by Kerra Becker English
Far from love the Heavenly Father
Leads the chosen child;
Oftener through realm of briar
Than the meadow mild,
Oftener by the claw of dragon
Than the hand of friend,
Guides the little one predestined
To the native land.
— Emily Dickinson
I’m no Nadia Bolz-Weber. I’m not nearly that cool. But we do have one thing in common: We are both pastor-women with ink. My tattoo was a 40th birthday present to myself because that occasion seemed to merit something dramatic. That number comes up regularly in Scripture in association with challenge: 40 days and nights of epic flooding, 40 years wandering in the wilderness, 40 days of temptation by the devil.
The closer I got to 40, the more my own life was being flooded by the kind of turmoil met in the unknown where temptation lurks around every corner. It was during that time that I befriended Emily Dickinson’s poem, “Far from love.” As she so poignantly points out, being “chosen” by God is not always the most pleasant experience. Just ask any of the prophets … or apostles … or martyrs. Emily got it right. The path to finding our native land as the “little ones predestined” makes its path through the weeds and is guided by dragons.
Thus, it was her poem that became the spiritual inspiration for my tattoo. It spoke so loudly to my situation that it could not be ignored. That dragon claw became an outward representation of my inner life, and it did so in two ways. I was well into my second call as a pastor — you know, the one that would take me from being a pastor to being a seasoned pastor. And, I was also experiencing what author Brené Brown calls the mid-life “unraveling.”
In that transition from my first call to my second, I was stupid enough to pray to God to lead me toward a “challenge” in ministry. Knowing God’s mischievous sense of humor, it was not a wise move! I accepted a call to a church that was well-known for having rocky relationships with its pastors. The briar patch was already set for me to stumble into — and that I did, many times over. True to the poem, there were occasionally patches of milder meadows, but life in that church was complex and it often felt like I was clutching onto a dragon’s claw for mere survival. Though it was quite painful at times, I am grateful now for having faced such a valiant quest in my ministry.
Celtic dragon-lore speaks to this predicament in human life. The dragons are our foes, yes, but they also make us braver, wiser and more cunning through the fight. That’s why I asked my tattoo artist to create my dragon following a Celtic design. The artistic loops and knots speak to the complexity of life and the dragon itself constantly reminds me that the more difficult the lesson, the greater the possibility for learning from it.
Which brings me to the other inspiration for getting a tattoo — I felt a strong desire to mark this mid-life transformation in a permanent way. In “The Gifts of Imperfection,” Brené Brown writes, “People may call what happens in midlife ’a crisis,’ but it’s not. It’s an unraveling — a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re ’supposed’ to live. The unraveling is a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.”
My dragon has certainly become symbolic of a particular time in my spiritual journey, a time that was dangerous, unsettling and ultimately transformative. In Revelation 12, there begins a dreamlike sequence that pits a pregnant woman against a seven-headed dragon. After she gives birth, the dragon seeks to destroy her newborn son, a son that God whisks away to heaven to save. Then, God protects the woman by preparing a place for her in the wilderness where she can be “nourished for 1,260 days,” a three-and-a-half year period of protection and rest. That sounds about right. For the unraveling to become a true transformation, it takes time, nourishment and a whole lot of soul work. Getting my dragon tattoo marked the beginning of a divinely inspired journey to my true inner self.
Ultimately, symbols are what you make of them. I happen to draw spiritual strength from my dragon, though it is not a typical Christian symbol. It had certain significance when I first got it, but its meaning has changed and shifted over time, growing with who I am becoming and allowing for new interpretations along the way. Now, not every tattoo will do that, and not every tattoo should be called upon to do that. But for ones that have spiritual significance, the meaning may deepen over time and grant the marked body new insights to match the marked soul.
KERRA BECKER ENGLISH is pastor of Ashland Presbyterian Church in Ashland, Virginia. She also serves as a spiritual director and teaches on the faculty for the RUAH School of Spiritual Direction at Richmond Hill. Kerra lives in the greater metropolitan Richmond area with her husband Chuck, and two children, Cade and Ryleigh. She doesn’t know yet what her next tattoo will be.