that every Dominican church contain an altar dedicated to the Holy Name of Jesus.
We have a good example of how all this would effect the spiritual life of a Dominican friar, 75 years, later in the writings of Bl Henry Suso. In Suso, we find some rich passages about his own practice of invoking the sweet name of Jesus. For him it’s not so much an attempt at a continual repetition, like the hesychasts of the East. It is much more about taking a moment here and there throughout our busy days to invoke the saving name of Jesus.
Like someone swimming under water, it doesn’t take much time to come up for a gasp of air, but it makes all the difference in the world. A quick gasp of air, a quick invocation of our Lord Jesus Christ, and we are refreshed and sustained. For Suso, the Holy Name contains the personal presence of Jesus and the power of Jesus. So let’s look at these, Jesus’ presence and power.
The name of Jesus bears within itself His loving presence. Bl. Henry recalls, as he says, “his constant effort to achieve intense awareness of loving union with Eternal Wisdom” (Paulist, 67). He goes on to say, “A seasoned friend of God should always have some good model or saying in the mouth of his soul to chew on that will inflame his heart for God, because therein lies the most sublime thing we can attain on earth—that we often reflect on our divine Beloved, that we often send out our hearts to him, often speak of him, [and] take in his words of love…[So] we should turn over [Jesus’] tender name in our mouth” (360).
Of course, we all know that God dwells within every baptized believer in a state of grace as in a temple. Yet though He is present to us, we are not always present to Him, not always aware of Him. Throughout our hectic days and scattered thoughts, simply praying “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy” can bring us back to the One thing necessary. At the snap of the fingers, we are present again to our Beloved. It strips all else away from the only point in which we can be wholly present to God: the present moment. Invoking the name of Jesus is like a distilled act of faith, hope, and love in the abiding presence of God, regardless of what we might feel at the moment. And through His name we enter more deeply into His loving presence.
Next, the name of Jesus contains His saving power. In Bl. Henry’s ardor for union with God he exclaims, “God of power, give me today strength and power to carry out my desire, for today you [and your Name] shall be engraved in the ground of my heart” (70). That’s Suso, and it’s certainly true for “Jesus” means “Yahweh is salvation”—God’s mercy made flesh, God’s power made perfect in our weakness.
In any challenge whatsoever, we can calmly and slowly repeat something like “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.” There’s no need to say the Name with force, for the power is in the Name itself, in Jesus Himself. If earlier I spoke of a quick gasp of air, this is more of a steady breathing deeply in and out. Some of both, then gently and peacefully the presence of Jesus and the power of Jesus will gradually permeate our whole soul and our whole life.
Finally, in all this, we have a possible Dominican response to a problem today. In contrast to the very many words today which can be superficial and leave us scattered, here we have something to unify our scattered soul. What’s more, as we rightly reflect on various theological doctrines and mysteries, this simple prayer can unify our contemplative gaze. It’s profound in its simplicity, just one word, “Jesus,” or with a Trinitarian echo “Lord Jesus Christ have mercy.” Simple, yet hardly anything more profound can be uttered, than this ‘one-word Gospel’: the name of God and the name of our Salvation—Jesus.