Tattoos on the Heart | Notes & Review

Posted on April 25, 2014


Gregory Boyle. Tattoos on the Heart. Free Press, 2010. (217 pages)

tattoos on the heart

“This day…with me…paradise.” – Luke 23:43


If there is a fundamental challenge within these stories, it is simply to change our lurking suspicion that some lives matter less than other lives. (xiii)

We are put on earth for a little space that we might learn to bear the beams of love. – William Blake

In Africa they say “a person becomes a person through other people.” (xiv)

Introduction | Dolores Mission and Homeboy Industries

I knew that the poor had some privileged delivery system for giving me access to the gospel. (1)

We constantly live in the paradox of precariousness. The money was never there when you needed, and it was always on time. (5)

Homeboy Industries has operated as a symbol as much as a place of concrete help. For more than twenty years, it has asked this city, “What if we were to invest in gang members, rather than just seek to incarcerate our way out of this problem?” (9)

It’s when we face for a moment the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know the taint in our own selves, that awe cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart. – Denise Levertov

Chapter One | God, I Guess

God can get tiny, if we’re not careful. (19)

Behold the One beholding you, and smiling. – Anthony De Mello

This is a chapter on God, I guess. Truth be told, the whole book is. Not much in my life makes any sense outside of God. Certainly, a place like Homeboy Industries is all folly and bad business unless the core of the endeavor seeks to imitate the kind of God one ought to believe in. In the end, I am helpless to explain why anyone would accompany those on the margins were it not for some anchored belief that the Ground of all Being thought this was a good idea. (21)

Perhaps we should all marinate int he intimacy of God. Genesis, I suppose, got it right — “In the beginning, God.” Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, also spoke about the task of marinating in the “God who is always greater.” (22)

I was brought up and educated to give assent to certain propositions. God is love, for example. You concede “God loves us,” and yet there is this lurking sense that perhaps you aren’t fully part of the “us.” The arms of Go reach to embrace, and somehow you feel yourself just outside God’s fingertips. | Then you have no choice to but consider that “God loves me,” yet you spend much of your life unable to shake off what feels like God only embracing you begrudgingly and reluctantly. I suppose, if you insist, God has to love me too. Then who can explain this next moment, when the utter fullness of God rushes in on you — when you completely know the One in whom “you move and live and have your being,” as St. Paul writes. [VIA: Actually, Paul is quoting the Cretan philosopher Epimenides] You see, then, that it has been God’s joy to love you all along. And this is completely new. (25)

Find the real world, give it endlessly away, grow rich flinging gold to all who ask. Live at the empty heart of paradox. I’ll dance there with you — cheek to cheek. – Rumi

Our image of who God is and what’s on God’s mind is more tiny than it is troubled. It trips more on our puny sense of God than over conflicting creedal statements or theological considerations. (27)

The desire of God’s heart is immeasurably larger than our imaginations can conjure. This longing of God’s to give us peace and assurance and a sense of well-being only awaits our willingness to cooperate with God’s limitless magnanimity. (27-28)

“Behold the One beholding you and smiling.” It is precisely because we have such an overactive disapproval gland ourselves that we tend to create God in our own image. It is truly hard for us to see the truth that disapproval does not seem to be part of God’s DNA. God is just too busy loving us to have any time left for disappointment. (28)

God seems to be an unwilling participant in our efforts to pigeonhole Him. The minute we think we’ve arrived at the most expansive sense of who God is, “this Great, Wild God,” as the poet Hafez writes, breaks through the claustrophobia of our own articulation, and things get large again. Richard Rohr writes in Everything Belongs that nothing of our humanity is to be discarded. God’s unwieldy love, which cannot be contained by our words, wants to accept all that we are and sees our humanity as the privileged place to encounter this magnanimous love. No part of our hardwiring or our messy selves is to e disparaged. Where we stand, in all our mistakes and imperfection, is holy ground. It is where God has chosen to be intimate with us and not in any way but this. (35)

God, I guess, is more expansive than every image we think rhymes with God. How much greater is the God we have than the one we think we have. More than anything else, the truth of God seems to be about a joy that is a foreigner to disappointment and disapproval. This joy just doesn’t know what we’re talking about when we focus on the restriction of not measuring up. This joy, God’s joy, is like a bunch of women lined up in the parish hall on your birthday, wanting only to dance with you — cheek to cheek. “First things, recognizably first,” as Daniel Berrigan says. The God, who is greater than God, has only one thing on Her mind, and that is to drop, endlessly, rose petals on our heads. Behold the One who can’t take His eyes off of you. | Marinate int he vastness of that. (39)

