Focus on One Thing

Focus on One Thing

I made some pretty bold moves this weekend, and I’m a lot better off this Sunday night than I was just 48 hours ago. It’s because of some advice that I received last week, on something totally unrelated to what I just discovered.

A little backstory here is necessary. Since the 2016 presidential election, I, like millions of others, have been pretty gripped with the polarizing politics here in the United States. It doesn’t matter what side you are on; it’s been emotionally draining for everyone. Relationships of all kinds have been strained, and I’ve acknowledged several times here and on social media how I have been overwhelmed by it all. It has affected my writing, my art, my love for music, my everything. I’ve been passionate about fighting for what I believe is right, and as a result, so much around me has suffered.

Fast forward to last week, when I turned in my article to my Catholic Review editor. After he had a chance to read it, we had a phone conference about the story. His bottom line: Focus on one thing, and then write about that one thing.

Let me repeat that:

Focus on one thing.

In the context of writing, it is a fairly rigid rule to keep it simple and be direct. It’s good advice that I’ve heard, and shared, over the years. My editor was spot on.

So fast forward five days, and here I am, still struggling with fluctuating polls, vitriolic tweets, hypocritical rants from all sides, and paralyzing gridlock in my newsfeed. I texted a friend of mine that I had lost my love for reading, for listening to music, for going on photo shoots. It was as if I had picked up a handful of crayons and had scribbled relentlessly through my thoughts, scrambling any coherent idea or passion that was possible.

No passion. No focus.

Then, for whatever reason, my editor’s words popped into my head: Focus on one thing.

It would be easy for me to apply this advice by ridding my life of the distractions that are keeping me from my art. Delete the politics, and the focus returns. That would certainly work, at least in the short term.

But when I meditated on my editor’s advice, I realized something a little deeper.

If I focus my energy on my own gifts, and how I can make a change in this world through deliberate acts, then I will no longer be paralyzed by the things I cannot control.

I immediately thought of my mentors, including my patron saint Francis de Sales, and Mother Theresa, Ghandi, and Thich Nhat Hanh. While each of them might have been political, all of them were driven by their gifts of benevolence, peace, and charity. They looked for the common ground and not the things that divide us.

In other words, it’s not enough to delete the politics from our lives. I’m actually suggesting just the opposite. We need to, first and foremost, focus on the one thing that we are best at when it comes to making our communities healthy. Once we do that, everything else will take care of itself.

For me, these acts are done for – and through – God. And if I can offer contributions to my community that improve its overall health and wellness, then we are shielded from the things that are tearing others apart. In fact, it diminishes that contentious hold on us and begins to return us to a higher ground of respect toward all.

So as we navigate our energies through these turbulent times, focus on that one thing that you do well for others, and don’t worry so much about the things you can’t control. I believe that if more of us contribute kindness to others in our own communities, we will begin to feel a shift in our country’s larger energy for the values we believe are essential, not only for today but for our children’s future.

Our actions today are developing their focus for tomorrow; let’s make sure they focus on one thing: benevolence toward all.

 

Discovering Creative Ketosis

Discovering Creative Ketosis

I’m on this new diet (I hate the connotations that are associated with that word; every one of us is on some kind of diet, right?). Anyway, it’s the Keto Diet, and I can’t have more than 27 (ideally 20) net carbs a day.

Perspective: I was downing probably 300 net carbs a day. So this is a big change for me.

The purpose of the diet, in simple terms, is to switch your body from burning carbs to burning fat. This is what is known as entering a state of ketosis, where your body becomes this incredible fat-burning machine. It’s magical, and it’s beginning to work for me.

But the transition has been tough. As my body goes through this adjustment into ketosis, it is very possible that it is resisting the change of burning carbs to burning fat. That might very well explain why I have been so fatigued these last few days. My body is searching for carbs to burn, and it hasn’t completely learned just yet that burning fat instead is a completely acceptable concept.

I’m feeling it kick in today, though, and it’s pretty magical, like I said.

