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About a month ago, I took a friend to get her first tattoo. At the same time, I got new body piercings put in. We are both spiritual people (though she is undeniably more of a mystic than I am). Her tattoo was both religious in iconography and spiritual in personal meaning, so we knew going in that it was going to be an experience that carried deeply spiritual tones. In this post and the one that follows, both she and I will explain what the experience was for us.
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Tattoo as Church
guest written by Paula Wells Sinozich
I have spent most of my life horrified at the notion that anyone would mark her or his skin permanently by a tattoo. I think the remark I made over and over, especially in front of my children, was “Why would anyone want to DO that?”
For the life of me, I could not imagine wanting to imprint myself with words or pictures with which I would have to live forever. And yet, I was willing at the tender age of 25 to take marriage vows for life. For that matter, at the age of 10, I was willing (well, if you have a will of your own at 10) to be confirmed as a Roman Catholic. Vows are inward, but human vows sadly do not have the same permanency in this world as a tattoo.
There is no doubt that a tattoo is much less a big deal to people under say, 40. There are far fewer of my contemporaries that have tattoos. Everywhere I go around the southern city where I currently reside, I see more and more body art, some of it quite elaborate. Even around my divinity school (which is admittedly pretty progressive, but it is still a divinity school), tattoos are pretty plentiful. I have been curious as to what a tattoo that cascades down the arm of a young woman will look like when she is 65. I have strained to read what special significance certain words or pictures might have to their bearers. I have tried not to stare or ask questions, and then, I think, I’m supposed to ask questions.
There definitely was a light switch moment for me when I decided to get a tattoo. That moment was strangely like the moment that I knew I had to become a minister — it was a tiny little seed that took root and grew into a fabled beanstalk. The tattoo seed was planted, in fact, by a pastor. He and I were at the Wild Goose Festival this past summer, listening to great music and interesting talks about the emergent church, on comparative theology, on spiritual growth, and he posed the question to me about whether I had ever considered getting a tattoo. At the time, I gave a definitively negative answer. When he asked me the same question a few months later, I don’t think he remembered that he had asked me before. But this time the answer was different.
The first time he had asked, I knew my life was changing rapidly and dramatically; the second time, I knew my life was never going to resemble anything it had resembled before. A transformation — a conversion — was in the making. I had left my law practice and entered divinity school full time. My firstborn left for college. Many other changes, painful but beautiful, were surging in my life.
I had also recently developed a sudden but deep and binding friendship with someone who is a completely different shell than I am, and I am certain that my usual crowd would not understand our relationship at all. She has over 30 tattoos and many piercings, and each one has a story, and I find her more beautiful each moment I know her. And so we went together to the tattoo parlor, and I allowed her to extend to me a radical hospitality to welcome me there. She introduced me to the tattoo artist, who lovingly swabbed me with ointment, carefully chose music that would soothe me, and asked me to bow my head so that he could reach what needed to be reached. My friend took photographs while I suffered the pain that I needed to suffer, and I appear to be in prayer. I appear to be because I was. And during the hour or so with the needle, I confessed some of my fears and longings to her, and she held sacred space for me. When it was done, I accompanied her as she received two surface piercing in her chest, and she allowed me to hold her hand and comfort and encourage her.
Afterwards, we encountered a few people on the way back to her apartment — people who had also marked themselves and nodded knowingly. I am now in communion with others.
My friend took me to her home, sat me before her and washed my tattoo, and sent me out into the world with my message: this tattoo of an ancient Celtic symbol, the wild goose, which was adopted by Christians as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, on my back and over my heart, permanent and perfect lines, urging me forward to do the things that I need to do, in the service of others and in the service of God.
This, this is church. This is a Christian church where suffering is recognized for its ability to help us transcend and transform, where communion is with one another as a reflection of our covenant with God, where we recognize the beauty in one another and love as unconditionally as broken human beings can. It is prayerful, it is loving, it is self-sacrificing, it is confession and assurance, it is holy. Yes, this is church as church should be.