Chapter Two | Dis-Grace

Divine love is incessantly restless until it turns all woundedness into health, all deformity into beauty and all embarrassment into laughter. – Belden Lane

Yet, it’s precisely within the contour of one’s shame that one is summoned to wholeness. “Even there, even there,” Psalm 39 tell us — even in the darkest place, we are known — yes, even there. My own falsely self-assertive and harmful, unfree ego gets drawn into the expansive heart of God. It is precisely in the light of God’s vastness and acceptance of me that I can accept the harm I do for what it is.

| There is a longing in us all to be God-enthralled. So enthralled that to those hunkered down in their disgrace, in the shadow of death, we become transparent messengers of God’s own tender mercy. We want to be seized by that same tenderness; we want to bear the largeness of God. (44-45)

Author and psychiatrist James Gilligan writes that the self cannot survive without love, and the self, starved of love, dies. The absence of self-love is shame, “just as cold is the absence of warmth.” Disgrace obscuring the sun. | Guilt, of course, is feeling bad about one’s actions, but shame is feeling bad about oneself. Failure, embarrassment, weakness, overwhelming worthlessness, and feeling disgracefully “less than” — all permeating the marrow of the soul. (46)

Franciscan Richard Rohr writes that “the Lord comes to us disguised as ourselves.” (46)

We’ve come to believe that we grow into this. The only thing we know about Jesus “growing up” is that he “grew in age, wisdom and favor with God.” But do we really grow in favor with God? Did Jesus become increasingly more favorable to God, or did he just discover, over time, that he was wholly favorable? (47)

All throughout Scripture and history, the principal suffering of the poor is not that they can’t pay their rent on time or that they are three dollars short of a package of Pampers. | As Jesus scholar Marcus Borg points out, the principal suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame — a global sense of failure of the whole self. This shame can seep so deep down. (52)

Homies seem to live in the zip code of the eternally disappointing, and need a change of address. To this end, one hopes (against all human inclination) to model not the “one false move” God but the “no matter whatness” of God. You seek to imitate the kind of God you believe in, where disappointment is, well, Greek to him. You strive to live the black spiritual that says, “God looks beyond our fault and sees our need.” (52)

Out of the wreck of our disfigured, misshapen selves, so darkened by shame and disgrace, indeed the Lord comes to us disguised as ourselves. And we don’t grow into this — we just learn to pay better attention. The “no matter whatness” of God dissolves the toxicity of shame and fills us with tender mercy. Favorable, finally, and called by name — by the one your mom uses when she’s not pissed off. (60)

Chapter Three | Compassion

God is compassionate, loving kindness. All we’re asked to do is to be in the world who God is. Certainly compassion was the wallpaper of Jesus’ soul, the contour of his heart, it was who he was. I heard someone say once, “Just assume the answer to every question is compassion.” (62)

Jesus pulled this off. Compassion is no fleeting occasional emotion rising to the surface like eros or anger. It’s full-throttled. Scripture scholars connect the word to the entrails, to the bowels, from the deepest part of the person. This was how Jesus was moved, from the entirety of his being. He was “moved with pity” when he saw folks who seemed like “sheep without a shepherd.” He had room for everybody in his compassion. (63)

You don’t really keep vigil; it keeps you — suspended in awkward silence and dead air — desperate for anything at all to stir some hope out of these murky waters and make things vital again. (66)

If we long to be in the world who God is, then, somehow, our compassion has to find its way to vastness. (66)

But isn’t the highest honing of compassion that which is hospitable to victim and victimizer both? (67)

Jesus says if you love those who love you, big wow (which I believe is the original Greek). He doesn’t suggest that we cease to love those who love us when we nudges us to love our enemies. Nor does Jesus think the harder thing is the better thing. He knows it’s just the harder thing. But to love the enemy and to find some spaciousness for the victimizer, as well as the victim, resembles more the expansive compassion of God. That’s why you do it. | To be in the world who God is. | Here is what we seek: a compassion that can stand in awe at what the poor have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they carry it. (67)

If you read Scripture scholar Marcus Borg and go to the index in search of “sinner,” it’ll say, “see outcast.” This was a social grouping of people who felt wholly unacceptable. The world had deemed them disgraceful and shameful, and this toxic shame, as I have mentioned before, was brought inside and given a home in the outcast. (70)

Recognizing that we are wholly acceptable is God’s own truth for us — waiting to be discovered. (71)

Pema Chödrön, an ordained Buddhist nun, writes of compassion and suggests that its truest measure lies not in our service of those on the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them. (71)

In an instant, you begin to doubt and question the price of things. I acknowledge how much better everything is when there is no cost and how I prefer being hoisted on shoulders in acclaim to the disdain of anonymous spray cans. (71)

