Every writer hopes to find words that resonate in other lives.

And every reader chooses favorite writers, partly based on their proven power to penetrate the veil of death through language.

Madeleine L’Engle plays such a role in my life. Even though she died in 2007, she lives in my memory through her visits to Goshen College and, even more, through her books.

Be a Namer: An Admonition

Be a Namer: An Admonition

I encountered Madeleine L’Engle many times over the course of her 88 years. The first time, I was a young teacher who tried to read A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet). One of my tenth-grade students loved the book. I could not connect with it. I assumed that I just didn’t like fantasy, the genre, since the book had won a Newbery Award and was already a classic.

After fours years of graduate school and after becoming a mother, I tried the book again. This time I loved it. And as my son Anthony grew older, I placed this book and the others in the series on my list of books to read to him at night.

Mother and son taking in the view above Port au Prince

Mother and son taking in the view above Port au Prince

One night, as I was reading to Anthony from A Wind in the Door (second in the Time Quintet), I came across an exchange between Meg, the teenage heroine of the book, and an angel named Progo.

Progo is explaining why he is calling out the names of the stars. He knows they need to be named in order for peace to exist on earth.

The enemy of peace is a force called the Ecthroi, which Progo interprets to Meg this way:

“I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming – making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.”

As I read these words to Anthony, tears began sliding down my cheeks. My own deepest desires surged through me. I wanted him to know his name. Anthony. A family name, yes. But also the name of the desert father St. Anthony, a Christian mystic and first monastic.

"Piero di Cosimo 025" by Piero di Cosimo - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Piero_di_Cosimo_025.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Piero_di_Cosimo_025.jpg

From the Visitation of St. Nicholas and St. Anthony by Piero di Cosimo http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Piero_di_Cosimo_025.jpg

St. Anthony was a namer.

When Madeleine L’Engle came to Goshen College and signed Anthony’s copy of The Wind and the Door, she reached me, too, with her message of “Be a Namer.”

I took on the role of Namer as mother and Namer as teacher.

As a result, I paid attention to my own literal name in Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World and have talked with my children, husband, students, colleagues, and friends about names and their importance in our lives.

I have also tried to reach the depth of metaphor Madeleine L’Engle discovered. My deepest desire is to contribute to peace by helping others find their names — their callings and purpose in life. In so doing, I have found my own.

Anthony has become a namer too. He has found his own way to follow Madeleine L’Engle’s advice. I think she would approve.

Anthony reads to Julia

Anthony reads to Julia

Does this idea of being a namer resonate with you? Have words from an author entered deeply into your own life and vocation? How?

Shirley Showalter


  1. Saloma Furlong on February 4, 2015 at 11:38 am

    Shirley, this is a beautiful post. Thank you for reminding me of “A Wrinkle in Time.” I now want to reread it.

    The line that stood out to me was: “If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate.”

    This is so true — and written in such an unassuming way. I find truly knowing myself is humbling because it peels away the desire to be someone I’m not.

    • shirleyhs on February 4, 2015 at 4:50 pm

      Saloma, glad to know you love L’Engle also. I hope you try A Wind in the Door also. It isn’t as famous, but if you love Meg and Charles Wallace, you’ll love this book also.

      Thanks for honing in on her most important point. When we know our own names, we can name others.

  2. Richard Gilbert on February 4, 2015 at 11:52 am

    How lovely and true, Shirley. There’s a lot to naming! I just had an essay accepted on the power of given names, and a class and I are reading one of my favorite memoirs, Name All the Animals.

    • shirleyhs on February 4, 2015 at 5:30 pm

      I hope you will share your ideas from both of these experiences online, Richard. Glad to know this idea intrigues you also. I don’t know the memoir you speak of, so I am off to check it out!

      • Richard Gilbert on February 4, 2015 at 6:49 pm

        I just wrote about it on my blog, Shirley! More news to come on the essay . . .

  3. merrildsmith on February 4, 2015 at 12:59 pm

    This was lovely. How interesting that we both chose again to write on aspects of the same topic–this time literature. I first read “A Wrinkle in Time” when I was a child. I haven’t read it in many years, and I honestly did not remember the “namer.” I don’t think there’s a specific author, book, or quote that has influenced me, but I believe very strongly in the power of education and the importance of reading and access to books. My husband is a math teacher, and my younger daughter is an English teacher. Both daughters have written plays. So I suppose my whole family is very much into “naming!”