A few weeks before I started the Keto Diet, I also decided to deactivate my Facebook and step away from most of the social media scene. I did this for myriad reasons, but mostly because I didn’t like the energy it was taking away from my writing. I had a bad year last year, and I’m trying to reclaim my creative game.

At first, leaving Facebook was instantly liberating, but lately, I’ve been struggling with getting the creative juices flowing. Then  this morning, it struck me: I think the resistance I was feeling in my diet can be true as well about my transition from a social media life to a writer’s life (I’m not really saying that we need to choose one or the other, but in my situation, I’ve made such a choice).

There is resistance. My creative soul is looking for social media to feed its appetite, and it is just now learning that it can be far more healthy and productive by working on meaningful pieces like my novel, Fossil Five; my blog; and other original writings and creative works.

Here’s the point: The writer (or artist, or creative) strives to stay in a complete state of creative ketosis, where the mind, body, and soul are working optimally to produce the greatest works possible. This is the very essence of Samadhi, the state of superconsciousness, for the writer: Aware of all things, in all ways, to make the most of his or her creative journey toward polished products, whatever they may be.

I have said for some time that the energy we spend on social media takes away energy that could be better spent in healthy ways. Indeed, social media is nothing more than a high-carb fast food, filling us with nothing and leaving us feel, paradoxically, empty and bloated all day long.

So, as I continue to lose weight in this dietary state of ketosis, and as I continue to forego the energy-sucking platforms of social media and stay in creative ketosis, I am eliminating the “un-creative” carbs from my life in every way, allowing my body to burn optimal creative fuel for its energy: a heightened sense of awareness and mindfulness of all around me. It’s space that fosters healthy growth for my novel and other creative endeavors. The energy is pure, accessible, clean.

It takes time. Everything does. I’m glad I’m sticking with both.

Being Resolute in 2018: Begin Within

Being Resolute in 2018: Begin Within

If we make happiness our primary goal instead of our secondary goal, then we easily accomplish everything else we desire. ~Deepak Chopra

Across the country and throughout the world, people are asking themselves the same question: What will my resolutions be for 2018?

The “Greatest Hits” of resolutions include weight loss, saying goodbye to cigarettes and liquor, and establishing a fitness regimen.

No doubt, these are all admirable goals to live a better life. But one hardly needs a new year to begin — or resume — being so resolute; in fact, I would argue that many of us are overweight, smoky, and out of shape because we set ourselves up for failure in some other previous new year. Resolutions have a way of making us feel horrible about ourselves before January is even over. Once we fail at keeping our resolutions, we find solace in remembering that another new year will soon be upon us — in 11 months.

I found another set of New Year’s “Greatest Hits” on my friend’s Facebook page. Chris shared the top ten “Words of Wisdom” by the late Wayne Dyer, and it paired nicely with my daily readings of Deepak Chopra.

The resolution we really need to be making is simple, requires no exercise equipment, and prepares us to accomplish any secondary goal we might have to live a more healthy, fulfilling life. It’s so simple, in fact, that we do everything we can to make it harder on ourselves, when we don’t need to.

Are you ready? Here it is:

Embrace happiness and joy in this moment, within you.

And we don’t even have to wait until January 1. It’s accessible, and doable, right now. All you need to do is shift your priorities, see the beauty within you first, and then go after any other goal or resolution you wish to pursue.

You might be asking: What’s the difference, then, if I go for my goals first? Won’t that lead me to the same goal of happiness anyway?

It seems logical that it should work that way, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it almost never does. Here’s why. When we seek things — materialistic or otherwise — to bring us happiness, we allow our well being to become dependent on achieving those things. And, as we are hardly creatures of contentment, we then seek out the next thing that will make us happy.

Thoreau, over 150 years ago, nailed it when he penned those timeless words:

“The mass of men lead their lives in quiet desperation.”

We can’t keep chasing resolutions, thinking they are going to be making us happier. They simply won’t. But, if we begin with happiness, and then pursue our resolutions, that wellness within will keep us motivated throughout the year — and beyond — to make those better choices in our lives.

So here are Dyer’s words of wisdom below, coupled with ten of my own photos from previous years. At the end of this post is a lovely 39-minute sunrise that I have been playing while writing in the early hours. Enjoy.

