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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 precedes it, both she and I will explain what the experience was for us.
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Have you ever walked in on someone who was praying? Not a brief, thrown out there prayer but a prayer of the heart, a moment where you knew that the person was talking to God? I’ve been trying for weeks to write about taking a dear friend to get her first tattoo and this is the closest I can get. I walked in on her in a moment where she and God were in conversation.
Don’t get me wrong. It was magical, mystical. I am deeply honored that I was there as audience. But it reminded me of the rare times I take friends to synagogue. While it is a spiritual experience for them, they tend to feel lost in the moments of Hebrew. They explain that they feel more like witnesses than participants. They don’t speak the language of the prayers.
This is how I felt, sitting there, watching Paula get tattooed. She is a mystic. She relates to God in a language I will never speak. Her tattoo carried a language with it of Spirit, of beginning, of relationship to God. It’s a vocabulary we share, but we speak it in different languages.
Rituals of the body – specifically intensely religious/spiritual rituals – are ones I’m not sure can ever be shared. The conversation that occurs between the body, the spirit, God and the heart is one that is so intensely personal, so private that no amount of public ritual can make it wholly understood by witnesses. Paula can explain until she’s blue in the face what the ritual means to her, but I will never feel it. I will never know the conversations she had with God in those moments.
This doesn’t make being a witness meaningless. In some ways, it makes it mean more. We are blessed, in some moments, with the gift of witnessing true communion. We are blessed in the moments we walk in on someone deep in prayer. For those of us who are occasional skeptics, these moments give us proof that God is talking. They give us moments when we know that God is listening.
It doesn’t matter that Paula and I were in different conversations at that moment. It doesn’t matter that that I will never know what she and God said to each other. What matters is that I was there as a witness to her moment of connection. It matters that she wasn’t alone while she worked her way through the ritual. This ritual (if I may speak for Paula) was a ritual of pain and cleansing, a ritual of releasing the old and welcoming the new. I may not speak the language that Paula was speaking, but I carry inside myself the same vocabulary. I spoke the same words in my own ritual, in my own language, with my own piercings, after Paula’s tattoo. She stood witness. She held my hand. She didn’t speak the language, but she understood the vocabulary.
It’s a vocabulary we all carry inside our hearts. Pain, longing, beginnings, renewal. We long for people to understand the language we use for these feelings; we believe we must speak the same language for others to understand what we are saying. I’m not sure I can ever speak the language Paula speaks. Nor am I sure that she will ever speak mine. But in those moments of pain, rebirth, and change, we understood each other. Deeply and intensely, in ways that will never die, we understood each other and witnessed our relationships to God. I’m fairly sure that transcends the boundaries of any language, ritual, or experience.