    • shirleyhs on February 4, 2015 at 5:37 pm


      It does indeed sound as if you have a family of namers. The book where you will find the quote above is A Wind in the Door, not as famous as A Wrinkle, but even more memorable for me. Don’t you just love the character of Meg?

      I am interested in the fact that I didn’t like the book at all when I was 21, but loved it at age 34 and thereafter.

  4. Laurie Buchanan on February 4, 2015 at 4:21 pm

    Shirley — ” A Wrinkle in Time” is one of my all-time favorite books. As a matter of fact, I adore ALL of Madeleine L’Engle’s writing. The Progo quote you shared in this post resonates strongly with me.

    You asked your readers, “Have words from an author entered deeply into your own life and vocation?”

    I am deeply touched by poetry. Two poets I enjoy most are John O’Donahue and Mary Oliver. One of my favorite quotes from Ms. Oliver is:

    “Still, what I want in my life is to be willing to be dazzled – to cast aside the weight of facts and maybe even to float a little above this difficult world.” — Mary Oliver

    With that in mind, I make certain to remain open to “dazzlement.” This, by being observant and seeing extraordinary in the ordinary, and then sharing it with my readers.

    • shirleyhs on February 4, 2015 at 5:39 pm

      Laurie, you have named your vocation beautifully! And who can help you better than poets, especially Mary Oliver.

      You are so grounded, and yet you do float too!

  5. Elfrieda Schroeder on February 4, 2015 at 5:44 pm

    Shirley, I found my own meaning for my name and I love it. My parents named me “Elfriede” a good German name, but not much known in Canada. A Canadian teacher changed it to “Elfrieda” for better pronunciation, but I was always a bit embarrassed about it. Then I found my own meaning: El is Hebrew for God, Friede is peace in German. My name means “peace with God”. I want to live up to this wonderful name I have!

  6. PJ Colando on February 4, 2015 at 5:56 pm

    Sweet, Shirley. Pithy, poignant, and good for the sharing soul

    • shirleyhs on February 5, 2015 at 1:56 pm

      Thank you, PJ. So good to know you read and enjoyed.

  7. shirleyhs on February 5, 2015 at 9:57 am

    You have claimed your name with passion, Elfrieda, and I love it — both the name and the passion. You also illustrate a truth. We are given a name at birth, but we can also shape and re-name ourselves as we respond to our callings and choose our vocations. Thank you.

  8. Tracy Lee Karner on February 5, 2015 at 10:12 am

    Madeleine L’Engle had a primary influence on me and on my writing. I read EVERYTHING she wrote, most of it twice.

    I don’t remember the first time I read that passage from A Wind in the Door , but I do know that I internalized it, and believed it. When I was a child, it meant 2 things to me — learning and using a person’s name; and no name-calling. I was hypersensitive to the hurts caused by name-calling.

    As I grew older, the concept of correctly and rightly “naming” extended to all things–feelings, events, deeds, past, present, future…. and a growing desire (or need, or calling) to “find delightful words and to write words of truth correctly” (Ecclesiastes 12:10).

    I LOVE that photo. 🙂 Have a wonderful retreat!

  9. shirleyhs on February 5, 2015 at 10:22 am

    Madeleine L’Engle’s roots have gone down deeply into your spirit, Tracy. I love the way you describe your own relationship to Naming and to your calling to write.

    Thank you for your good wishes for this retreat. We are at the half-way mark and already feel the precious time slipping away from us. So rich an experience.

  10. Kathleen Pooler on February 5, 2015 at 2:02 pm

    Shirley, Your message resonates. Claiming and honoring who we are enables us to go out into the world and be our best selves. You have enticed me to read Madeleine L’Engle’s work. My favorite quote: ” If someone knows who he is, he doesn’t need to hate.” And I love your photo of Anthony reading to Julia.Priceless!

    • shirleyhs on February 5, 2015 at 2:10 pm

      Thank you, Kathy. Another mama knows how strong the tie is to an adult son who was once a little boy like his little boy and who now reads to his little girl the way we read to him.

      And that quote from Madeleine L’Engle would transform the world if only we could all be Named fully and completely.

  11. Marian Beaman on February 5, 2015 at 2:10 pm

    Have words from an author deeply penetrated my life? Yes, indeed, the oft-quoted lines from Anais Nin echo in my head as I walk the tunnels of my mind writing memoir these days: “And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

    As always, elegant words and illustrations, Shirley. You won’t be shocked to know that my own post on naming will appear on Saturday with a link to this one!

