A few years ago, I spent the summer praying through the Jawshan Kabir, a remarkable Islamic text that lists more than a thousand names for God. I was merely a tourist within this great religious tradition, and like most tourists I found that there were moments when the practice stretched my understanding, and moments when I wanted to retreat back into what I knew from my own tradition. Each day I would read ten of the thousand names, and respond to what I was reading in my journal, first listing the name and then offering a prayer to it. Here are some that still stand out to me:
- O Hearer of Complaints, help me to be honest enough to complain.
- O Gracious Bestower of Blessings, I am surprised by the thought that you might be grateful to me, that the same naming of blessings that attunes me to you is echoed in a divine voice.
- O Trusted Disposer, I trust you to dispose of things. Which things, I cannot say. Dispose of whatever needs to be disposed of.
- O Guide of the Bewildered, help me to remember to beseech you in times of bewilderment.
- O Placer of Darkness, I can accept that my periods of darkness were placed within me by you, in an act of mercy and love.
- O Confiner; O Expander, I love that you are both. Confine and expand me.
This went on and on, and when I was finished, I found that my understanding of God had grown significantly. The Jawshan Kabir is known as “The Great Cuirass,” or breastplate. Christianity also has “breastplates,” called loricas in the Celtic tradition. Saint Patrick’s Breastplate is probably the best known. Christianity and Islam share an understanding that invoking the name of God provides a kind of protection.
In terms of covenant, an invocation can protect us against breaking our relationships with God, our neighbor, and ourselves. When we try to limit God, which is always a way of attempting to control God, the pure expansiveness of a lorica should check our intention and make us realize that this is a relationship that we can neither limit nor control. When we grow envious or resentful of our neighbors, or unmindful of them, a lorica can call us back by asserting that all of the blessings in our lives come from God, and our lack of things, positions, and status might just be a blessing rather than a detriment or affront. When we feel scattered within ourselves, a lorica can reassure us that this scattering isn’t, ultimately, ruinous, and that multiplicity within ourselves is merely a reflection of the multiplicities of God.
Since praying my way through the Jawshan Kabir, I try to invoke God with a diversity of names. Christianity has some skill with this, as we already use three names to refer to the one God. Trinitarian theology asserts that divinity is relational, that the three persons of the Trinity are in an ever-moving, ever flowing relationship with each other. So to invoke God is to invoke divine relationship, to be willing to accept God in all of the different facets of divine personality.
Any invocation might do, from the “Hey God” that I often hear evangelicals use to the extensive elaborations of a lorica. Any invocation will be, by its nature, limited, being unable to contain the fullness of God. Still, the way we invoke God is more of a reflection of ourselves than of the divine reality, so we should exercise some care in them. If I invoke God by saying “One who knows I’m always right,” I will have done great damage to my sense of humility. If I invoke God by saying “One who knows that I deserve everything I have,” I will have done damage to my sense of justice. If I invoke God by saying “One who hates the same people whom I hate,” I will have done damage to my capacity for love. So an invocation is a moral act, a statement and stretching of my faith and my compassion. One should invoke with curiosity, trepidation, and love.