When the seventeenth century French scientist Blaise Pascal died in 1662, his servant found a small piece of parchment sewn into his coat.
At the top of the paper Pascal had drawn a cross. And underneath this, he had written a short passage describing a powerful religious vision that he had experienced eight years earlier and that had changed the course of his life.
The experience was so significant and treasured that Pascal wanted to keep a memento of it close to his body, in the coat he wore every day, for the rest of his life.
Maybe if Pascal had been alive in this century, he would have had the passage made into a tattoo.
Tattoos are everywhere.
And, in this gloriously warm summer weather, you can’t help encountering them on the arms and legs and backs and necks of men and women in shops, streets, cafes and bars – everywhere.
So why is this?
Are tattoos just a fashion accessory? Or, do they seek to say something of significance that is at the heart of us?
Whether the tattoo is a life guiding quotation, a daughter’s name and birthdate, a mythical fighter or whatever – what is so important that we choose to score it into our flesh?
Words and symbols have always been important to people.
Going through a pile of old diaries recently, I find that they are full of little quotes of words that spoke powerfully to me at the time. If I’d made them all into tattoos, my body would be completely covered and some of them I’m sure I’d regret.
But we all come across words that ‘speak to us.’ Words that call us to jot them down in the back of a notebook or to write them out and blutac them over our desks.
And symbols can also be similarly significant.
I don't sew quotes into my coat but I do often wear a cross around my neck or a wristband that reminds me I am a Christian, that I’ve chosen to live my life trying to follow the example of Christ.
I’ve never been tempted to get a tattoo. But maybe this is not something to be proud of. Maybe, in some ways, it’s something of a moral failing – that I am not willing to use my body as an extended canvas to manifest what I believe and hope is written or etched on my soul.
In the Bible God famously gives Moses the ‘Law,’ the rules of life, to be etched on stone. The Ten Commandments. But later God says to the prophet Jeremiah – ‘I will give my people a new law and I will write this law not on tablets of stone – but on their hearts.’ And then, when Jesus comes, the evangelist John recognises him as ‘the Word made flesh.’ The Word or Law as it looks in a human being.
And there is something of all this in tattoos.
A longing for deeper meaning, an understanding and sharing of what is at the heart of us. And a manifestation of that – in the flesh. In a way that is permanent.
A tattoo is a permanent commitment – a bit like getting baptised.
Sometimes, of course, we have something wrong at the heart of us – I certainly did for many years of my life – which is why it can be very upsetting to have a tattoo that you subsequently regret.
Years ago, I was walking down a high street in my clerical collar and a man came up to me weeping.
Tears were streaming down his face so I sat down on a bench with him and asked what was wrong. He told me he had done something truly unforgivable.
I smiled, feeling comfortably confident, and told him that nothing was beyond God’s mercy. There was absolutely nothing that could not be forgiven.
But the man refused to be comforted.
And suddenly he jumped up and ripped open the front of his shirt.
This was, of course, a bit of a shock. But I soon realised what he was trying to tell me. For, on this chest - in huge black tattoo’ed letters - were the words DEVIL’S CHILD.
I shuddered inwardly and got the man to sit down again.
I continued to reassure him that God loved him. But he was inconsolable. He knew he would die with these terrible words scored into his body. And there was nothing he could do about it.
Of course, God doesn’t just see what’s on the surface of our bodies or our lives, he looks straight into the heart. So this man truly has nothing to fear.
But let’s think carefully about what we use our wonderful, amazing bodies to proclaim.
If we are going to use them – as Christ himself did – in a sacrificial way to proclaim a message. May that message be something of peace and love and hope. The words that we would all truly want to be etched on our hearts.
Martine is running 'Vegan Alpha' in the autumn - a short course to help you follow a more plant-based diet and to explore the Christian faith. Get in touch with her to sign up.
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Posted by Martine Oborne