My nephew has a tattoo. Perhaps, more than one, but, as I pause to picture, I can clearly remember only the one. It’s a simple gothic cross, running the length of his right bicep. Although we live a little less distant than a two-hour car drive, we dwell in different worlds. He’s just under thirty, never married. He struggled to finish high school. Until the drop in prices, he was employed in the Kansas oil fields. When I would see him at my mother’s home, his voice abandoned its native languor only if one coaxed him into describing oil field work, the challenges that weather, terrain, and technology presented.Like so many of his generation, Confirmation was my nephew’s passage out of Catholicism. There were no struggles with Church teaching, doctrinal or moral. No conflict with clergy. The institution simply vanished from his life when he took his first job and moved out of the home. Had it ever been a part of his life? Was his faith anything more than a stage of childhood?
But then there is the tattoo, which he clearly chose for himself, and after his egress from Catholicism: a gothic cross. What meaning does this hold for my nephew? Even before that question, why a tattoo? What baffles my generation—but clearly beguiles my nephew’s—is the permanence of a tat. Why, in the day of the disposable, does someone want to seal the skin, indelibly mark it?
The word “sacrament” comes from a Latin word, which was used to translate Saint Paul’s Greek word μυστήριον, mystery. At the time of Caesar, someone hearing the word would have thought of the branding performed upon Roman soldiers, when they took their lifetime oath of military service. It was called a sacramentum.
Does my nephew bear a sacrament on his arm, one that clearly evokes Jesus? With all the permanence he can muster, my nephew seems to be giving himself to some Christ, to some faith, to some mystery beyond himself.
Some might argue that this is the embodiment of modern spirituality: utterly individualistic, undemanding, too self-created to be sustaining. True enough, but a tattoo is none-the-less a deeply personal expression, one writ out in pain. Why does a Mexican-American convict have the Virgincita de Guadalupe splayed across his back? Why is Christ’s crown of thorns or his Sacred Heart incised into the flesh? However sanctioned it might be in my society, perhaps these tattoos are enfleshed signs of the human person’s intrinsic orientation to something beyond the self, to the realm of the spiritual, to mystery.
If the Church has a single concern in this age, if her mission could be reduced to some non-negotiable core, it is the insistence that to be human is to be that spot in the universe that cannot be circumscribed. In us, the universe is conscious. In us, the cosmos knows itself (science and technology) and senses itself to be in the presence of something beyond itself (religion and art).
My nephew has never read modern atheist arguments, which suggest that the great accomplishment of human intelligence is the knowledge that it does not transcend its own origins. Put another way, the universe becomes sentient only to realize that it doesn’t matter. For me, the apostles of atheism always seem a bit too animated about announcing our human insignificance. Don’t they see the irony in preaching that the purpose of our sentience is only to know the purposeless of our existence?
Read more at http://americamagazine.org/content/good-word/tattoos-and-trinity