Here’s to a happy and healthy 2018 for each of us. May you discover the beauty and joy that awaits within.

Love, Rus

10. If you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.

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9. How people treat you is their Karma; how you react is yours.

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8. When you judge another, you do not define them. You define yourself.

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7. You cannot be lonely if you like the person you’re alone with.

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6. Conflict cannot survive without your participation.

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5. Be miserable. Or motivate yourself. Whatever has to be done, it’s always your choice.

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4. Abundance is not something we acquire; it is something we tune into.

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3. Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.

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2. You’ll see it when you believe it.

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1. Go for it now. The future is promised to no one.

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Understanding Our Frustrations And Realizing New Pathways To Resolutions

Understanding Our Frustrations And Realizing New Pathways To Resolutions

America is facing its greatest crisis in my lifetime, and I am realizing that each of us is called to react and act in ways that define our communities, large and small.

In the simplest of terms, here’s how I see it.

In our lifetimes, we are presented with scenarios that are not always directly related to our actions. In other words, we didn’t ask for the things that are bringing us stress. In such moments, we are presented with options of how we can react. Some of us turn inward; others seek spiritual guidance; many seek out advice from others. On some level, we combine these approaches to understand our frustrations.

Keeping this in its simplest terms, we have ourselves, we have spirituality, we have books, and we have others to guide us.

Most of the things that frustrate us are fleeting events where our reactions are governed by basic morals. Somebody has 30 items in the “fast lane” checkout at the grocery store, and we make a choice to wait or seek out a faster lane. We can control an immediate action and solve the problem to our satisfaction.

But with the things that frustrate us longer, such as socioeconomics, health benefits, or the conditions of our communities, we don’t have quick answers, and we seek comfort and camaraderie in the time we are frustrated. This, too, is natural.

We create websites, social media groups, attend meetings, and seek out leaders who understand us and who can help us with our frustrations.

This is where each of us matters in how we handle our frustrations and how we choose the leaders we listen to.

Over time, an energy is created out of our frustrations. if we spend more of that energy seeking out acknowledgment and justification, rather than working individually and collaboratively on solving those frustrations, the energy focuses on the problem and not on the solution. It becomes easy to accept the acknowledgment and the rhetoric used to make you believe you are heard and understood.

This is what political campaigns usually do. They rally an understanding of frustration and say, “Believe in me. I am the only person who can fix your problems and relieve your frustrations.” There is a promise made built on the energy manifested in that emotion and that frustration.

This is common in all sides of politics: something isn’t working; I can fix it. It isn’t Democrat, Republican, or any one individual; it’s the nature of politics when we have elections.

The problem we face today is that the pre-election frustration that was manifested into energy still exists, and it continues to manifest into something dangerous. It has momentum; it was given promises, it was given compassion and recognition, and now it is taking on a life of its own with the very people who justified it and are doing nothing to stop it.

Here’s the point. When protesters showed up in Charlottesville armed with weapons and shields, they personified the manifestation of that energy’s breaking point. When an individual made the decision to drive his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, he, too, was a manifestation of that energy.

But that is all that it is: energy. The very simple thing I know is that the only way to stop energy such as this is to cease feeding into it. Release the energy that fuels the frustration and make the choice – today – to return to the origins of your frustration and start again.

We can turn inward, we can counsel spiritual guidance, we can read books, we can seek solace and understanding in a community.

But this time, we must let our morals, our ethics, our spiritual compass, guide us in a direction of peace. Let there be a manifestation of energy that does not require physical weapons and shields, that the only daggers we use are words to slay the hatred and give peace a chance to manifest in a new way for all.

Dare to strike a new path, a new approach toward resolving the things that frustrate us. What we are doing is not working.

It’s not too late. May we come together to recognize our frustrations. May we work together to resolve them. May we all stay together as we forge a new era of peace here in these United States of America, and across the globe.

