Just glancing at the tattoos on her arms you wouldn’t notice anything in particular. You may wonder why a person wearing a clerical collar has tattoos, or you may wonder why someone with tattoos is wearing a clerical collar. Either way the first glance is a bit jarring.
Look further, and the tattoos aren’t of mermaids, butterflies, or even flames; they are one of the oldest Christian art forms, iconography showing Byzantine images of Christian saints. One in particular of Mary Magdalene seems somewhat faded.
Describing the tattoos and bumpy faith journey in her recent book Pastrix: The Cranky Beautiful Faith of a Sinner and Saint, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Lutheran pastor and author, claims Mary Magdalene as her personal teacher and guide in her life.
Mary Magdalene was saved when Jesus cast out her demons and is someone who shows up in the moments of Jesus’ life and death, when the others cowered in fear. The title itself Pastrix is an insult by conservative critics defining female pastors. By claiming Mary as her teacher, she further redefines herself in opposition to the conservative church of her childhood, which refused to allow female leadership.
Pastrix is not a typical narrative of a tattooed addict who found Jesus and rose above her ashes to become a respected and much-loved pastor. It is the story of an addict who reluctantly found sobriety, stumbled into Christianity and fell in love with the Lutheran church. Her tattoos are not from her life before recovery. Rather, they are the spiritual lessons of recovery engraved on her heart, revealed in the beautiful collection of icons now tattooed on her arms.
Living into the growth of leaders who are allowed and encouraged to share their vulnerabilities, Pastrix mixes the anticipation of a mystery, a comedy, a book of prayer, and a confession.
Lightly seasoned with profanity, the book literally begins with “shit” and ends with alleluias. She tells her story with a lens only bestowed upon survivors who have wrestled with addiction—a lens that allows its users to face the human vulnerabilities, failings and everyday victories with grace and deep humility.
Bolz-Weber conveys this beautiful duality of sinner and saint by setting the tone with humor, sometimes irreverence and disappointment, and with the brashness of an urbanite who has managed to turn a tattoo into a sacred art.
The book is a reminder of just how messy resurrection and recovery can be, and how it deeply changes the way life is viewed. At the heart of Pastrix, the author retells a conversation with a church member about recovery and resurrection: “The Hold Steady . . . describes a girl who crashed into the Easter mass with her hair done up in broken glass and tell(ing) the priest, ‘Father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?'”
Without being heavy-handed, Bolz-Weber frequently returns to her recovery as a source of strength and as a constant reminder of her frailty. As many people have confessed after the recent death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman, addiction is a demon they wrestle with every day. It is why the phrase “one day at a time” is the source of strength for so many. Pastrix reminds people that faith and humanness is an act of recovery, living one day at a time, between moments of victory and moments of failure—each beautiful reminders of life, with each moment capable of resurrecting them.
Pastrix is a collection of vignettes, retelling moments when Nadia was struck with the contradiction of her humanness and the calling to be a minister. Some chapters give you a glimpse of her former career as a comedian, while others still raw, describe her friends who didn’t find recovery or of Bolz-Weber struggling to preach about forgiveness on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, when she wasn’t really sure what it meant.
Those moments reveal her vulnerability, compelling the reader to slowly read each word, carefully turning the page and allowing the words room to breath, to heal, as if by reading the book you are participating in her resurrection.
This is the tale of so many conservative Christian refugees recovering from restrictive theology. It is the tale of an addict recovering from self-medication, facing the rawness of life. It is the tale of someone falling in love with a 500-year-old tradition, drawn into its deep ritual waters. Pastrix is also a reminder to people who have lived in that tradition of the beauty and call to face their vulnerabilities.
I originally published this review on the NY Journal of Books .