Seeing through eyes of faith in Lent

Last Wednesday, a beautiful reading came up in the Liturgy of the Hours.  It’s an excerpt from the writings of St. Theophilus of Antioch.  In it, the saint exhorts us to do whatever we must to “open the eyes of our mind and heart.”  He’s talking, of course, about seeing through eyes of faith.

First, an important realization – It’s not an automatic thing; seeing through eyes of faith.  It takes work.  Some argue that anything that isn’t automatically inbred in ourselves ends up being just smoke and mirrors, a sort of self-deception imposed by hostile outside forces (in this case, a Judeo-Christian society).  Proponents of such a position will suggest that the most natural thing is just to let our eyes roam, assigning equally good value to everything.  Such ocular non-discrimination is the most natural thing in the world, we’re told.

I’m not quite sure about such a position.  After all, some of our greatest assets are learned… for example: speech, writing, art.  None of these are automatic at birth but by disciplining ourselves, directing our innate talents, we flourish through our words and our artistic creations. The way we use our eyes is no different.  Indeed, as St. Theophilus suggests, the greatest good we can possibly imagine (contact with God) comes through disciplining the senses:

[The senses] distinguish light and darkness, …proportion and lack of proportion, elegance and inelegance, excess and defect… So it is with the eyes of our mind in their capacity to see God.

God is seen by those who have the capacity to see him, provided that they keep the eyes of their mind open.

How, concretely, can we keep our eyes open to see God, particularly as we approach Easter?

Again, St. Theophilus offers a suggestion:

A person’s soul should be clean, like a mirror reflecting light.  If there is rust on the mirror his face cannot be seen in it.  In the same way, no one who has sin in him can see God.

Two practical suggestions from a DC Faith and Culture point of view:

  1. If you’re Catholic, go to Confession, have a direct encounter with the divine physician speaking to you through the words of his priest, “I absolve you of all of your sins.  Go, you are free!”  All throughout the Washington area, in the weeks leading up to Easter, Confession is readily available at all our parish churches, especially in downtown.  Check out this link to the central website: http://thelightison.org  It’ll offer lots of tips, schedules and guides to confession throughout our area.

    If you’re not Catholic, you’re warmly invited into any of our churches to sit, and talk with God according to where you’re at in your journey with him.  Ask him to cleanse you of whatever needs cleansing and to make you ever-more ready to engage him in a relationship whose goal is heaven itself!  You might be interested in this recent effort by the Church in downtown DC, “Light the City,” opening our doors to anyone who wants to come and pray.  Check out the video on youtube: https://youtu.be/5mr_g-8SOzw

  2. For everyone in DC: LOOK UP… our city is so phenomenally beautiful.  The turrets on our row houses, cornices, small artistic highlights, the edifices of our federal buildings, the ingenious creativity of our modern architecture… All of it is soaked in the very best of the creative spirit God shares with the human race.  So often, our city-eyes are downcast avoiding puddles, loose paving stones and the like… and now thanks to our cellphones, we are all too often absorbed in a digital world that – while dazzling – can be so inhuman.  If you want to see through eyes of faith, LOOK UP… see God’s creativity at work in man’s city and then keep looking up to the heavens that he desires us to possess one day.

Faith Love and Black Ice

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The last few weeks have turned DC into – alternately – a snowy, muddy, icy mess.  And while I’d never event try to compare our situation to what my brother has experienced in Boston this winter, those of us accustomed to winters of warm(ish) southern comfort have been given pause over the last few weeks.  Last night in particular, I didn’t walk so much as skate down one of the streets.  It got me thinking…

One of the most common aspects of life for we Washingtonians, indeed city-dwellers everywhere, is our stoops.  You know, the stairs leading from the sidewalk up to our houses, apartment buildings etc. Stoops can be wonderful places.  In spring they’re points for congregation: impromptu barbecues on spring nights after work… cold beers and a neighbor’s guitar make for a great stoop-sitting conversation.  And who doesn’t love sitting out with friends after a summer day’s heat solving all the problems of the world before bed?  Right now, on the other hand, stoops are places of fear and trembling!  Ice and wrought iron… ice and granite… really, ice and anything turn a stoop from the glorious forum of summer life into a deadly precipice inviting catastrophe at every step.  I’m thinking in particular of the stoop we had at the GWU Newman Center on F Street.  It was high, steep and painted with thick, slick nautical paint to protect against the elements.  Every step was a risk in the winter.

