Last week I arrived outside of Iconic Ink, (a real place) for a consultation on two tattoos that I was getting as enduring reminders of two pilgrimages I have had the good fortune to take in the 12 months.
In June last year I was blessed to travel to Assisi on my honeymoon with the love of my life. We met nearly five years ago when she relocated from another diocese to take a new position as rector of a neighboring parish. That happened on September 1, 2011, which also happens to be my sobriety date. Assisi, according to my new bride, is a “love drenched landscape.” That nails it in my opinion and experience. Francis and Clare are lurking around every medieval building and throughout the countryside that nurtured two of the most influential Christian lives in history.
We hadn’t even been married yet when the opportunity arose to take a pilgrimage to Israel, Jerusalem, and the Occupied West Bank during the week of Passover and Orthodox Holy Week this year. We jumped at the chance. Needless to say it was a very special and poignant time personally and spiritually.
I had been tattooed for the first time just before my sabbatical to Ireland in 2012. I was there in the first year of sobriety and on my own for several weeks. That was a graced time given that Guinness Stout was my drink of choice at the end of my drinking. St. Brigid and St. Brendan crosses had been inked into my shoulders as sort of a talisman on that way. I was surrounded by grace and not a few AA meetings in Ireland during my stay in West Cork.
Before I had left on that trip I had experienced a continuous if not rapidly growing belief in the truth of the Step 9 promises that are read in my home group before each meeting. Those promises end with this phrase, “We will suddenly see that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. Are these extravagant promises? We think not!”
As I walked in the door of Iconic Ink, I followed the proprietor who had arrived to unlock while I was waiting in my truck listening to the news of an earthquake in Umbria, not far from Assisi, and a story of the beating death of a Palestinian who had been jailed on suspicion of attacking an Israeli soldier the previous week. (God can weave some remarkable patterns in the tapestry of our lives if we take the time to step back and look!)
He asked me, “What do you do for a living?”
I told him I was a priest. He said, “I’ve never tattooed a priest before. I have inked a couple of my fellow deacons in the past.” He used to serve as a deacon at a neighboring UCC church near where I live.
I told him that I was the first priest that each of my two previous tattoo artists had inked as well. I told him that one of them asked me, “Are you going to hell for getting tattooed.” And that the other one had asked, “Am I going to hell for tattooing you?”
The proprietor of Iconic Ink and I shared a good laugh and then he told me that he had been raised Roman Catholic and only gone back to church after getting sober some 15 or so years ago. The spark of connection was swift and unmistakable (I suspect he may have seen among the many bumper stickers on the tailgate of my truck, ‘I’m a Friend of Bill W.’
We talked a little bit of sobriety, a bit of church, and went on to work on the designs that he would inscribe on each of my calves in two days time. It was fellowship that only The Fellowship of AA has provided me on a regular basis.
Two days later we opened up the shop together sharing stories, experiences, and views on sobriety and faith while we prepped for our session together. As he finished measuring, applying the stencils, and confirming the color schemes and selections, he asked me, “Should we pray first?”
We joined hands over the table. I offered a prayer and we concluded with praying for one another’s families, our shared faith, and our continued sobriety. I have to say that was not one of my expectations as I planned to honor and remember these pilgrimages--that I would be praying with my tattoo artist on a bright summer morning.
This vignette is only the latest in a string of graced events that I have received since I started living the Promises of AA with a confidence born of experience. A new ministry, a new wife, a new circle of friends, and deepening friendships that had shallowed out until I got serious about working on spiritual fitness as the bedrock of each day of sobriety that I am blessed to live.
Life is full of unexpected graces. I have learned to expect the unexpected with varying levels of faith and confidence since I turned my life and will over the power of God and the Fellowship of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Are these extravagant expectations? I think not!!!