Rus VanWestervelt (@rusvw13, rus.vanwestervelt@gmail.com)

Being Relentless in Living Fully: Five Things I Have Learned

Being Relentless in Living Fully: Five Things I Have Learned

The other morning, I found myself rushing out to my car to head to school like any other weekday. The sun was just breaking the horizon, and I was juggling too many bags of work and thinking about beating the early rush along the 25-mile commute.

I could feel the tension building already: stress upon stress from two years of seemingly endless troubles and challenges that I failed to understand: family deaths, loss of work, other matters that are just a part of life itself. I’ve never lost sight on the fact that we all go through this; we’ve all got our stresses in our lives that challenge us to the very core of who we are.

For me, I could see the toll they were taking on my body and my mind; making poor dietary choices and dwelling on those stresses create a very unhealthy lifestyle. And before you know it, the troubles you are experiencing within begin to permeate other areas of your life: friendships, work, social occasions.

So on that morning, as I was fumbling with my keys to unlock my car, I heard the unmistakable song of the American Robin.

“Cheer up! Cheer Up! Cheer Up! Cheerily, Cheer Up!”

Yes. This is the actual song of the Robin.

The bird’s sing-song notes seemed so crisp against the cool Spring morning, and they pierced through the stress building upon more stress. In that one instant, I was carried back to younger days when I was living on Chesapeake Bay, and my mornings would begin with the sweet songs of morning birds like the robin, the wren, and the finch.

Those days weren’t trouble-free, by any measure. My father had just died, and money wasn’t any better, really, than it is today. But nature served as a real solace to me then, and I remained open to the things that brought me peace and that soothed me.

In the busy rush of the world we live in today, I sometimes lose sight of that. Thanks to the song of a single American Robin, I found that peace last week, and since then, I’ve been returning to a relentless approach to living a better life.

While there are so many strategies and structures out there to remain relentless in living fully, I’ve narrowed it down to a good list of five that keep me in my game. My five might be different from what you need. I guess what’s most important is that each of us figures out what works, and then stick to it.

Find Your Focus and Keep It Close. For me, it’s three things: writing, photography, and music. I’ve learned that when I’m struggling, I write less, my camera lens captures nothing but a layer of dust, and my playlists are dark and brooding. It’s almost as if my body is creating an environment to nurture the stress, to make it last as long as it possibly can. I need to be conscious of keeping my journal out in the open where I can write freely and often; I need to carry my camera with me so I can capture life as I see it; and I need to choose the songs that empower me, give me encouragement and strength, that keep my mind clear and my heart open to give, as much as to receive.

Let Go of the Past. Nothing keeps us from being relentless in our living than dwelling in the past. I’m not talking about remembering a great hike along the Appalachian Trail when you were 23 or hearing a Zeppelin song along back roads at 19 with windows down and volume up. Hold on to those moments and cherish them often. I’m talking about regret, or decisions you made hastily, or even opportunities brushed aside or declined. You have to place yourself in the present, embrace what is, and seize the songs that remind you that there is a life all around you to be lived, experienced, and celebrated.

Stay Healthy. We are so tempted to stray from what keeps us mentally and physically healthy. Just remember: The quality of every aspect of your body, mind, and heart is entirely dependent on what you put into your system. And it’s different and unique for each of us. My diet might be a catastrophe for you, and chances are pretty good that your good choices would nauseate me. We need to be mindful of what our body needs, and then give it the fuel to make us relentless machines of power, love, and balance.

Remove the Triggers That Set You Back. This is an important one, because the first three tools to remain relentless make it sound like we all lead happy, care-free lives. The truth is that the things that can stress us out are still in our lives. Staying healthy doesn’t bring back a loved one; there is still great sadness and stress associated with it. We just need to defend ourselves with these tools. Triggers are going to continue to be in our lives that remind us of what was causing us so much stress. We need to be active in removing them as much as possible from our daily routine, as they can set us back faster than a 12-inch cheese-steak sub with extra fried onions and all the fixin’s. For me, those triggers are hidden in word games, songs, and radio stations. If I’m vulnerable to these triggers, I need to be mindful of this and remove them. That might mean deleting an app on my phone (or burying it on that last screen and hiding it in an obscure folder), making a different playlist, or even turning off the radio and finding a good mystery to read. Don’t set yourself up to be vulnerable. Living relentlessly means always providing yourself a little self-check on how you are reacting to the experiences around you. Stay relentless and stay in control.