What’s the point of all this?  As winter gives its last icy gasps, we might consider our stoops through eyes of faith.  Each day we try to do good loving acts in the world.  Whether we work for Congress, the Executive, an NGO or whoever, we in DC try to build a better country, a better world.  Even if we’re not overtly engaged in that project, our work supports our families, our social circles and so fosters life.  The prerequisite to all this is leaving our front door, which -in winter as we’ve seen- is a trickier proposition than one might think.  It takes a degree of faith to believe you’ll make it to the sidewalk alive.  Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman once preached that faith is needed before acts of true love can occur.  Might we see something of this in our ice-clad front steps?  Even when the weather gets warmer, might we consider saying a prayer, making an internal act of faith, committing our day and our acts of love to the protection of God trusting that he will bring them to happy fulfillment?  Just a thought.

Light From Without and Within

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Piero di Cosimo – Detail of St. Antony the Abbot from Visitation

 

Continuing a recent theme… Thursda was a day full of light and warmth.  No I’m not writing from vacation in Jamaica.  Even in the depth of winter I had an amazingly “warm” day through two encounters.  In the morning, I joined friends for a visit to the National Gallery.  We enjoyed lunch at the museum’s Garden Cafe, which – P.S. – has a reliably quality buffet for a reasonable price before enjoying the NGA’s newest exhibit: Piero di Cosimo: Painting in Renaissance Florence.  Cosimo’s works are typical of the time: numerous religious themes, fidelity to the Florentine school.  Unusual was the imaginative style with which he explored stories of pagan mythology, whose subjects he portrays in a wide range of characterizations from the beautifully sympathetic to the grotesque.  I’m not a huge fan of Olympian mythology, but it was fun to walk around inside the imagination of such an original artist.

Ottorino Respighi, Composer
Ottorino Respighi, Composer

Yesterday’s second experience, also with a brother priest, was a visit to the Music Center at Strathmore to hear the BSO.  Under the baton of Marin Alsop, the BSO is always in good form, but they were especially so last night, the tenth anniversary of the opening of their Montgomery County venue, Strathmore.  The orchestra presented excited  listeners with Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano concerto and Respighi’s Roman Tryptic.  Both played at the heartstrings of the audience.

Three levels of light pervaded the day.  Most superficially, the sun itself.  DC was its usual beautiful self under low-lying winter sun light.  In the middle of February that should be enough to lift anyone’s spirit, but there was other light too.  Piero di Cosimo’s canvases seem to radiate the light of sacred realities portrayed.  It was almost as if the gallery’s track-lighting wasn’t necessary.  Likewise, the BSO’s performance of Respighi.  I was transported back to warm walks along the Janiculum Hill, admiring the Pines and fountains for which Rome is so famous.

So there’s the external sunlight of the present and an artistic light from the past… The last level of light I experienced was the light of friends… and unlike the first two, this illumination is internal.  Beautiful friendships illumine us from within helping us to discover different parts of ourselves, helping us to heal parts of ourselves, and also helping us to celebrate parts of ourselves.  Maybe that’s why in darker times of year, the light of the local pub is so welcoming: it presages the joy of friendship within.  Looking at your DC experience with eyes of faith, where are your light sources, and what characterizes them?

Where do I find light in my life?  To what degree is that light satisfying?  How do I chase after illumination with ever greater conviction?

“Let there be light”…Illumination in DC’s Streets

“The spiritual man who has been thus illumined does not limp or leave the path, but bears all things.  Glimpsing our true country from afar, he puts up with advertises; he is not saddened by the things of time, but finds his strength in God.  He lowers his pride and endures possessing patience through humility.  That true light which enlightens every man who comes into the world bestows itself on those who reverence it, shining where it wills, on whom it wills and revealing itself according to the will of God the Son.” -John the Serene, Bishop

There’s been significant chatter lately about “pop-ups” in DC; townhouses that have been expanded upward to increase square footage available for rent/sale.  Opinions about these outgrowths of contemporary architecture are divided.  Of course they raise an ever present question in our fair metropolis: what to do about the height restrictions?

