Archive for February 20th, 2012

The Cloisters, Canterbury Cathedral

The Theresa Tattoo

Last summer I saw a tattoo unlike any I’d seen before.  It was on the young man’s neck, above the collar line.  There, where few collars could reach and hide it, were letters in stately German gothic script that spelled out a single word:  “Theresa.”

It was not the fine calligraphy that hit me, nor even the location.  Rather, it was the name itself.  Assuming that Theresa was not his name, it was likely the name of his beloved.  Obviously, she had made a deep impression on him; and just as obviously, he had declared his eternal love for  her in a way that said “I’ll never get this off, no matter how hard I scrub.”  Sadly, he had failed to remember that in modern America “forever” means a week or two, tops.  He was now stuck with this Theresa tattoo for the rest of his life.  And to him it would likely feel like a personal eternity.

Saint Benedict healing a child, glass from Abbey of Saint Denis. Now at V & A, London

David Brooks has pointed out that at nineteen or twenty all of us have to make decisions that determine the rest of our lives.  Unfortunately, at that age we lack the information that could really inform our decisions.  That information only comes later, after many years of experience.  In the meantime, we make our decisions, and we must learn to live with them.

Of course the young man with “Theresa” emblazoned on his neck did not have his entire future closed off.  If this one Theresa hasn’t worked out, there are certainly a lot more Theresa’s out there.  And he could even widen the pool by exploring the hyphenated name market.  It might not be so bad to find a descendant of the great Austrian Empress Maria Theresa, for example.  But if an Edith or a Rachel were ever to ensnare his heart, he could have some real trouble on his hands.  Or on his neck.

There are  other ways to deal with a situation like this, short of despair.  Several summers ago I was waiting at the tube station at Kew Gardens in London.  On the platform was a woman in a sleeveless dress, with a child in tow and a young man by her side.  At the top of her arm was the tattoo of a heart, with the words “Sue and Steve” inscribed inside.  Below it was another heart, inscribed with “Sue and Bob.”  A third followed.  And there were two companions on the other arm.  For all I know these were the names of her five children.  But since jumping to conclusions is my favorite form of exercise, I fished for the worst options I could think of.  Was this child a product of one of the hearts?  Was this guy on the list?  And did the list continue elsewhere?  I did not know.  But what I did know was that before me stood a person who refused to let previous relationships hem her in.  Instead of removing the first tattoo, she added on.  Her arms became her autobiography, and quite possibly it is still a work in progress.

The fact of the matter is, our lives continue to be works in progress as long as we choose to make them so.  We all made fateful decisions when we were twenty, but God gave us each a brain, and He expects us to use it.  Hopefully we’ve used our brains to adapt and grow.  Hopefully we’ve not let mistakes of the past paralyze us.  Hopefully we’ve not rested on the laurels of past success.  If we’ve used our brains well, we’ve learned from our own past, and we’ve been able to pick up our mats and walk on.

Abbot John VI of Steinfeld Abbey, Germany, ca. 1522. Now at V & A, London

Seldom do people live lives of uninterrupted happiness.  Such bliss simply does not exist on this side of life’s great divide.  And so, if we are to cope, we must make use of all the gifts God provides.  And no greater gift does God give to us than our brains.

There is a notion in some circles of society that when you enter the church to pray, you have to check your brain at the door.  But a mindless follower is the one thing that irritates God most, I contend.  God gives each of us a mind, and He expects us to keep using it, whether at nineteen or ninety.  It’s that mind that allows us to recover from poor decisions and mistakes.  It’s that mind that causes us to own up to our failings and sins, and it helps us move on to the next stage of life.  It’s that same mind that God has given us to make the most of life’s opportunities.

I’m still haunted by the  memory of the guy on the street with the Theresa tattoo.  If he were here, standing before me, I’d like to tell him that “Theresa” was not the end-of-the-line mistake he may have thought it was.  I would tell him that he is not consigned to a  life-time of dating women named Theresa.  Nor is he restricted to Maria-Theresa’s or Sheryl-Theresa’s.  If he just used his brain, he’d see the brilliant solution that could turn everything around.  If he just added “Mother” to “Theresa,” overnight he could become the most sought-after son-in-law in America.

Shrine of Saint Potentius, Steinfeld Abbey. V & A, London.

A Personal Note, and Reading

+On Sunday, February 19th, I presided at the community Eucharist at Saint John’s Abbey.  For the text of the sermon, you may connect directly to Speaking: the Key to Death and Life. or visit the section headed Presentations on the homepage of this blog.

+Lent begins in two days, and if you are looking for something to read for practical spiritual reflection, I would recommend Michael Casey’s Stranger to the City: Reflections on the Beliefs and Values of The Rule of Saint Benedict, (Paraclete Press, 2005.)  Fr. Michael is a Cistercian monk of Tarrawarra Abbey in Australia, and he has spoken on several occasions at Saint John’s.  His book provides an accessible and very interesting perspective on monastic values vis-a-vis the world.  I plan to read through this once again this Lent.

Cover of the Lorsch Gospels, Lorsch Abbey, 810. In the V & A, London

+If you are at all inclined to think that there is nothing new under the sun, you might turn the pages of Culture Wars: Secular-Catholic Conflict in Nineteenth-Century Europe, (Cambridge University Press, 2003.)  Editors Christopher Clark and Wolfram Kaiser have brought together twelve essays that detail the struggles of the Kulturkampf throughout western Europe.  I’ve generally assumed that this was primarily a conflict between Otto von Bismarck’s Prussia and the Catholic Church, but in fact there were local manifestations of it throughout Europe.  In certain locations the struggles even engulfed the established Protestant churches.  While I found the initial chapter rough going, the sections on Italy, Germany, Switzerland and Austria especially interested me.

In addition to their relevance to modern cultural conflict, the essays provide background for understanding the roots of monasticism in the United States.  Many European monasteries made foundations in the New World in the nineteenth century, which could serve as places of refuge in case the religious/political upheaval forced the monks and nuns into exile.

+Recently Loyola University Maryland acquired a set of the Heritage Edition of The Saint John’s Bible.  Last week officials dedicated the display that will house the Bible in the entrance gallery of the University library.  Visitors and students will be able to see all seven volumes, and one volume will always be open for reading.

Loyola University Maryland, library.

Read Full Post »