Embrace Your Spirituality. Whatever spirituality means for you, find your affinity for something greater than yourself and make it present in your life-always. Our communion with a higher entity — even if that’s in the spirit of nature itself — puts everything in context with your place in this world. It sorts through the challenges and puts them in perspective; it prioritizes the things that really matter, like health, peace, and love; it gives you greater strength to confront the things that bring stress and offers the space and faith to work on resolutions. No matter what you believe, your spiritual foundation reminds you that you aren’t alone, and you have the  strength of a higher power with you every step of the way.

If all else fails, remember this: you are most certainly not alone. Sometimes it takes a simple song of a common bird to remind us of how beautiful life is: in this moment and in the hours and days to follow. It’s all about our perspective and our choices.

Choose to embrace the relentless pursuit of a life lived fully.

On the Morning of My Catholic Confirmation

On the Morning of My Catholic Confirmation

In just hours, I will be confirmed into the Catholic church. The journey here has been a long one, yet there is no doubt that this is the beginning of the greatest journey of my life.

I was baptized on April 23, 1965 at St. Margaret’s Episcopalian Church in Parkville. My parents served as my Godparents; there were no other witnesses on record.

In the years that followed, I was confirmed at Arnolia United Methodist Church on March 12, 1978. It was a process; it was just what we did when we turned 14. I remember wearing a white robe, and getting silver coins from my brothers. I also remember a girl in my class who was wonderfully pious. Susan radiated a spiritual faith that I envied. I did not understand why I wasn’t like her. She was unlike everyone else that I was friends with in school. As we got older, she continued to get more involved with church; I continued to get more involved with my friends.

As a senior in high school, I was pretty open about being a Christian, and I took part in a few Christmas choir events. I even opened my graduating quote in the yearbook by thanking God for his blessed gifts. But other than that, I don’t recall doing much with my faith, except for living a life of general service to others. There were others, like a guy named Rob, who really served others in Christ’s name. I remember hearing that Rob would go to malls on Friday nights to see who was in need of support. That really struck me, but I didn’t have the guts to learn more.

Then, in 1988, while living with a couple of paramedics in Southern Maryland, I hit a low point in early summer. I felt like my life had little purpose, even though I had just completed my first year of teaching in a small, cutting-edge school on the western shores of Chesapeake Bay. I was empty. On a Sunday night, one of my roommates returned from a spiritual revival. He was absolutely electric. I asked him to tell me all about it. He did. I remember thinking that this is what I needed. Christ filled him with joy; I needed to open up to God and (finally) let Him in.

The next week, he and his friend held a small group bible session with the three of us. His friend had his guitar, and he gifted me a bible, dated June 8, 1988. I considered that my date of spiritual rebirth with Christ. Ten months later, my father died, and I wrote a eulogy threaded with Christian comfort, strength, and love. Christ got me through the hardest days of my life, and I will never forget how powerful His love was for me so that I could comfort others, through Him.

Later that year, I joined a Presbyterian church close to my house, and I became very involved with the theater group that would perform weekly scenes of conflict, resolved by scripture and God’s love. It was the group of churchgoers that I had bonded with, and I found the community so supportive; at Chesapeake Presbyterian, it was the first sanctuary that I called “home.”

The greatest event at Chesapeake was when we performed our version of Beauty and the Beast for 700 children at our summer camp. On that final day, with everyone standing and worshiping, I felt an overwhelming presence of God in that sanctuary. It was a moment I will never forget, a testimony of God’s strength in a worshiping community.

In 1992, I left the Southern Maryland area, and I said goodbye to my church family at Chesapeake. I embarked on a spiritual journey that carried me through the eastern religions: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism. I considered myself a “wandering Taoist among the Christian fields” and studied the writings of Thich Nhat Hanh and others who embraced the similarities between Buddha and Jesus.

