by Matushka Valerie Zahirsky
When the great boxing champion Muhammad Ali died recently, events in his life were reviewed in the media. One of those events was Ali’s public embrace of Islam and his rejection of his birth name, Cassius Marcellus Clay, which he denounced as a “slave name.”
One has to wonder whether Ali really understood what he was rejecting and denouncing. The original Cassius Marcellus Clay was a white Christian, and also such a prominent abolitionist that he endured being shot in the chest, attempted assassination, and mob violence at the hands of those who wanted to preserve slavery. President Lincoln appointed him to the post of Minister to the Court of Saint Petersburg in Russia, and one of his proudest moments in that country was witnessing Tsar Alexander II’s edict emancipating the serfs.
Ali’s grandfather, Herman Heaton Clay, the African-American descendant of slaves, named his son in tribute to Cassius Marcellus Clay. The son passed the name down to his own son, who gave it up in favor of a name honoring the prophet Muhammad.
Our Orthodox Christian faith pays a lot of attention to names. Babies are traditionally given the names of saints, either those on whose feast days they were born or those whose names are part of the family’s history. Someone who enters the faith later in life often takes on the name of a saint. No matter how or why the name is given, it’s a way of encouraging the person who carries it to emulate the saint’s holy qualities.
The names of saints can also encourage us when we remember that even the greatest of them had failings to overcome, as we do. The peace-loving hero of children, Saint Nicholas, was once temporarily stripped of his episcopal office for striking the heretic Arius.
Saints may challenge us to rise to difficult occasions in the same extraordinary ways they did. What creativity and bravery Mother Maria Skobtsova showed during World War II in devising the plan of rescuing children from confinement by getting them out in garbage cans, not to mention remarkable powers of persuasion in convincing the garbage collectors to help her.
It’s a wonderful thing to have the saints always with us as examples, as sources of comfort and guidance. But even those who are not named after saints can look to the people whose names they bear as examples and guides. It’s unfortunate that Muhammad Ali refused to see Cassius Marcellus Clay in that way. Though no model citizen, Clay as an example of courageous insistence on the equality of all people stands up better than most.