“Hold Fast,” reads the tattoo on the knuckles of Brother André Love, OSB. It’s one of the few tattoos that marks a change of heart in the former Bobby Love, tattoo artist and lapsed Catholic, turned Benedictine monk at Mount Angel Abbey, St. Benedict, Oregon.
“My whole body is tattooed,” he said.
There’s no hiding a past so fully illustrated beneath and beyond his black flowing Benedictine habit. Many of his tattoos speak of a past punctuated with anger, separation, and pain. The later ones, including “Hold Fast,” the heart on his palm, the alpha and the omega, came in the early 2000s, as he began turning a new leaf following a moment of epiphany.
His past life of drugs, alcohol, and punk rock, along with his present life of ora et labora, Gregorian chant, and writing icons has clearly been serving as an eloquent witness to the God of surprises.
“‘Who’s this monk that has the tattoos? What’s his story? people ask,’ ” Father Odo Recker, OSB, Mount Angel Abbey’s vocations director, remarked. “He’s a good monk, very hardworking, very faithful. He was well on his way by the time he came here. His application to the monastery simply authenticated his desire for God and his ability to enter and live in a monastic context.”
Love first became acquainted with the 132-year-old abbey after a friend asked him to do a chest tattoo of the Jerusalem cross, embroidered on the cloth covering the abbey church’s tabernacle. Love visited the abbey, looked at the embroidered cross, and learned about an upcoming vocations discernment retreat.
By then, Love had returned to the Catholic Church after 25 years of absence. Reared Catholic “without a full understanding of what it meant,” Love dropped out and explored other religions. “I had a fear of religion and saw religion as more of a hindrance than a help,” he said.
He hit rock bottom before realizing that he needed to give the Church a second look. Love confessed about getting “into a whole lot of trouble” soon after moving back to Oregon from Texas in 2006: “I lost my truck, my license, and my savings.”
A moment of epiphany came while he was sitting on a bus, looking out the window, and seeing a frail, elderly woman carrying a heavy duffel bag. The woman had fallen in that moment. “I heard an internal voice that said, ‘That’s you.’ I realized that I was trying to carry a whole lot of baggage on my own, and that I needed the sacraments. It was time to stop debating doctrine and to go back to what I knew,” Love said.
He signed up for the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) at St. Joseph Church in Salem, Oregon in 2006: “Through RCIA, I was able to look at tradition and lineage, and was able to reason and understand as an adult.”
In the spring of 2007, Love received the Sacrament of Confirmation and had done a full confession of 25 years. He recalled crying like a baby upon receiving the Holy Eucharist. “I felt an overwhelming sense of God’s presence in my life,” he said. Love soon quit tattooing for good.
Attending church with his tattoos showing beyond long-sleeved shirts posed some challenges. At the time, Love also wore earrings and his hair in dreadlocks. “Little old ladies would grab their purses and slide away from me. Or the greeter wouldn’t shake my hand. Or someone would ask, ‘Are you even Catholic?’” he said, smiling.
The long sleeves concealed arms that were tattooed solid black early on in his conversion: “I had full sleeves that I had done from the time I was 17 to the time I was 31. I was really an angry person. When my heart had changed and I wasn’t feeling that anger anymore, I realized that I was speaking it in my tattoos, and had people assume something about me that was no longer true.”
Love started getting tattooed when he joined the army at age 17, in the mid-‘80s: “Basically I saw these tough guys with tattoos, and I wanted to be like them. I’d go get a tattoo with every paycheck. The images were tough and very off-putting.”
Born in California in an affluent Catholic family with two older and two younger sisters, Love grew up in Texas and the Mississippi. He dropped out of high school and church in the 11th grade. “I wanted to go to art school, but my father wouldn’t support me. His idea of success and mine didn’t match,” he said. Love did his best to live by his art and to stay out of the mainstream job market.
Looking back, Love has come to put himself in his father’s shoes and respect his father’s desires for him: “What parent would not want his child to be successful?” For the record, he added, “My father and I have a great relationship now.”
Love joined the army and stayed for five years during Desert Storm. Disillusioned, he moved on to work as a display art director for Tower Records in New York City. He then worked for Venus Modern Body Arts in Manhattan’s East Village and began developing a reputation as a tattoo artist.
Moving every few years, from New York City to New Orleans, Seattle, and Austin doing tattoo art, Love felt “alone and adrift,” even though he had friends and material comfort.
“I realized I had become a product, doing what the kids would shell out the coin for,” he said.
Eventually, Love moved to Newport, Oregon, to work at a mom-and-pop sign shop. He spent his spare time sitting on the beach for two years.
Having gone through divorce thrice, Love said: “I was having tantrums on the beach. I knew I didn’t want to be alone anymore and hoped that there might be that special someone for me. I was upset that it wasn’t happening according to schedule.”
In the spring of 2009, Love rolled in at Mount Angel Abbey on his motorcycle to attend a vocations discernment retreat. With his mop of dreadlocks, pierced ears, and leather attire, Love cut a novel figure at the hilltop community of clean-cut monks and seminarians.
“I thought I was brought to the hilltop to be introduced to Benedictine spirituality. Entering the monastery was not an option in my mind,” Love said.
After more time of sitting on the beach and getting acquainted with a number of religious communities, he entered Mount Angel Abbey as a postulant in February 2010. By this time, he had already incorporated aspects of Benedictine spirituality — lectio divina, the Divine Office, a healthy balance of ora et labora —in his personal life, and fitted right in.
The road towards full monastic profession was at times strewn with doubt and anxiety. During a moment of high anxiety, Love knocked on the abbot’s door, and asked him point blank: “Do you really think I belong here?” To which Abbot Gregory Duerr, OSB, calmly replied, “No one here doubts your conversion. We believe you belong here.”
Then there’s the dress code that was implemented for the second discernment retreat: no dreadlocks, no earrings, and no big bushy beard. Br. André shaved his head, shaved his beard, and took off his earrings. He emphatically told Father Recker: “Let me know if the tattoo is a deal breaker and I won’t bother you anymore.”
It was decided that the tattoos had to stay, because “they’re a part of who I am.”
In September of 2014, Brother André made his final vows, five years since he attended the first discernment retreat. He took the name André, after St. André Bessette.
“There was a great sense of relief after I made my vows, just being able to relax and to try to be the best monk I can be each day,” he said.
As for the choice of his monastic name, Brother André initially proposed Moses the Black, a Coptic saint whose life story has elements that resemble his own, but the abbot picked André, partly because of Love’s paternal French Canadian ancestry.
“St. André Bessette’s degree of humility was what I was seeking anyway. A life of true simplicity and devotion,” he said.
Brother André has been appointed curator of the abbey museum, and has a ministry writing commissioned icons. After taking a week-long course at the Institute of Iconography at Queen of Angels Monastery in Mount Angel, OR, Brother André has been taken by the beauty of an art form “that takes the ego out.”
“I’m using the geometry, the colors, and techniques that had been established in a canon hundreds of years ago. I don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
Caring for the bell tower is another one of his monastic duties. The bells ring at 5:20 a.m., 6:30 a.m., 7:55 a.m. 11:55 a.m., 5:15 p.m., and 7:25 p.m. for prayer and daily Mass, the monks’ main work: “Life at the hilltop revolves around the tolling of the bells. It makes it simple to be in the moment. There’s a great sense of peace that comes from that.”
Jo Garcia-Cobb writes from Mount Angel, Oregon.