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Compared to most major American cities, Washington is relatively low-rise.  This limits the number of people who can live, work …and pay taxes… in the city.  Popular legend tells us that no building may be higher than the statue of Freedom over the Capitol Dome.  That’s not entirely true.  Most buildings in Washington are actually limited by a ratio between their height and the width of the street on which they’re built.  Consequently, broad avenues have taller structures than more narrow side streets.  The goal of the restrictions: “Let there be light!”

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I love DC’s short stature.  Structures exist on a human scale.  Residents can enjoy the clear light of day shining in blue skies.  …and if the humility of our local buildings exalts the dignity of our national Capitol, well that’s not such a bad thing either.

As someone who’s lived in both New York and Washington, I can tell you that having access to natural light and the blue sky in DC has a significant effect on my day.  It does more than lift my spirits.  It contextualizes my city experience.  In New York, sky scraper canyons dominate and contain citizens.  In Washington, the presence of light and greenery integrally woven into our street-experience connects the city to a wider world that serves man rather than oppressing him.

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Light forms a huge part of Catholic spirituality.  Jesus is himself described as the light of the human race (Jn. 1:4-ff).  Likewise, Catholics are called on to be the light of the world (Mt 5:14).  Cities should be places of light; the light of art, music, learning and bright smiles exchanged between citizens.  It’s a complex thing to increase that light, but a good place to begin might be the presence of the sun gracing SHORT buildings, filling our streets and daily experiences.

Reminders… way more than just sticky notes

This past Thursday was a day curiously full of reminders.  I don’t mean the sticky notes that frame my computer screen.  No, I’m speaking of something more personal.  Three examples:

First – Something in The Washington Post caught my eye early in the morning.  “Georgetown chimney produces strange find: a 19th-century cannonball” by, Clarence Williams.  Oddly the article was placed under the Crime section of the Local news page… but I digress.  It seems a family in Georgetown wanted to use a long-dormant fireplace.  Prudently calling a chimney sweep to make sure the hearth was safe, they discovered the reason it hadn’t been used in so long: A cannonball lodged in the flu!  The article doesn’t specify to whom the munition belonged (U.S., British, Confederate), only that the family made an interesting conversation piece out of it.

Second – Later on Thursday I found myself at Strathmore Music Center with a colleague.  We attended “An Evening With Jason Alexander,” (a.k.a. George from Seinfeld).  It was a great night.  Constant laughs and familiar tunes from my childhood made the event a great walk down memory lane.  Among the music performed that night, the BSO presented the overture from Peter Pan, one of the first musicals I ever saw (albeit on VHS).

Finally – Coming home from Strathmore I knelt before a relic of St. Philip in my study.  It’s one of the treasures I was blessed to bring back from studies in Rome.  It was a great way to end the day in prayer and contextualize everything that had happened in terms of Christ.

Reminders can be tremendously important for us as people… not just to make our appointments but to remember who we are and where we’re going.  Sometimes the reminders are solemn, even painful.  The Georgetown cannonball was an instrument of war (Did I mention, it had to be taken away for army analysis to ensure it wouldn’t explode).  Someone shot it with the intention of killing another human being… not something we like to remember, but it’s part of who we are.  Hopefully it reminds us to pursue peace in our future.  Other reminders are more affirming.  The music at Strathmore brought me back to childhood, to memories of musical performances with my cousins and gifts from grandparents… a nice reminder that I come from a family, and a loving one at that.  Finally there are sacred, eternal reminders: my relic of St. Philip.  Macabre as it might seem to the uninitiated, these [literal] pieces of history are a beautiful way to aide and enhance the faith of the present generation in handing on our way of life to the next.

