[Posted on my Facebook page, November 6, 2017]
I got a tattoo!
In general, I don’t think tattoos are attractive, and sure never expected that I would get one. I mean, I just turned 65, and I had never gotten a tattoo in all those years, so it seemed a safe bet.
But I’ve always thought it was a beautiful witness, how the Coptic Egyptian Christians get a small cross tattooed on the right wrist, to claim the identity of a Christian. The tradition possibly began when the Muslims conquered Egypt 1500 years ago, and would brand or scar a cross on the Christians who refused to convert to Islam. For Coptic Christians, it is a way of claiming an identity that is somewhat despised by the powerful, and to “glory” in nothing but “the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” as St. Paul said (Galatians 6:14).
It happened that a friend of mine at church, who grew up in Egypt, was going to have his faded childhood cross renewed. He got his tattoo at the age of 8, from a guy who was working on a sidewalk and a lot of people had lined up. He noticed that the little cup of green dye the guy was using looked like it was mashed-up leaves, and he asked what it was; the tattoo artist said “Arugula.”
I had been thinking about getting a cross tattoo in solidarity with the Christians in the Middle East, especially those who were slaughtered this past Palm Sunday in Egypt. It also marks for my journey through cancer. I am almost finished with radiation. So I told George I wanted to go with him, and a couple of other ladies from the church went along too. We are joking that this will become the gang tattoo for Holy Cross Church.
George had researched to find the right tattoo studio for us. I had pictured any place that did tattoos having a “dive bar” vibe. (I had emailed Coptic Christians and Coptic monasteries and could never find a Coptic tattooer in this country). George found a place called “Stay Humble.” Their website had a video of the owner explaining why he chose that name, and showing him as a husband and father. It was really different from how I picture a “tattoo parlor.”
When we got there, it looked kind of like a coffeehouse/art gallery. It was on the second floor of a building in a hipster section of Baltimore.
I wasn’t able to have the cross right on my wrist, because my old-lady skin is too thin there. So I had it a little further up my arm. The inking itself only took about 5 minutes. It took more time for him to set it up — sterilizing the skin, taping in place the stencil of the cross he’d made, inking it, getting the tools ready, and on.
I was braced for pain, but when he started it was so much less than I expected that I said, “Oh, this is nothing.” About 30 seconds later I was thinking, “Oh, this is not nothing.” It remained not-nothing for most of the remaining time, as it felt like he was digging down along the lines of the Cross. But I thought about how much pain the real crucifixion caused.
I don’t want to overstate it; the pain wasn’t terrible, I didn’t feel like yelling, didn’t even grit my teeth. I just felt like I had to concentrate and -hold on-, sort of. It was over quickly.
My dear husband had been ambivalent about my doing this, but when I showed it to him he said it was beautiful and that he was glad I’d done it. Also, he said, now he can tell people that he’s married to a tattooed lady.
Several remarked in the comments that this was “cultural appropriation” and people should not get such tattoos if they were not Coptic. My response:
I don’t agree that this is a Coptic cultural tradition, so those of other backgrounds should not do it. In my parish there are so many different ethnic backgrounds represented. I counted recently, and just counting the people who are first or second generation, it came to 17 different countries; this in a parish of less than 150 people.
With that as my parish-family context, the ethnic lines among Orthodox look very porous to me. We are an Antiochian parish, yet we have adopted the Slavic custom of Pascha baskets. Many of the women who cover their heads use Ethiopian scarves, acquired from Ethiopian members of the parish. Around the walls of the church are painted Orthodox crosses from a dozen different lands; the large crosses on the iconostasis are Celtic, Armenian, Greek, Russian, and Ethiopian; we have parishioners from all those backgrounds.) At lunch during coffee hour, there are dishes from all over the world.
To me, the cultures and traditions of all the many Orthodox lands belong to all of us, and sharing them brings us closer together. (Just as the different food traditions that immigrants brought to America have enriched our common life as a nation; anyone can eat pizza, not just Italians.)
I respect the opinions of people who don’t agree, and I’m not trying to start an argument. Just that, several people had expressed the thought that only Copts should get wrist tattoos, and I wanted to explain how I viewed things.
And a followup post:
I should add that I searched for a Coptic Christian tattoo artist and couldn’t find one (though I asked all my Coptic friends and even wrote to Coptic monasteries). That made me think this is apparently not a tradition that Coptic Christians in America are continuing. It had a specific purpose in Egypt, and in America the same conditions don’t apply.
What conditions do apply, in our current moment? Not outright persecution and martyrdom, which Middle Eastern Christians continue to endure. It’s more quietly insidious than that. Western European (and by extension American) culture, thoroughly Christian for almost two thousand years, is imperceptibly letting its faith slip away. While persecution from the outside can actually make faith stronger, we dwell in a consumerist, pleasure-loving culture that coaxes us to see faith as one more of the products we enjoy, one that we can cast away when we tire of it.
This is much more effective in undermining a living, courageous faith, for it quietly saps our strength. Jesus said that it was the rich who would have difficulty entering the Kingdom of Heaven, and in today’s America ordinary citizens live more richly than many an ancient king.
So it’s a different situation than Coptic Christians faced when this custom began. The forces assail us do so less by outright persecution than by undermining our allegiance to the way of the Cross, by offering endless entertaining images to fill our thoughts and displace prayer, by wedding us most loyally to the comfort of our own bodies, and by the social pressure of elites regarding strong Christians with mockery. This is not like being killed in the Colisseum; it is more subtle and harder to navigate than that.
Under outright persecution, Christians are aware constantly of the choices they make, for or against Christ; but we are in a fog of pleasures and distractions, and don’t even recognize when we *are* making choices. The more clearly we see the situation we’re drowning in, the more consistently we choose faithfulness to Christ despite the subtle undertow, the more we are going to conflict with the world around us.
Conquerors of Christian lands hated images of the cross, of Christ and his saints; sometimes they scratched out the eyes of icons, in a futile attempt to eliminate their power. So I want my faith to be visible to the world.
For some that might mean wearing a prayer bracelet, wearing a cross visibly, a bracelet of small icons—there are many ways to silently bear witness to your faith. Whether times are going to get harder or insidiously softer, bearing visible signs of our faith will keep us aware that our first allegiance is to Christ. They will remind us of where our first loyalties like; they will hearten our fellow Christians and bear witness to our powerful despisers. They will remind us of the decisions and commitments we have already made, in the sacraments we’ve received and the worship we offer, and strengthen our conviction that nothing will turn us back.