In the book Laurus, the main character, Arseny has his name changed several times (four different names in his life).
In the Old Testament God changed Abram’s name to Abraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Israel. Name changes concern who a person was and who they are now.
Names have great meaning in the Judeo-Christian worldview. To know someone’s name is to know who they are or some aspect of them. In the modern world (or current Western civilization) names are not significant. But in the church they still are significant. When one is baptized, a name is usually chosen, hence the middle name. Much thought and prayer is associated in choosing the name. In ordination, one chooses a name of a saint to associate with. Much thought and prayer goes into this as well.
What is the significance of changing one’s name in a Christian sense?
In Laurus, Arseny starts as a healer. He uses all he knows, all he was taught by his grandfather about herbs and their healing property. He also learns the importance of prayer in treating others in their ailments. Something terrible happens, the woman he loves and her child die. Arseny leaves his town and his work. He wanders. Along the way, he continues to do what he was taught, treat those with pestilence and ailments. This is who he is. He walks the road of ministering others.
In his grief and sorrow for the loss of his love, he makes his home in a cemetery of a convent. He becomes the holy fool, changing his name to Ustin. It is a substitutionary name. It is the male version of the name of the woman whom he loves, who died in childbirth. He takes on his sin and her sin to be a living sacrifice before God. That through suffering he and Ustina may be redeemed. All the while, the people still come to him for healing.
He goes on pilgrimage and returns a broken man, again. All his friends parted or were killed. He too was almost killed. He returns to Russia and goes to the monastery, where his name is changed by the Abbot. All he was before is now in submission to the monastery and to God. People continue to flock to him for healing.
After seven years of service at the monastery, he reaches the highest level of spiritual excellence called the Great Schema. His name is changed again, which is also the title of the book. It is related to the laurel plant which is an evergreen and associated with eternity. Again, he leaves and finds his final home in a cave. Though he sees himself as a wretched sinner, the people seek him out as a holy man and seek his healing ministrations. But his work is finished in the cave in the woods, there is redemption that circles back to the beginning. (I won’t give it away. Instead read the book).
The beauty of the name changes is that these are levels of transformation in Christ. Arseny never sought to be a holy man. Yet, through his difficult life, God used him as an instrument to reveal mercy, grace and healing that is God’s alone—he was but the vessel. Transformation is not a simple procession of climbing. There is much trial in transformation. The spiritual road of the Christian is not a simple how-to or self-help book. It is a life of trial, sorrow, grief, repentance, falling, suffering, yet mysteriously filled with joy. Life is a mystery. We do not know the whole picture or why we go through what we do. But the Holy Wisdom of God guides us. He holds the entire picture that has redemption in the end. We are finite and do not understand all that is going on. But through transformation, he brings us closer to Him and to union with Him—our ultimate destination.