What I missed most, though, was that small-group community, that relationship with others as I focused on my own spiritual relationship with Buddha and Christ.

During the next 15 years, I tried desperately to “create” that community relationship through social media, but it all seemed so backwards. About 10 years ago, I was biking with my friend Trina, and I was trying to encourage her to join an online group I had created to celebrate God’s message. Trina was, and still is, very faithful to the Greek Orthodox Church. Her beliefs and practices run deep, and she called me out for my attempts to create social groups out of thin air. She knew that it wasn’t coming from within; I was trying to replace my experiences at Chesapeake with a lot of words signifying nothing. As genuine as the attempt might have been, the content itself wasn’t coming from a genuine place. I think I was more concerned with creating something that had thousands of followers. She saw right through that.

Gradually, the eastern philosophies became less of a religious doctrine and more of a way of life for me. They gave way to a more central focus on Christianity, a quiet practice but one still without a home.

Then, in 2014, while I was writing for The Sun, my editor gave me an assignment to cover a local church’s Easter service being held at Towson University’s new SECU Arena. The minute I stepped in Church of the Nativity in Timonium and met with Kristin, Stephanie, Alison, and a few others, I felt the same affinity that I had felt at Chesapeake. This is where I belonged. Yes, the church itself felt so inviting and warm, but it was the smiling, welcoming individuals resonating God’s love that made me realize: this is home. A few weeks after Easter, my wife Amy (raised Catholic) and I went to an evening mass at Nativity, and we accepted an invitation at the end of mass to take a ten-minute tour and learn more about joining Nativity. We both loved everything about the church, and within a year I decided to begin the long process of becoming a member of the Catholic faith.

I joined their Vantage Point new member class a little late in 2015, and once again I felt the bonds of Christian fellowship. Yet, as we approached the Easter Vigil Mass in 2016 where I would be confirmed in the Catholic church, I did not yet feel comfortable in understanding, fully, what it meant to be Catholic. My faith was stronger than ever; Trina’s words, however, echoed in my mind and in my heart. I did not want to do this unless it was from within. I wanted to spend another year praying to God with an open heart to learn all that I could about Catholicism.

It was a hard decision to make, and I was somewhat sad as I watched the others in my Vantage Point group be baptized and confirmed at the Easter Vigil Mass in March of 2016. Following Easter, I did not waste any time in learning more about Catholicism and becoming a stronger Christian. In October 2016, I joined Vantage Point again, became an integral part of our large group of catechumens, candidates, and sponsors, and attended every session. Our mentors, Evan, Peter, and John, were both instructive and supportive. Through their own humble teachings, they led us, week by week, through the pillars of the Catholic faith and strengthened my own resolve to be a better Christian through Catholicism.

And now, as I prepare in these final hours for our Easter Vigil Mass this evening and my first communion, I reflect on the journey I have taken to be here. I am 52 years old, and along my winding, spiritual path, I have struggled with my own faith, I have stumbled in my efforts to love and serve others, and I have grappled with understanding and fulfilling God’s calling. As a teacher of high school and college students, and as a father of three, the temptation is great to have my students and children “get it” immediately and understand whatever message I might be teaching. I want them to have that “A-Ha” moment in our experiences; I want to provide enlightenment so that their lives are happier, safer, and filled with more enriching experiences that provide greater opportunities for love, joy, and happiness.

But just as I witnessed Susan’s love for God in my confirmation class at 13 years old, or watched Rob sit with others at a mall on Friday nights when I was 18, or even as I listened to Trina when I was 42 tell me that I wasn’t quite there with why I wanted spiritual companionship, I realize now that I cannot force anyone to be ready to receive knowledge, or spirituality, or even self-love. All I can do is be myself and offer the love God offers me to the world, to resonate the wonderful things that God does for me, and for all of us, and in everything I do. Just as my roommate resonated his love for Christ in 1988, and just as Nativity beamed with God’s love through the greeters and the leaders who welcomed me in 2014, I know that I am now a disciple of Christ to do the same for others.

All I have to be, Lord Jesus, is who you need me to be.