Jesus was not a man for others. He was one with others. There is a world of difference in that. Jesus didn’t seek the rights of lepers. He touched the leper even before he got around to curing him. He didn’t champion the cause of the outcast. He was the outcast. He didn’t fight for improved conditions for the prisoner. He simply said, “I was in prison.” | The strategy of Jesus is not centered in taking the right stand on issues, but rather in standing in the right place — with the outcast and those relegated to the margins. (72)

Once the homeless began to sleep in the church at night, there was always the faintest evidence that they had. Come Sunday morning, we’d foo foo the place as best we could. We would sprinkle I Love My Carpet on the rugs and vacuum like crazy. We’d strategically place potpourri and Air Wick around the church to combat this lingering, pervasive reminder that nearly fifty (and later up to one hundred) men had spent the night there. About the only time we used incense at Dolores Mission was on Sunday morning, before the 7:30am Mass crowd would arrive. Still, try as we might, the smell remained. The grumbling set in, and people spoke of “churching” elsewhere.

It was at about this time that a man drove by the church and stopped to talk to me. He was Latino, in a nice car, and had arrived at some comfortable life and living. He knew I was the pastor. He waxed nostalgic about having grown up in the projects and pointed to the church and said he had been baptized and made his first communion there.

Then he takes in the scene all around him. Gang members gathered by the bell tower, homeless men and women being fed in great numbers in the parking lot. Folks arriving for the AA and NA meetings and the ESL classes.

It’s a Who’s Who of Everybody Who Was Nobody. Gang member, drug addict, homeless, undocumented. This man sees all this and shakes his head, determined and disgusted, as if to say “tsk tsk.”

“You know,” he says, “This used to be a church.”

I mount my high horse and say, “You know, most people around here think it’s finally a church.”

Then I ride off into the sunset.

Roll credits.

The smell was never overwhelming, just undeniably there. The Jesuits figured that if “we can’t fix it, then we’ll feature it.” So we determined to address the discontent in our homilies one Sunday. Homies were often dialogic in those days, so one day I began with, “What’s the church smell like?”

People are mortified, eye contact ceases, women are searching inside their purses for they know not what.

“Come on, now,” I throw back at them, “what’s the church smell like?”

“Huele a patas” (Smells like feet), Don Rafael booms out. He was old and never cared what people thought.

“Excellent. But why does it smell like feet?”

“Cuz many homeless men slept here last night?” says a woman.

“Well, why do we let that happen here?”

“Es nuestro compromiso” (It’s what we’ve committed to do), says another.

“Well, why would anyone commit to do that?”

“Porque es lo que haria Jesús.” (It what’s Jesus would do.) [sic]

“Well, then…what’s the church smell like now?”

A man stands and bellows, “Huele a nuestro compromiso” (it smells like commitment).

The place cheers.

Guadalupe waves her arms wildly, “Huele a rosas” (smells like roses).

The packed church roars with laughter and a newfound kinship that embraced someone else’s odor as their own. The stink in the church hadn’t changed, only how the folks saw it. The people at Dolores Mission had come to embody Wendell Berry’s injunction: “You have to be able to imagine lives that are not yours.” (72-74)

Scripture scholars contend that the original language of the Beatitudes should not be rendered as “Blessed are the single-hearted” or “Blessed are the peacemakers” or “Blessed are those who struggle for justice.” Greater precision in translation would say, “You’re in the right place if…you are single-hearted or work for peace.” The Beatitudes is not a spirituality, after all. It’s a geography. It tells us where to stand. | Compassion isn’t just about feeling the pain of others; it’s about bringing them in toward yourself. If we love what God loves, then, in compassion, margins get erased. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate,” means the dismantling of barriers that exclude. (75)

In Scripture, Jesus is in a house so packed that no one can come through the door anymore. So the people open the roof and lower this paralytic down through it, so Jesus can heal him. The focus of the story is, understandably, the healing of the paralytic. But there is something more significant than that happening here. They’re ripping the roof off the place, and those outside are being let in. (75)

Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a covenant between equals. (77)

Compassion is always, at its most authentic, about a shift from the cramped world of self-preoccupation into a more expansive place of fellowship, of true kinship. (77)

Chapter Four | Water, Oil, Flame

In the monastic tradition, the highest form of sanctity is to live in hell and not lose hope. (86)

What is the delivery system for resilience? In part, it’s the loving, caring adult who pays attention. It’s the community of unconditional love, representing the very “no matter whatness” of God. They say that an educated inmate will not reoffend. This is not because an education assures that this guy will get hired somewhere. It is because his view is larger and more educated, so that he can be rejected at ninety-three job interviews and still not give up. He’s acquired resilience. (87)

