by Ben Garren
The baptismal font at Salisbury Cathedral shines out, a modern furnishing nestled gracefully amidst a medieval edifice. It was blessed by Rowan Williams, when he sat as Archbishop of Canterbury, and in four spots around its sides he marked it with the sign of the cross using oil of chrism. Inadvertently in that moment he became like Bansky, a graffiti artist, for the oil permanently marked the copper of the font. Marked, as it were, forever.
We are a religion of marking. Christians all enter into an essential rite of Baptism in which they are “marked as Christ’s own, forever”. We look at all the sin, all the damage, all the marks that cover a person’s soul and say “no, there is another greater mark that consumes all these with which you are to be marked.” In the face of the depravity we carry in our souls the church responds with a cry to name each of us “beloved, with whom we are well pleased”. We are a people that live into marking the most eternal selves. Yet, we retain resistance to markings on our temporal selves.
Six years ago, on the anniversary of the Stone Wall Riots, a group of friends and I all had upper helix piercings done in our left ear. The single piercing on the left ear is a decades old sign to anyone who knew it that we were all “Dorothies”, gay men. It was a cultural phenomena that has faded from the stereotypes but one we wanted to connect with. A group of twenty something gay men seeking to connect to a culture and history that was laid waste by the AIDs crisis in the decade when we were in preschool. Since I was pierced very few have thought it might have a story or a meaning, the general thought is that it is an ephemeral ascetic choice. When I was applying for summer internships with hospital chaplaincies one supervisor said “Our dress code does not allow for men to have piercings, it is not an appropriate fashion choice”. Supposing, from the beginning, that their was no deep personal pastoral connection between myself and the ring of metal in my ear.
This odd paradox, that I am called to consistently proclaim the reality of the marks of baptism upon my eternal self but will be judged for any attempt to mark my temporal self with signs of that story and proclamation, kept me from getting a tattoo for quite some time. I was hesitant because of the concept that the only good body is an unmarked body.
My reality, however, is that I do not have a “good body”. I was never given the choice of having a “good body”. I am a childhood cancer survivor. From the age of eleven onwards my body has been riddled with scars from long term catheter entry points, IV and spinal tap needles, and since then regular preventative skin biopsies. My body, racked by cancer, never had a chance to be an unmarked body, a “good body” any more than my soul, racked by the inherent injustice of our world, ever had a chance to be an unmarked soul, a “pure soul”. I had my baptism to live into internally but no external counter to the marks covering my body.
So after a decade of wanting to mark my body with a sign not of the trials that I had endured but a sign of the character and hope it had brought me to know, I decided to make this desire a reality. In a decade of discernment I had chosen both a placement, my left pectoral surrounded by some of the worst of my scars, and a topic, a cross my grandfather found in the sixties while traveling in Scotland, a merging of a Celtic Wickerman and a Christian Crucifix, and left for me to be given on my twenty-first birthday. I was most cautious about finding an artist I could trust. Then it happened that the son of the supervisor at the chaplaincy program I did decide to intern with, not the one mentioned above, was an accomplished tattooist. I got onto his schedule, a wait of several months, and sat for an hour enduring an amount of pain that was small in comparison to the pain that had gone into making the other marks on my body.
The first few weeks it was a reality check every time I saw it. As weeks turned to months, having a tattoo became less of a shock. It became as natural to me as all the other marks on my body. Those marks were not, however, alone any more. If one of them caught my eye, if the memory center of that mark was triggered, they were automatically consumed not only in the start of their story but in their story’s transformation by the mark of the tattoo. An expression on my temporal body of the very reality that my eternal body is marked with. I am marked with Christ, and that marks transforms all other marks with which we are touched, transforms them towards belovedness.
This world will mark us with pain and trial. The question is, will we let the marks of pain and trial define us or will we find ways to mark ourselves with signs of our endurance and hope. My choice was to find a way to so mark myself. We can only live into, we can only move towards, that for which we have markings on the way.