Catholics have a beautiful veneration for the past.  The relics we keep remind us of our history, help us to remember who we are, and guide us in charting a future course.  I feel sad for people who don’t have such a foundation.  It’s hard to imagine navigating my life without such a constellation of reminders to guide me.  Ultimately these reminders liberate us to move into the future with confident steps… and that’s a joy.

What’s in a Name: Heavenly Patrons

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Thus it was Vincent’s body that suffered, but the [Holy] Spirit who spoke.  And at his voice, impiety was not only vanquished but human frailty was given consolation. -St. Augustine

Today is the feast of my patron saint, Vincent, Deacon and Martyr.  While serving the third-century Church in Zaragoza, Spain he was captured during the persecutions of the Emperor Diocletian. Refusing to give up the location of the Church’s  holy books (Scriptures, liturgical texts, sacramental rolls, etc.), Vincent was tortured to death with a ferocity that shocked even the early Christians, already so accustomed to witnessing martyrdom.  His name, which means “to conquer” took on special significance as he prayed for his persecutors to the end.

If you were to consider Vincent’s martyrdom only human endurance, the his act is unbelievable.  But first recognize the power to be from God , and it ceases to be a source of wonder
-St. Augustine

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I feel afloat in the ocean of the world.  Washington moves so quickly around us, life takes on an almost tidal force.  It’s an awkward feeling, no floor beneath your feet, nothing to grab on to.  Steadiness, direction, definition are not necessarily givens.  One starting place especially dear to Catholics is our names.

Names define.  Names, connect us to our families and launch us forward in the context of their hopes for us.  Names can also connect us to heavenly patrons: saints whose examples we strive to emulate and who’s intercession before God aides our earthly cause.  Preparing for today’s feast, I’ve been thinking about St. Vincent and taking as a daily motto, “Today’s another opportunity to conquer my life with Christ.”  It’s been a great spiritual exercise that’s helped me over the last few days and lets me look with optimism toward the future.

Whether you’re Catholic or not, the saints love you and are there for you.  Just about every name in the western lexicon has some connection to a saint.  If yours doesn’t, that’s OK, pick a saint and start a relationship with him/her.  You’ll be amazed at how the ground rises to meet you as you journey one with greater confidence than before.  St. Vincent, pray for us.

Sainted Fools

Following up on yesterday’s post here’s a few sainted examples of folks her seemed foolish to everyone around them and found greater happiness than they could ever have imagined before.

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St. Francis – A medieval knight-warrior, heir to a wealthy family, Francis took life very seriously and it nearly killed him as a prisoner of war.  Following his release he did something very foolish: he gave up everything and seeking friendship with Christ in the poor.  He even stripped himself naked before the Bishop as a sign of his new poverty (WARNING: doing that in 21st century DC would be a BAD IDEA).  That one excess aside, he found an immensely happy life in which he could bear up with failures, mistakes, and eventually his own death.  Common ‘serious’ wisdom says he should’ve been miserable, but today he’s a patron saint of happiness.  Chesterton calls him a jongleur de Dieu (God’s court jester).  I like to think of Francis’ child-like simplicity as pleasing to the Father… Kids dance in front of their parents all the time and however foolish they may seem, they’re dancing brings a smile from mom and dad.  God’s no different.

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Another great dancer was St. Ignatius of Loyola… literally, he was a master dancer and ladies’ man at court when a canon ball hit him in battle.  Ignatius would never leap to another quadrille, but he soon started dancing to God’s tune, seeking to please him by giving up courtly ways and adopting a life of radical discernment and obedience to the will of his Father.  Ignatius lived out a  life of hard work and struggle, but also of great joy.  His disciples became the Jesuits and changed the world.

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In this country, St. Elizabeth Ann Seton found glimmers of joy in the Catholic faith of friends… Chasing after that joy, she abandoned her Anglican heritage, her social position, and her home in New York to educate children in the wilderness of Maryland… no easy task for a single mom in the early 1800s, but she loved her newfound mission with reckless abandon.  The order of nuns she went on to found (Daughters of Charity) built Catholic education in the U.S. for a century, helping all, and especially the poor to lift themselves by the light of knowledge.

