Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion #Book Review


Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion by Gregory Boyle

I visited and ate at the delicious Homegirl Cafe when on my “pilgrimage” with my brother in LA back in February and was immediately intrigued and impressed. I finally had the chance to read Fr. Boyle’s book, Tattoos on the Heart, a couple months ago.

I had no idea how much I would get out of this book and was blown away by his profound reflections on God, Love, and the Greatest Commandment:

“Love one another as I have loved you.” Jesus (John 13:34)

Fr. Gregory J. Boyle, S.J. is the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, a rehabilitation program for gang members.  You can read more of Fr. Boyle’s history here.  Long-story short, this guy knows everything there is to know about gangs – or at least he knows the important inside-out side of things better than anyone, aside from maybe the gang members themselves.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the book. I would say it was nothing like I expected yet so much of what I yearn for.  Like Fr. Boyle explains in the book, it’s not exactly a memoir, nor a history of Homeboy Industries per say, it’s a…song…a dance!…a beautiful piece of art hanging on the wall expressing all the ugliness and all the good  that makes our world so immensely and paradoxically beautiful. 

For many people, hearing about or seeing the terrible tragedy of gang violence is enough to send anyone running, hiding, or shaking their heads and think, “What a shame,” and then move on to whatever they were doing in the comfort and safety of their own lives.

I, admittedly, know very little of the history of the gang violence in LA and throughout our country but, from what I got from the book, it’s been bad. Real bad.  And Fr. Boyle was “stationed” right in the very heart of it all.

He thought he was sent there to bring Christ’s love to the people there but ended up learning about the true deep-down essence of Love not in spite of the gang members but because of them.

You know, most people, when they think of gang members or criminals, they easily cast them off as only that – criminals and “no good” people of society. The world doesn’t even see them as humans anymore – only monsters who have lost their souls without any chance for redemption. Once a gang member, always a gang member.

And I’m no better. I’ll admit if I found myself in the heart of LA’s “gang district”, I’d feel terrified.  I’ve been taught to “love everyone”, but it would be hard to look into a gang member’s eyes and look past the tattoos and threatening demeanor and not immediately assume the worst of that person or what he or she might do to me.

It’s so hard to see past the thick wall of our natural inclinations of self-preservation and prejudices.

I truly want to…I just don’t want to put my life,  or my family’s, in danger because of it.

But that’s exactly what Fr. Boyle did.

With Tattoos on the Heart, Fr. Boyle invites us to turn and look. Look beyond the scary. Look beyond the actions or “records”. Look beyond the outsides of people and see. See the person for WHO that person is. Not what they’ve done, not how they act, talk, or what they wear, who they associate with, their gender, age, demographics or ethnic appearance and really and truly look at who that person is, to his or her very core. 

And then, love that person.

You stand with the belligerent, the surly, and the badly behaved until bad behavior is recognized for the language it is: the vocabulary of the deeply wounded and of those whose burdens are more than they can bear.

That said, this book isn’t only about how to take Jesus’ Great Commandment to “love one another” to the ghetto or prisons. It’s a profound theology of love: God explains Love and Love explains God. 

[Leon Dufour said], “I have written so many books on God, but after all that, what do I really know? I think, in the end, God is the person you’re talking to, the one right in front of you.”

Reading this book came to me in a time of my spiritual life where I often feel like I have never desired God with such an intensity as I do now while, at the same time, with such a frustrating inability to reach Him and feel Him.

Tattoos on the Heart showed me the intimate  and subtle ways God works on the hearts of the wounded and showed me I need to allow myself to “marinate” in the Love of God, in His Mercy, in His quiet and healing presence. 

Tattoos on the heart page excerpt

Other quotes I jotted down from the book worthy of “marinating” in for a while:

Thomas Merton – “We discover our true selves in love.”

Thomas Merton –  “No despair of ours can alter the reality of things, or stain the joy of the cosmic dance which is always there…We are invited to forget ourselves on purpose, cast our awful solemnity to the winds and join in the general dance.”

Thich Nhatt Hahn, “our true home is the present moment…”

“[Bill Cain said] – ‘Living within the withinness of God.’ This is the intimate union and full promise of kinship that is being offered to us every second.

Breathe it in, breathe it out. The Lord is everything I want. A yes that means yes… Isaiah has God say: ‘Be glad forever and rejoice in what I create… for I create my people to be a delight.’… delighting is what occupies God, and God’s hope is that we join in. That God’s joy may be in us and this joy may be complete. We just happen to be God’s joy. That takes some getting used to.

Chew on that for a while:

YOU are God’s Joy!

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