The speaker was really very good; the pomp and circumstance was, as always, regal; the spectacle--all those robed faculty and grads--proud and worthy.
But I've attended more than my share of college commencements, so I won't be faulted for looking around some. Besides, my appointed seat was far, far to the left of the speaker and the college pres. I was in the first row, staring up at the graduates' feet since the grads were on just in front of me, up on the stage.
What I'm saying is, I don't have some kind of foot fetish. This young grad's tattoo was right smack dab in front of my eyes.
The picture isn't the greatest, but that tattoo across the side of her foot reads "Walk By Faith." A dreamy butterfly sits atop a sweet tendril of beneficent ivy. It's quite the creation. She must have been under the needle for a long time.
Commencement means, of course, beginning, and graduations are--the beginnings of a new moment in time for those who are leaving the academic nest.
A Christian college, as this one is, hopes and prays that its grads will be tattooed by their education here, in just about exactly the way this young lady's right foot is, with some statement of faith that feels, like this one, part-promise and part-command. This young lady has taken the college's faith mantra--"every square inch"--and brandished it in a way few of her profs, experts in the field, had ever thought of, a rather elegant tattoo that runs the length of her foot.
There it was, right and front of me, like forever almost.
Women have painted their toenails for hundreds of years, but the juxtaposition was somehow enough to make me giggle. "Walk by faith," it promises, but you better keep your toenails pink too, since you never know about things. And what about those fancy, slivery-heeled flip-flops? An oxymoron almost, but a real fashion statement. I bet she took one look at those on the rack, and told herself she couldn't leave the store without 'em.
Those sweet feet drew me back into the old baffling biblical line about "be yet in, but not of," for there's something almost mysteriously compelling about this young lady's bold right foot. Is that tattoo "of the world"? Most certainly is--if and when it's as much an accessory as the well-heeled flip-flops and the flaring toenails. If it's just pretty, it's sinful, saith Elijah, the old man.
But then, Thoreau says, in Walden, that he would rather that people wore tattoos than a half-dozen different shirts. After all, a tattoo is for all time, and a tux--or a graduation gown--isn't. Here's what I thought: give the tattooed girl forty years and her ankles won't be as slim, nor her feet be so tan and darling. Chances are, she'll forget the polish. But there's comfort too in the fact that her tattoo will still be there, fuzzier maybe, but it'll still be there, no matter how frumpy the shoes.
Good for her, I'm thinking.
Then again, that tattoo reminded me of her whole generation, young people immensely spiritual, and immensely drawn to the things of this world--almost as if Christ had never said word about the impossibility of serving two masters. Does she really believe that cute little tattoo is a testimony? Or was it just something she got because she wanted one and she knew her old man wouldn't hit the roof if it saluted something in the Bible. Or whatever.
"Moral therapeutic deism," researchers call it, the sketchy faith of her entire generation. They know faith has something to do with being good, and also it's good for them, like spinach--and at the heart of it is a God, sort of. And now, isn't that all quite worthwhile? That young lady's foot, for just a moment, reminded me of everything that's sour in American evangelicalism; our flirtation with the world sometimes feels like outright fornication. "Sure I'm a Christian--read my t-shirt! See this tattoo I got down here? And I got another one, just as nice, on my tush. John 3:16."
I'm still trying to figure out if that tattoo--"walk by faith"--is the best thing I saw all morning at the college graduation--or the worst?
But I'm not obsessed. I'm too old for that. I've seen way too much. When I was younger, I was vastly more capable of decisions and declarations on the nature of righteousness--"yes" to this, "no" to that. I think I may have been a walking Old Testament.
But I've long ago put away such childish things. I don't care to judge because I've seen grace do things human beings swore couldn't be done. I've taken communion from the hands of murderers--seriously, honestly. I've cried at the rich testimony of good people who, fifty years ago, would have been run out of the church for their own bad choices, stupid choices.
She was cute, this girl--and, when it comes right down to it, so were her feet. Maybe a little silly, too, tattooed like that, but then, aren't we all a little silly sometime or other?
Besides, they say you can get 'em taken off these days, if someday she starts to think it was a stupid thing to do--get a tattoo.
Then again, if it's there for life, all those faculty sitting beneath the grads--they all have reason to be proud.
Here's where I come down--God will have his way with her, just as he does with all of us. Tattooed or not. Barn coats or mink stoles. Shirts or skins. It's his world, and we're his people.
Yesterday, at grad, I just hoped that as she now begins a new life, she's serious. Go ahead and walk by faith. You go, girl.