Unemployed at 52 with a family of six, a father and writer traces back his deepest root - his name.
It was the first thing I was ever given by my mother and father, other than my life itself, and it might be the last thing I ever would have asked for.
I’m referring to my first name. If I could gather up everyone I know into one place and request a show of hands over who, if given the chance at birth, would have chosen the name “Jude,” I believe I’d be standing in front of a motionless audience that had suddenly forgotten how to speak.
I guess it’s not very common to ruminate too long about your name and how you got it and why you got it. If you are a “junior” or you were named for a parent or relative, there’s little mystery.
Everyone has heard the name before - Jude - and yet it’s still kind of weird. I always have to repeat it, explain it, spell it, etc. - all my life. It takes a few moments, and then a light dawns on the other person’s face, an eyebrow goes up, and they usually say something to the effect of, “Oh! … ohhhhh ….” Followed by a very awkward silence, followed by “I’ve heard of that name” or sometimes an extremely unconvincing “I like that name….”
Or, in many cases, throughout my lifetime, although interestingly beginning to fade: “Were your parents big Beatles fans?”
Here we go: the three most common questions I have received upon introducing myself, in order of frequency, between, say, 1972 (when I was capable of introducing myself) and the present - along with my most common replies:
Q: Were your parents huge Beatles fans?
A: No. My father was born in 1930 and hated rock n’ roll. My mother is from a large, traditional Catholic and Irish family.
Q: As in, like, Jude Law (the actor)?
A: Yes, but I’m not named after him. And I had it first, I am older than Jude Law. Also, he was originally named David.
Q: As in, Saint Jude?
A: Ding ding ding ding ding!
It’s the third one. Refer back to my answer to the first question for a bit of a clue. Also, my father (named Richard, if you’re wondering) was a lifelong Catholic, an educated scientist and theologian who spent 11 years in his twenties and thirties as a Jesuit novice before choosing a different path. These things factor in as well.
I’m named after Saint Jude. If you don’t know, Jude was one of the apostles, and is considered the Patron Saint of Desperate Causes, the Last Resort, the Saint of the Impossible. The guy you turn to, traditionally, when all else is beyond hope. He was also a brother of Simon, and a first cousin to Jesus Himself. Besides both men having ties to God’s paternity (!), they shared a paternal grandfather (sort of?) named James, father to Saint Joseph.
Interesting, right? That’s only the tip of the iceberg. There are lots of fascinating things about Saint Jude that most people don’t know and there isn’t time to unpack here. Like his forty-three years of ministry around the globe after Jesus’ execution, for example. Or his own brutal martyrdom at the age of eighty in what is now Iran, by means of something called a halberd, part spear and part battle-ax. This, because of his refusal to worship a god called Mithra. I am not making these things up.
But I have had this name for quite a while. Why am I ruminating on all of this stuff just now?
It’s kind of a story. Recently I lost my job suddenly after working at one large company, very happily I might add, for sixteen years. And before that I worked for an additional eleven or so years in the same line of work for a number of other companies. I am fifty-two years old and I have four children between the ages of ten and twenty. I have accounted for ninety percent of my family’s income thus far, and I had never been let go before from any job. I suddenly found myself without much to do and desperately hunting for work. It has been a bit of a nightmare.
When you are in a situation like this, especially if you are not accustomed to it and never faced it before, you end up thinking a lot and almost re-evaluating your own self. Depending on the sort of thinker you are, you can end up going all the way back to basic questions such as Who am I, even? and What is the point of my being here? and other heavy hitters like that. This stuff happens - at least for me.
I am a Catholic, like my father before me and my mother, and my five brothers and sisters. I believe in God and I pray. Along the way a few people have mentioned Saint Jude to me, owing to the fact that I am now in a tough spot. And I have thought about him myself, here and there, for similar reasons, and because the guy is always hanging around me somewhere, I feel. I did not act on these thoughts much, though, until recently.
Who was that guy? This mystery man? Why did my parents name me after him? The name had not been in the family before that I know of. What were my mom and dad getting at? That I was destined to be some kind of desperate case, the perfect guy to represent the hopeless? Or, was I going to be the guy you want around when life stuffs you in a foxhole, with enemies coming at you from all sides?