A spacious and undefended heart finds room for everything you are and carves space for everybody else. (87)

And the soul quickens at hearing what it didn’t know it already knew. Kathleen Norris writes, “If holding your ground is what you are called to most days, it helps to know your ground.” | Resilience is born by grounding yourself in your own loveliness, hitting notes you thought were way out of your range. (94)

Love…doesn’t melt who you are, but who you are not. (103)

Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.” I like even more what Jesus doesn’t say. He does not say, “One day, if you are more perfect and try really hard, you’ll be light.” He doesn’t say “If you play by the rules, cross your T’s and dot your I’s, then maybe you’ll become light.” No. He says, straight out, “You are light.” It is the truth of who you are, waiting only for you to discover it. So, for God’s sake, don’t move. No need to contort yourself to be anything other than who you are. (108)

Chapter Five | Slow Work

How many things have to happen to you before something occurs to you? – Robert Frost

Teilhard de Chardin wrote that we must “trust in the slow work of God.” | Ours is a God who waits. Who are we not to? It takes what it takes for the great turnaround. Wait for it. (113)

There is no force in the world better able to alter anything from its course than love. (124)

I’ve done everything I can today for your church. But it’s Your church, and I’m going to bed. – Pope John XIII

I’ve come to trust the value of simply showing up — and singing the song without the words. And yet, each time I find myself sitting with the pain that folks carry, I’m overwhelmed with my own inability to do much more than stand in awe, dumbstruck by the sheer size of the burden — more than I’ve ever been asked to carry. (127)

Chapter Six | Jurisdiction

We have a chance, sometimes, to create a new jurisdiction, a place of astonishing mutuality, whenever we close both eyes of judgment and open the other eye to pay attention. Reminding each other how acceptable we are and lavishly providing free refills and all the Tapatío you need. Suddenly, we find ourselves in the same room with each other and the walls are gone. (136-137)

We discover our true selves in love. – Thomas Merton

Love never fails. It will always fin a way to have its way. (143)

Chapter Seven | Gladness

We try to find a way, then, to hold our fingertips gently to the pulse of God. We watch as our hearts begin to beat as one with the One who delights in our being. Then what do we do? We exhale that same spirit of delight into the world and hope for poetry. (147)

Anal Blindness. “Yeah, I just can’t see my ass coming to work today.” (148)

Some time back, at the turn of the century, during a general election, some pundit tried to compare and contrast Bill Clinton, Al Gore, and George W. Bush. He said Bill Clinton walks into a room and wants everybody in the room to like him. Al Gore walks into a room and wants everyone to think he’s right. “W” walks into a room and wants the room to know he’s in charge. We all feel all of these at one time or another, because they’re fear-based responses, and it’s hard to get out from under that dread. Our frightened selves want only for the gathered to like us, to agree with us, or be intimidated by us. I suppose Jesus walks into a room and loves what he finds there. Delights in it, in fact. Maybe, He makes a beeline to the outcasts and chooses, in them, to go where love has not yet arrived. His ways aren’t our ways, but they sure could be. (154-155)

Thich Nhat Han writes that “our true home is the present moment, the miracle is not to walk on water. The miracle is to walk on the green earth in the present moment.” (159)

God, right there, today, in the person in front of me, joy beyond holding, beholding this day, Paradise. You delight in what is before you today in Christ. Richard Rolheiser writes that, “the opposite of depression is not happiness, it’s delight.” After all, we breathe the Spirit that delights in our being. We don’t breathe in the Spirit that just sort of puts up with our mess. It’s about delight. (159)

No despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there…We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance. – Thomas Merton

The cosmic dance is simply always happening, and you’ll want to be there when it happens. For it is there in the birth of your first child, in roundhouse bagging, in watching your crew eat, in an owl’s surprising appearance, and in a “digested” frog. Rascally inventions of holiness abounding — today, awaiting the attention of our delight. Yes, yes, yes. God so loved the world that He thought we’d find the poetry in it. Music. Nothing playing. (166)

Chapter Eight | Success

I find Bill Cain’s reflection on the Shroud of Turin very consoling. He prefers frauds. He says, “If the shroud is a fraud then it is this masterful work of art. If it’s the real thing, it’s just dirty laundry.” | Twenty years of this work has taught me that God has greater comfort with inverting categories than I do. What is success and what is failure? What is good and what is bad? Setback or progress? Great stock these days, especially in nonprofits (and who can blame them), is placed in evidence-based outcomes. People, funders in particular, want to know if what you do “works.” (167)