    • shirleyhs on February 5, 2015 at 2:14 pm

      Ha! I cannot believe how many times you and I have traveled the same road on our blogs. I appreciate having your companionship on the journey.

      And that quote from Anais Nin is really revolutionary. So glad you chose to blossom!

  12. Dolores Nice-Siegenthaler on February 5, 2015 at 8:15 pm

    I love this desire to name,
    O One Who Calls Us Into Places of Fertile Remembering.

    • shirleyhs on February 6, 2015 at 10:30 am

      Thank you, O One Who Names the Namer

      and O One Who Mothers the Earth

  13. Tina Fariss Barbour on February 5, 2015 at 11:26 pm

    I am sorry to say I’ve never read any of L’Engle’s books. When I was in grad school many years ago and going through a hard time, a mentor recommended that I read A Wrinkle in Time, but I couldn’t seem to connect enough to read it. Perhaps I am ready now.

    Writers who speak to me? Mary Oliver and Joan Didion. Oliver has taught me to recognize the sacred in nature and has helped me to be less hard on myself. Didion taught me the beauty of nonfiction. Ironically, I wrote my master’s thesis on her fiction. I was so stuck in the idea that I was a fiction reader and writer.

    I try to encourage others, in their work, their struggles, and their goals especially. Perhaps that my way of recognizing the individual and the connection among all of life.

    • shirleyhs on February 6, 2015 at 10:34 am

      Yes, Tina. Timing is critical to one’s readiness to see and hear some stories. As in the case above, I didn’t like A Wrinkle in Time at all the first time I read it.

      I like that Mary Oliver has helped you to be less hard on yourself. And your work of encouraging others has a similar impact.

      Thanks for your visit!

  14. What’s in a Name? | Plain and Fancy on February 7, 2015 at 7:34 am

    […] Bonus: As it happens, this week memoirist/friend Shirley Showalter blogs on the power of naming as a way to find one’s vocation and calling. Read about it here. […]

  15. Janet Givens on February 10, 2015 at 9:40 am

    I’m with Kathy. “If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate” really jumped out at me as I read, naming being metaphor for knowing. I’m looking at naming differently now, Shirley, thanks to this post. I once thought “naming” (labeling) a sure way to limit something, to inhibit its growth. Thank you for this more expansive view. I’ll also just quickly add that when I saw the photo of Anthony reading to his son, (following your photo with Anthony as a child) what jumped out at me then was, “so that’s what Stuart looked like when younger.” Nice!

  16. Shirley Hershey Showalter on February 10, 2015 at 9:49 am

    Yes, Janet. Thank you for the reminder of the paradox in this idea. Naming can be used to limit and label, as in the term “name calling.” But I like your substitution of the idea of knowing that allows a name to become a synonym for uniqueness and destiny.

    Anthony looks very much like his father Stuart. And Owen (not the one on the lap), looks very much like his father Anthony. But their names are all different. How wonderful to have a part in all this naming.

  17. Elaine Mansfield on February 11, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    Beautiful, Shirley, and yes it does. Like you, I love to name things.

    I felt without a name after my husband died. I still carried his name and was still married to him inwardly, but what was I in the world and what was my worldly name?

    My youngest son is also Anthony, named after our first spiritual teacher. Anthony fought for his name as a child and young man. Correcting and correcting. “My name isn’t Tony, it’s Anthony.” And he persevered. In his forties, he is still Anthony. I was surprised how much his name mattered to him.

  18. […] maybe not The Thing but ok (I wanted the book to give more examples though lol) More about it hereBe a Namer! Madeleine L'Engle's Living Admonition | Shirley Hershey Showalter “I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and […]

  19. Kari Coppinger on November 1, 2018 at 1:23 pm

    This is one of my all-time favorite scenes in a book. I was thinking about it today as I read the names of those who were killed in the Pittsburgh synagogue last week. Glad to find your blog post.

    • Shirley Showalter on November 6, 2018 at 10:29 am

      Thank you for stopping by and leaving your note, Kari. My heart is broken for the families of the Tree of Life Synagogue — and for our country, where people are getting fed lies and taking violent action thinking they are noble. Clearly, we have not been doing enough really and truly naming.

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