This essay is one chapter from my manuscript in progress, The Thumbprint on the Clay.
In reflecting on the marks of the Maker, my God, who made me and has left His mark on my life, I realize I myself am actively engaged in the imprinting process. Amazed, after all those primitive years of typewriters and carbons and white-out fluid to correct typos, of mimeographing (accompanied by the unpleasant smell of the purple-inked sheets of paper as they were peeled off the printing drum), now replaced by photocopying and offset printing. My digital printer sits patiently in my study, waiting for me to press, happily and effortlessly, a rapid series of keys so that a blank sheet of paper a couple of feet away is primed to receive meaningful marks, black and colored signs and symbols, letters and words and vivid images that are there to be saved for the future and decoded for meaning.
I lift up my house phone or my smart phone and press buttons in a special sequence that connects me with a friend on the opposite coast of the continent.
Like Obadiah Parker in Flannery O’Connor’s magical story “Parker’s Back,” I’ve been tattooed. This happened several years ago in Vancouver, BC, on a visit with my friend Karen to the “Sacred Heart of Jesus Tattoo & Piercing Parlor” where with the tattoo artist, a former Catholic altar boy, we unexpectedly engaged in a long conversation about sacred symbols as he worked with ink and needles on our bare skin. I had already chosen a design, and he had traced it out on the carbon transfer film used for the preliminary sketch to be inked on my upper arm. I had selected the likeness of a dogwood flower, Cornus Canadensis, which is for me an emblem of Christ, with its four white petals stained at their tips with crimson. A Christ blossom. A spring flower full of grace. A constant bodily reminder to be true to that image.
Last spring I visited another tattoo artist closer to home in Bellingham, and had another dogwood flower bud, stalk, and leaves added to the first tattoo, which had faded a bit. He pinked-in the tips of the petals and greened-in the leaves. In the summer, when sleeves are shorter, my tattoo brings me comments of both admiration and horror.
In Flannery O’Connor’s narrative “Parker's Back,” what happened on the back of her protagonist was a kind of resurrection, a new Easter, as the image of Christ was permanently emblazoned on his skin by a tattoo artist. Where before, Obadiah Parker, in an unsuccessful attempt to soothe his unsatisfied soul, had filled all the empty spaces on the skin on the front of his body with a blurred jumble of insignificant signs and symbols, now, even in the face of his wife’s cry of “Idolatry!” he'd added a new image. After receiving it on his back he knew he’d experienced a kind of beatific vision.
In keeping with his prophet’s name, Obadiah, “all at once he felt the light pouring through him, turning his spider web soul into a perfect arabesque of colors, a garden of trees and birds and beasts.” Reading this, perhaps one of O’Connor’s most lyrical descriptions of possibility, I saw a kind of Eden, a new beginning, the possibility of a fresh start for this failure of a man.
In O’Connor’s story, the beckoning of the transcendent had been going on for some time, with Parker resisting all the way. An incident that took place in the field of his employer, a farmer, had quickened the pace of his passage toward grace. He had wrecked the machine with which he’d been baling hay, circling closer and closer to the meadow’s ancient, central tree until he had crashed into it. During this circuit he was profoundly aware of “the sun, the size of a golf ball, as it began to switch regularly from in front to behind him until he ran into the tree, upended the baler and saw it, along with the tree itself burst into flames.” He’d been thrown free of the machine, but one shoe fell off and the other caught fire leaving him bare-footed (like Moses before the burning bush). He’d run away, sure that he’d lose his job because of his stupidity. “He only knew that there had been a great change in his life, a leap forward into a worse unknown, and that there was nothing he could do about it.” The relentless tug of the divine was intensified. Events had to turn worse for him before they could change for the better.
His past response, in any time of dissatisfaction, had always been to get a new tattoo. Hoping to impress his wife, a woman possessed by a kind of strangling religiosity, he searched the tattoo artist’s pattern book for a design, and one in particular arrested him. “On one of the pages a pair of eyes glanced at him swiftly. Parker sped on, then stopped. . . . there was absolute silence. It said as plainly as if silence were a language itself, GO BACK.”
The tug of the grace of God was proving irresistible. The image of the Byzantine Christ that he’d then had tattooed on his back was like an icon, “whose eyes penetrated him like the sun” — an image of the New Covenant and all it promised. Sarah Ruth, his wife, was wedded to the Old Covenant with its demanding and condemning Law; she was always “sniffing out sin” without searching for or finding its opposite.
Once again, unlike Moses who descended from Sinai after seeing “the back parts of Yahweh” with his face veiled so that the people couldn’t see that the glory was fading, Parker finally removes his shirt to show his back to his wife, but she retorts that God is a spirit and this representation of Christ’s face is idolatry. She begins to beat him until he is knocked senseless and large welts form on the face of the tattooed Christ on his skin. She, dense and ugly and righteous, has refused to recognize divine grace. Parker ends up violently ousted from her house, “leaning against the tree, crying like a baby.” It’s the tree where, significantly, he finds a place of sorrow and penitence.
Paul tells us in Romans to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” and in Galatians we're invited to be “clothed with Christ.” From another epistle we may get the remarkable sense of being impregnated, “Christ in us the hope of glory.” The imprint of Christ on us has to be deeper, more profound, than any tattoo. We may wear a cross, we may hang icons in our offices, we may be members of a religious order, we may even ingest Christ's body and blood, but we had better live into the truth of those symbols if they are to have meaning to us or anyone else.
I’m reminded of the story Annie Dillard tells in Holy the Firm. During the seven years that she taught at Western Washington University in Bellingham, she lived on Lummi Island, one of the San Juan Islands just a brief ferry ride from where I live. She regularly attended the island’s little white Congregational church. I have visited the island often, and the church building is still there. In Holy the Firm Dillard describes the Sunday when she was assigned the job of bringing the Communion wine, as she walked to church with the bottle “in a sack on her back.” Like Parker, whose being was irradiated with the image of Christ, Dillard describes how the wine in the bottle on her back began to imprint her soul and body. In this poem fragment I describe how I interpreted and inhabited this incident:
Annie Dillard speaks of Christ
Corked in a bottle: carrying the wine
To communion in a pack on her back
She feels him lambent, lighting
Her hidden valleys through the spaces
Between her ribs. Nor can we
Contain him in a cup. He is always
Poured out for our congregation. . . .
We may ask ourselves, how are we Christ-imprinted? What is God calling us to do and be as we stand awed and fearful before some significantly burning bush? What needs to happen for us to receive some kind of stigmata — some signals that mark us as Christ’s own. Not, perhaps, the bloody wounds in the palms of the hands, but the pure, open, joyful, and contrite heart that God has promised to claim for Himself, to not despise, and to count as more valuable to Him than any human accomplishment and success.
Luci Shaw was born in London, England, in 1928, and has lived in Australia and Canada. A poet and essayist since 1986, she has been Writer in Residence at Regent College, Vancouver. Author of over thirty-five books of poetry and non-fiction prose, her writing has appeared in numerous literary and religious journals. In 2013 she received the 10th annual Denise Levertov Award for Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. Her most recent publications are Scape: Poems (2013), and Adventure of Ascent: Field Notes from a Life-long Journey (2014). She lives in Bellingham, WA. For further information, visit www.lucishaw.com.