Tattoos: Sacramental Art?

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?

No, that might be a college-educated youth asserting the autonomy of his solipsism, but it wouldn’t be my nephew. He’s fallen in love, had his heart broken. Some part of him was permanently lost in his parents’ divorce. He sat at my mother’s deathbed, his grandmother’s, with the face of a Lincoln: old before its time, saddened, wearied, but utterly infused with the human spirit. Richard Dawkins didn’t convince my nephew to leave the Church. It’s more frightening than that. The Church wasn’t saying anything he thought he needed to hear.

With Pope Francis, the Church has entered a new era of optimism. Can Francis speak to my nephew in a new way?

For better or for worse, the modern papacy has become a global Hamlet. In a single man, we think the entire Church weighs its worth. Did the Church fail on the great question of sexuality under Paul VI? Did it return to its own sources of renewal in the confrontational, one-time amateur actor, John Paul II? In Benedict XVI, did sagacity and spirituality lead the Church into a monastic security, as the darkness of data swirled down on modernity? And now Francis, like his carefully (craftily?) chosen namesake, fills the human heart with real hope in something beyond itself, in mystery. He does this simply because in him the spiritual seems finally to care about the utterly human.

Of course, the modern popes are emblems of an ecclesial reality much larger than themselves. They are celebrities, which our contemporaries can absorb. They are the religious, reduced to sound bite, camera shot, twitter feed. (All so aptly named!) When he lost the Papal States, Pius IX created the modern cult of the papacy. Ironic that two of the least-loved popes, Paul VI and Benedict XVI, sought to rein-in the pretension of papal personality. They didn’t see the pope, or ministry itself, as understudy for the Messiah. Yet for better or worse, the Church now has celebrities, who influence her and the world beyond. Francis, or the spirit he seeks to infuse into the Church, may yet help my nephew.

But let us move from tattoos to Trinity.

Trinity Sunday is the Church’s great liturgical blunder, as though in one celebration we could encapsulate what the liturgical year endlessly cycles and proclaims. Trinity Sunday is a sorry selfie of the Church, one shot much too close. Because the Trinity stands at the core of our self-understanding, indeed within our self-understanding, it can never be made a ready object of consideration. It’s quite like human consciousness, trying to talk about itself.

The word “Trinity” doesn’t even appear in the New Testament. The mystery is so presupposed as to go unnamed. Yet accepting the risk of reduction, we can say this about the Trinity. Some two millennia ago, a Galilean stepped into the promises of Israel in way that necessitated, at least for some, and then, for the many, the recognition of his divinity. Yet this same Jesus-proclaimed-the-Christ addressed someone else as his Father. He promised the Spirit of Power, who would be neither he nor we.

The Trinity emerges from history, not theory. It’s only solid is the assertion that God cannot be circumscribed. God is mystery. Even in self, God is dialogical depth. God is both the utter unity, which a rational universe requires, and the drama of difference, which the human heart seeks.

Trinity Sunday? Still a mistake! The Trinity itself? The great cipher that neither God nor man can be circumscribed! When the drives of the human, which create and sustain spirituality, seem to be spent, they spring up again, even in the flesh of the young. Is a tattoo a sincere, even if sad, form of self-expression for those who are at a waste for words? Good question. Here’s another. Does the Trinity, historically incised into the heart of Christianity, say something about the human spirit itself? Are we addressed, within and beyond the world, by a mystery deeper and more loving than we can imagine?

Deuteronomy 4: 32-34, 39-40  Romans 8: 14-17  Matthew 28: 16-20

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Andrea Campana
2 years 8 months ago
Your nephew's generation was raised on Science, and this direction in education has had a profound effect on their turn away from traditional belief systems. This also helps to explain why boys are not interested in reading Chaucer but in traveling to Mars and beyond. But the subject of your nephew's tattoo seems to indicate that Christianity is deeply important to him. A professor once said that after 2,000 years, a religion will either mutate or become more fundamental. We must learn to accept that the new generation's search for God is no less real than ours.


Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

(Nick Ansell/PA via AP, archive)
Recent allegations about one of the United Kingdom’s biggest and best-known charities has driven increased demands from some quarters that overseas aid be reduced, if not abolished completely.
David StewartFebruary 23, 2018
Students who walked out of classes from Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland protest against gun violence in front of the White House on Feb. 21 in Washington. (CNS photo/Kevin Lamarque, Reuters)
The desire for stronger gun control may not translate into more caution with gun storage among owners of firearms.
Kevin ClarkeFebruary 23, 2018
Of the estimated 14.5 million school-age Catholic children in the U.S., about or 55 percent are Latino. Yet 4 percent of school-age Latino Catholic children are enrolled in Catholic schools.
Maria Luisa TorresFebruary 23, 2018
Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Sacraments, is pictured at the Vatican in this Oct. 9, 2012, file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
Cardinal Sarah questions why Catholics stand—rather than kneel—and receive Communion in the hand.
Michael J. O’LoughlinFebruary 23, 2018