Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tattoos and Grandmas

My grandmother was the world’s most devout Catholic.  Seriously, I’m waiting for the Vatican to announce her canonization any day now.  If there was one thing that could define Marie Mulkern, it was her faith, and it was absolutely unwavering.  When I was little, she not only told me biblical tales, but was somehow able to craft religious doctrine into fantastical stories that managed to capture my attention.  She had the great gift of faith, but better yet, she had the will, and the patience, to share it with me. 
One of the stories I remember most clearly is that of the Italian saint, Padre Pio. During his lifetime, Pio bore the stigmata of Christ.  Almost daily, Pio suffered the pain that Christ did during his crucifixion, with bloody wounds on his palms as an outward sign of faith.  As a child, this story fascinated me.  Who would consent to bloody, painful palms all day?  Every time she told the story, “Why did he do that Nanny? Why? Why? Why?”, was the only response my four year old mind could muster.  “He did it because he loved Jesus, and because he had faith” is what she told me.  Obviously, as a child, I took this to mean that if Jesus ever asked me to bear a stigmata, I would have to say no.  I was not interested in enduring any sort of pain.  Wasn’t going to church enough?  

The ending of Wendt’s short story, The Cross of Soot, immediately reminded me of Padre Pio, and the other stories my grandmother once shared with me.  The cross on the young boy’s hand, whether actually tattooed by Jesus or just some old guy in prison, is an outward sign of a time he trusted another with his very own skin.  For the boy, it marks a a rite of passage, showing the world that he had once found faith, met God, or come in contact with some divine power.  It stands as a dividing line between his complacent youth and his more brazen passage into adulthood.    

Thinking about the boy in the story, and the Oceanic culture at large, I began to make connections between my own faith and theirs.  Just as Padre Pio was willing to bear the stigmata as a sign of faith, Samoans and other Pacific Islanders undergo the process of tattoo to show their faith in tradition.  In his essay entitled Tatauing the Post-Colonial Body, Wendt claims, “In a deep psychological, mythological, symbolic way, tatauing is the act of printing or scripting a genealogical-spiritual-philosophical text on the blood, of testing it to see if it can bear the pain of being in a human body....Undergoing the tatau is challenging death, risking it” (409).  Tattoo is the bodily representation of the risk one takes to be fully embedded in a culture.  It is an act of faith in and of itself.  And while I’ve never linked my soft-spoken, white-haired, Irish grandmother with tattoos, they now seem to be a perfect pairing, emblems of faith, visible for the whole world to see.     

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