With as many scripture readings as we proclaim during the course of our daily liturgies, we regularly encounter unpronounceable names that must be pronounced – out loud and in public and in a liturgy – which means it’s important to get it right. Sometimes we ask one another how to pronounce Akkub or Shephatia or whatever the name may be, or we consult one of the biblical pronunciation guides that we have. But still, for me anyway, there are occasional stumbles. I will practice a name ahead of time, and then when I proclaim the reading I draw up short and stumble and stammer over something like Pahathmoab and will wind up saying Pahathmabob or something equally and awfully wrong.
In this morning’s reading from Nehemiah, the name Artaxerxes figured prominently. The Sister who was reading handled it correctly (although who would really know?) and with aplomb. But still, each time she spoke the name there was a barely perceptible pause, as if the name were a miniature mountain range that she must quickly and deftly traverse and she needed momentum for the journey.
With each tiny pause, I began to realize how appropriate it is that a name should be unpronounceable. When we can pronounce something, we think we know it. But an unpronounceable name ‘speaks’ to the reality that each of us is – in our depths and in our fullness – unknowable to anyone but God. We are all mountains and valleys of mystery, with depths and crevices and heights and precipices that cannot be fully known by another. We are mostly unpronounceable even to ourselves as we strain and stammer to understand our own hearts. There is no deft traverse.
Only God truly knows us – the One who created us, formed us, and calls us by name. It is only God who can truly pronounce each of our names in their depth and fullness. Thus, it is only God who can truly pronounce the name of another, no matter how well we think we know them.
When we approach the unutterable mystery of another person, and of ourselves, it is only fitting that we draw up short in stammering unknowingness, and that we pause in reverence of the One who created, formed, and calls us each by name.
Lord, you have probed me, you know me: you know when I sit and stand; you understand my thoughts from afar. You sift through my travels and my rest; with all my ways you are familiar. Even before a word is on my tongue, Lord, you know it all. Behind and before you encircle me and rest your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, far too lofty for me to reach. Psalm 139:1-6
Postscript: We are blessed to have in our community numerous Sisters who have studied theology and/or scripture at the graduate level. These are the ones most commonly turned to for pronunciation help, in addition to the reference books on hand. What a gift to be able to study and learn, and then to sit in the silence of unknowing before the source of all Wisdom. The ancient monastic practice of Lectio Divina offers us a way to pray with Sacred Scripture that draws us toward contemplation in God’s presence.