The plot thickens a little when you learn I have an identical twin brother. His name is John. Why did John get a “normal” name? Who balks at the name John? It’s as classic as it gets. Why isn’t he the hopeless case guy?
Whatever the answers are, these two names are one of the few things that truly, effectively set us apart from one another. The whole Jude matter is what we call a “me thing.” It has absolutely nothing to do with John. For twins that is rare.
Also, throughout my life, I have been mistaken for a woman or a girl. Not face to face, of course - I don’t look too feminine. But on paper, as it were. It’s why I sign things with my middle name, Joseph - a pre-emptive effort that only sometimes works.
When I was a kid, every teacher I had would pronounce my name “Judy” on the first day. I wouldn’t answer—although I knew exactly what was coming—until they added “Judy Lovell?” and everyone would laugh as I glumly mumbled, “It’s Jude.” And yet, every single person I tell that story to says, “What? Why? Don’t people know that’s a boy’s name?” Trust me, friends: they do not.
One time, about eight or ten years ago, I was at a party talking to a woman who had recently given birth to a baby boy. She told me with enthusiasm, to my face, “Oh! We were this close to naming our son Jude too! But then we thought, who would do that to a kid?” I burst out laughing. Indeed!
When my brother John and I turned fifty, my siblings got together and gave us this basket full of goofy little gifts. In the basket there was a t-shirt for my brother that said on it: VINTAGE 1970. I got it: we’re old, ha ha! Needless to say, I got a t-shirt too. It had one word on it, printed five times, for some unaccountable reason:
This shirt has had an interesting life with me thus far. Sometimes people ask me where I got it. It often helps when I’m ordering coffee or food somewhere and they say, “Can I have a name for the order?” I just point, rather than repeat it six times.
On other occasions, someone will be bold enough to just point back at me and ask that age-old question, “Why??” My favorite answer to this is another question: “What, you mean you do not own a t-shirt with your name printed on it five times?” Why, indeed? More mystery!
Here is a final, random anecdote. Around 25 years ago, maybe more, my younger brother and I were living together in a bachelor pad in Philadelphia. My father, now deceased, was attending Villanova University at the time (in his late sixties!) getting a Master’s degree in Theology. Once or twice a week he would drive to the city to attend classes or lectures and stay overnight with the two of us. Those are some good memories now.
Anyway, there was one time when a church in northeast Philadelphia was putting on a program in which an actor from Broadway was coming in to perform portions of one of the gospels live, a kind of one-man show. The actor would be portraying Jesus, whom he resembled, at least by traditional depictions. My Dad was very interested in this, so he went to it and took my brother and me along.
Before the performance, the actor came out into the audience of about two or three hundred and asked for twelve volunteers to come onstage and “play” his disciples. All you had to do was sit in these chairs and be present while the actor walked in between and around the twelve, reciting his lines as Jesus. Somehow, I ended up on that stage.
When the performance was about to begin, he circulated around us twelve strangers. I was seated last in a semicircle. Starting on the other end, the actor came up behind each of us, one by one, and announced our name for the show - including Jude, who fell to someone else. A woman, probably.
Finally he reached me, last, at the other end. He took a tremendous dramatic pause - the guy was a stage actor, after all - and clapped both of my shoulders with his hands. Then he said in a loud, grave tone that I can still hear echoing in that vacuous church:
I saw my brother and father cracking up in the audience. I shook my head. The crowd chuckled.
This is not so random, by the way. Sometimes people confuse the names. I’ve had people actually ask me on many occasions if Jude is short for “Judas.” Yes, of course, I try not to say. My parents named me deliberately for the guy who betrayed the Son of God. Sure!
The first line of the centuries-old, traditional prayer to Saint Jude goes like this:
Most Holy Apostle, St. Jude Thaddeus, faithful servant and friend of Jesus, the name of the traitor who delivered your beloved Master into the hands of his enemies has caused you to be forgotten by many.
So. As I find myself here at this difficult juncture in life, in my middle age, I wonder:
Who am I? A traitor? “Forgotten by many?” Or a good friend, an ally? A hope for the hopeless? A light in the dark?
I really do not know. It’s a lifelong process, isn’t it? We all go through it. But I am saying that prayer, by the way, on the daily. It can’t hurt. And I am not too proud to ask for aid.
So come on, mystery man. Help a brother out! And help me to be a guy that others can count on too when the chips are down. I will be that man.