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Finally, there’s St. Bernadette… Born to poverty she heard the parleyed with the Blessed Virgin, which might seem crazy enough, but then she followed Our Lady’s instructions to dig in the mud and drink the water that she found.  Everybody thought Bernadette was a total fool, but the spring she found was in a place called Lourdes, which has brought healing and hope to countless millions.  Bernadette herself lived out her days in a monastery where she found great peace and joy in Christ.

Taxi Cab Wisdom and the Search For Happiness

Taking a queue from my last post’s saint, Philip Neri, and a nice encounter two days ago,  I’m starting a multi-part reflection on joy in city life… I hope you’ll follow along:

It’s a basic tenet of nearly every school of human philosophy that happiness, true happiness is the universal goal of everyone… However one defines it, all of us seek to be “happy,” rather than, “sad.”  The Greeks called this eudaemonia – a happiness that is tied up with goodness and living out one’s divinely given purpose.  I’ve been praying about this search, and got input from an unexpected source this past week: my taxi driver.  Commenting on the dichotomy between DC’s beauty and the anxiety of its residents he remarked,

“What’s the good of having the good life if you don’t live it?  Seriously man, some people are never happy ’til they’re miserable.”

There’s something to the cabbie’s wisdom.  It’s not just the classic, “If only Americans would be more European; working to live rather than living to work.”  We take ourselves, our careers so seriously… as if they were eternal, galaxy-changing things.  In the midst we find ourselves sad.  Our dour demeanors might not be so bad if life promised  to respond with security for each of us, but that’s not the case is it?

 

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The most stone-faced pin-striped lawyer is just as likely to get caught in a smoke-filled metro tunnel as anyone else.  Plans thrown off, an important deal ruined as a result… Where did all his seriousness get him?  All of us know stories of friends who worked, planned, struggled for a promotion only to lose it, perhaps even a whole career, for reasons completely outside their control.  At the end of the day, such a person doesn’t even have happy memories to enjoy… only stories of struggle sadness and a tragic end.  Looking at the state of affairs through eyes of faith, what might we discern?

If gravity doesn’t necessarily get us happiness maybe a little foolishness, or at least some light-heartedness will?  Dont’ get me wrong, I’m not proposing anyone be foolhardy (which Thomas Aquinas defines as a vice)… this isn’t about ignoring real responsibilities in order to go on a round-the-world cruise… or going skydiving with a heart condition.  That’s just stupid.  But if we have a child-like trust in God our Father, our joys reman just as strong as ever while our stumbles don’t bruise us as they used to.  In tomorrow’s post we’ll consider some saintly examples of this lesson, but for now, consider praying about your own happiness… how’s it going?  Do you feel truly FREE to be happy in your life?

Tomorrow we’ll consider some examples of saints who discovered the wisdom of foolishness…

Holiness… a broader word than you might think

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“The Universal Call to Holiness” – National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, DC

 

When we think of holiness we often think of great ascetics, men and women whose acts of self-denial may seem – at first blush – bizarre.  In a city as comfortable as our DC, is daily holiness possible?  Is great asceticism possible?  The answer is “yes.”  More surprising is what the living of daily asceticism can actually look like.

Catholics believe that everyone is called to holiness by the imitation of Christ in ways particular to each individual’s life.  The common denominator in so infinitely complex a formula of holiness is self-gift for the sake of others.  As Christ offers up his whole self to the Father on the Cross asking that we might be forgiven our sins, we too offer ourselves.  That’s what asceticism (from the Greek askesis) means: to do a physical act in pursuit of a spiritual result.  Here we discover the wide reach of personal holiness.

Sometimes we offer ourselves through very overt acts of self-denial… a woman pushes a child out of the way of an oncoming truck, or a soldier throwing himself on a grenade to save his unit for example.  Other acts are more implicit: the man who silently gives up alcohol asking God to give graces to his family…  Christ himself holds up fasting prayer and almsgiving as the three classical forms of self-gift in daily life.  He also warns that we should be cheerful givers  How does that work??  This is where love comes into the picture.  When we love the other we’re serving, that’s when “denial” becomes “gift.”  And what can be more joyous than giving someone a gift?!?!