We are not called to be successful, but faithful. – Mother Teresa

Salivating for success keeps you from being faithful, keeps you from truly seeing whoever’s sitting in front of you. … If you surrender your need for results and outcomes, success becomes God’s business. I find it hard enough to just be faithful. (168)

Sr. Elaine Roulette, the founder of My Mother’s House in New York, was asked, “How do you work with the poor?” She answered, “You don’t. You share your life with the poor.” It’s as basic as crying together. It is about “casting your lot” before it ever becomes about “changing their lot.” (172)

The pregnant heart is driven to hopes that are the wrong size for this world. – Jack Gilbert

Jesus had no regard for their wedge issues, their constitutional amendments or their culture wars. (172)

There are things you can’t reach. But you can reach out to them, and all day long. – Mary Oliver

In the end, effective outcomes and a piling of success stories aren’t the things for which we reach. Though, who am I kidding, I prefer them to abject failure and decades of death. But it’s not about preference. It’s about the disruption of categories that leads us to abandon the difficult, the disagreeable, and the least likely to go very far. On most days, if I’m true to myself, I just want to share my life with the poor, regardless of result. I want to lean into the challenge of intractable problems with as tender a heart as I can locate, knowing that there is some divine ingenuity here, “the slow work of God,” that gets done if we’re faithful. Maybe the world could use a dose of a wrong-size approach; otherwise the hurt wins. Maybe there are things you can’t reach. But you can stretch your arm across a gurney and forgive and heal. | Equal souls. All day long. (186)

Chapter Nine | Kinship

Mother Teresa diagnosed the world’s ills in this way: we’ve just “forgotten that we belong to each other.” … I suspect that were kinship our goal, we would no longer be promoting justice — we would be celebrating it. (187)

Often we strike the high moral distance that separates “us” from “them,” and yet it is God’s dream come true when we recognize that there exists no daylight between us. Serving others is good. It’s a start. But it’s just the hallway that leads to the Grand Ballroom. | Kinship — not serving the other, but being one with the other. Jesus was not “a man for others”; he was one with them. There is a world of difference in that. (188)

Only kinship. Inching ourselves closer to creating a community of kinship such that God might recognize it. Soon we imagine, with God, this circle of compassion. Then we imagine no one standing outside of that circle, moving ourselves closer to the margins so that the margins themselves will be erased. We stand there with those whose dignity has been denied. We locate ourselves with the poor and the powerless and the voiceless. At the edges, we join the easily despised and the readily left out. We stand with the demonized so that the demonizing will stop. We situate ourselves right next to the disposable so that the day will come when we stop throwing people away. The prophet Habakkuk writes, “The vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment and it will not disappoint…and if it delays, wait for it.”

| Kinship is what God presses us on to, always hopeful that its time has come. (190)

The wrong idea has taken root in the world. And the idea is this: there just might be lives out there that matter less than other lives. (192)

Alice Miller calls “enlightened witnesses” — people who through their kindness, tenderness, and focused, attentive love return folks to themselves. It is a returning — not a measuring up. … We don’t hold the bar up and ask people to measure up to it. (192)

At Homeboy Industries, we seek to tell each person this truth: they are exactly what God had in mind when God made them — and then we watch, from this privileged place, as people inhabit this truth. (192)

But in this place of which you say it is a waste, there will be heard again the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness…the voices of those who sing.

And so the voices at the margins get heard and the circle of compassion widens. Souls feeling their worth, refusing to forget that we belong to each other. No bullet can pierce this. The vision still has its time, and, yes, it presses on to fulfillment. It will not disappoint. And yet, if it delays, we can surely wait for it. (212)

— VIA —

With tears and a stirring in the soul that, Lord willing, shall never settle.

If I were to begin a “my new favorite book” list, Tattoos would be a top candidate. With laughter, joy, awe, and a profound sense of the true human spirit, “Father G” has captured in words the heart of the Gospel.

It is commendable to peer into “another world” (L.A. gangs) to find inspiration, and a euphoric sense of awe at the work and ministry of a select few. However, it is quite another thing to be drawn so deeply into that wonder that you recognize that what is being described is really the deepest and most profound sense of what it means to be human creatures, Created in the image and likeness of God. In other words, this book is not about Homeboy Industries, recovering gang members, or even about Father “G.” This book is about you, and me, and every person with whom we interact. I pray that more see that truth as they read.

Astonishment is a double-edged sword. If we are too easily amazed at the work of people like Father G, that betrays the reality that we ourselves are actually far distant from the work of compassion and kinship. Would other saints “be amazed?” Not really. Other saints would see this, in many ways as “normal.” Similar to Father G’s exhortation, may kinship and compassion become “normal” practices.