Consider for a minute Shakespeare’s character Falstaff.  An ale-swilling party animal, to be sure, but he loved everyone of his friends and offered himself to them completely…literally to the point of passing out!  A little foolish?  Sure.  Falstaff lacked in discipline, but generations of readers have fallen in love with this amiable rogue because in his heart he was a giver.  If we think of Falstaff as one extreme of self-gift, and say… Blessed Mother Theresa as the other (a woman of exceptional discipline and overt self-denial)… we see that there really is a huge range of holiness out there in which each of us can find our niche.

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One saint, a saint of the city who was especially adept at helping others find their own joyous and beautiful asceticism is St. Philip Neri.  I like to think of him as an “aesthetic ascetic.”  Philip lived in sixteenth century Rome and preached a matrix of virtues.  He loved city-folk; never leaving Rome after his arrival there.  He taught that acts of obedience and perseverance in love yield joy… as joy consumes the soul it leads us to be truly free, which disposes us to contemplate God’s presence.  Contemplating God’s presence is the definition of heaven… not a bad goal.  Philip created an environment where this process could unfold and called it the Oratory.  What does this have to do with Washington?  Well, as it turns out an oratory is in formation at one of our downtown parishes, St. Thomas Apostle in Woodley Park.  If you’re a denizen of DC and interested in seeking personal holiness, you might check it out and see how you’re being called to be a aesthetic ascetic for the 21st century.

Tattoos, seen through eyes of faith

An article caught my eye in this past Sunday’s Washington Post Magazine (WPM), “Layers: Tattoos Go Deeper Than You Might Think”.  This new old form of body art is present in so many ways… in your face: another guy walks by at the gym with a full sleeve tattoo extending from an A-neck undershirt.  Other times it’s more of a, “wait, did I just see what I thought I saw?” moment, as with the woman I passed in a restaurant recently, a butterfly delicately traced just below the hairline of her neck seemed to be her ever-present wink at the world.  There’s the repressed tattoo-bearer: the man who, extending his arm to check his watch, shows some wild ink beneath an otherwise docile oxford shirt.  Finally, there’s the less-frequent “all-consuming” tattoo wearer, so covered in symbols that the tattoo is actually known as a “full-body suit.”

It would seem that tattoos and the reasons behind them are as individual as the people who get them.  Some common themes from the WPM’s interviews seem to be:

  • Conscious self-assertion, “Hey world, this is who I am.”
  • A reminder or augmentation of one’s beauty.
  • A personal reminder of one’s own biography, especially moments of suffering.
  • Spiritual statements about one’s origins, conflicts, and feelings about good and evil.
  • Tattoos as ongoing hobby, “I keep adding them and they eventually connect with each other.”
  • Tattoos as a statement of individuality or independence from the norm of society.

To be sure, I would NEVER get a tattoo and I don’t recommend them for others… I believe the teachings of Christ, handed down by the Church – succinctly: God made his creation and called it good… We are born beautiful not by virtue of our appearance but by our very being itself.  If I were horribly disfigured by an accident, penniless and incapacitated, God my Father would still find me beautiful because he made me, he gave me being.  My existence, whether comfortable or filled with suffering is capable of serving Him if I offer it to him… and in this I find my dignity… no need for additions.

All that said, the article above really moved me.  The people interviewed struck on tremendously important human themes:

  • identity
  • memory
  • beauty
  • spirituality

 

I don’t judge anyone who strives after such themes in peace and integrity of conscience.  Such striving is beautiful… but rereading the article several times, I’m moved with pity more than anything.  If I need to add something (i.e. a tattoo) to myself to achieve those human categories, isn’t that a sort of a crutch… which presupposes a disability?  If I cannot be fulfilled apart from painting myself, is that a sort of self-slavery?  Then again, where’s the line between one who wears tattoos and a woman putting on discreet shades of makeup before work?  Is it a slippery slope from one to the other?  These aren’t rhetorical questions, I’d be very interested to discover more about what the thought/emotional process is in those who elect to get tattoos.  In the meantime, the Washington Post Magazine’s editors certainly chose an apt title, “Tattoos Go Deeper Than You Might Think”