I chose St. Francis de Sales, patron saint of writing and journalism, as my saint to look up to and watch over me. Through humility, service, and sacrifice, I hope to use writing and journalism as God’s instruments of peace and love to help others find faith, strengthen love, and embrace peace.

I leave you with the words of St. Frances de Sales, and I humbly thank everyone in my life path who has offered me love, guidance, and support along the way. We cannot do this without each other; I am grateful for this day, and for all of you.

God bless, and in full faith, I am ready to serve in peace.

“Do not look forward to what may happen tomorrow; the same everlasting Father who cares for you today will take care of you tomorrow and every day. Either He will shield you from suffering, or He will give you unfailing strength to bear it. Be at peace, then, put aside all anxious thoughts and imaginations, and say continually: The Lord is my strength and shield; my heart has trusted in Him and I am helped. he is not only with me, but in me and I in Him. St. Francis De Sales

The Woman at the Cross

The Woman at the Cross

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Earlier today, my lifelong friend Kelly shared the following on Facebook:

You know how the Mona Lisa is so intriguing because there are all sorts of ways to interpret her smile? I encountered something this morning that evoked that same feeling in me, making me wish I could have snapped a picture of it: I saw a middle-aged woman overlooking a darkened chapel At Stella Maris. She had her back to me so I couldn’t see her expression. She was leaning against the entry door with her head cockeyed in such a way that her head rested on the door frame. She stood there just staring at the altar. Was she looking for a buoy to help her? Was she in awe of God’s mercy? Was she just resigned to the sad fact that all life ends? Hard to say.

I was so taken aback by its description that my mind was creating a thousand different scenarios for her being there. I think Kelly did a great job of “painting” a picture with her words, and so I created the image above to help guide me in my response, which is below.

A huge shout out to Kelly for taking the time to share this observation with all of us. As an artist and writer, I was grateful for the connection I made with her words. Enjoy…

The Woman at the Cross: My Response to Kelly

The older altar boy looks on from the entrance of the Tabernacle, and he sees a woman old enough to be his mother. She lowers her head toward the cross. He sees disappointment, as if she feels failure in how she is raising her only son. He rubs the edges of his sleeves with his fingers, a nervous habit he developed when he was younger. It was just another thing he did “wrong” when he would endure the lectures for stealing food from Parkers, or lifting a few cigarettes from her pack of menthols that she kept in her replica Bottega Veneta handbag. He remembers the night her sobbing woke him just before dawn, and when he went downstairs to see if she was okay, he stopped on the third step from the landing, looking at his broken mother, rosary beads laced through her fingers, praying for something, anything to make him a better boy.

When she died later that month from the cancer that consumed most of her organs, he laced the same beads around his own fingers, vowing to do right, vowing to honor her prayers.

He wants to console her, tell her that it’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to work out the way she wants it. He remains in the doorway, though, and lowers his own head as he makes the sign of the cross. “Oh, Lord, for the moms who are hurting today, hear my prayer….”

From the other side of the altar, the young musician restrings her guitar in preparation for the 5:30 mass. She notices the older woman leaning against the wall, head bowed toward the cross, and she smiles. She remembers when she was younger, a “basic” singer/songwriter still trying to find her voice. How she would lean into the sacred space of the cross, pray for musical divination, and vow to keep the creative channels open as she continued to play morning, noon, and night. It wasn’t until her third year strumming a set of new nylon strings when it hit her: it was time to stop playing covers and replicating everyone else’s sound. It was time to write her notes, and her lyrics, and her arrangements.

Soon, she would put her restrung guitar into the simple stand by mic number 3, and lean into the sacred space, praying for continued musical divination, channeling God’s message through C chords played a few frets south of the nut. The musician smiles as she watches her whisper the Lord’s Prayer. Later she will watch her from the stage as she sings along among the others in the congregation. Their eyes will catch for the first time, but that’s all it will take for them to understand the mutual love they share for the Trinity. Heads bowed, prayers whispered, notes played, words sung. The Universal love for Christ knows no boundaries.

From the back of the church, Father Rossi prays for the woman at the cross. He has known her since her baptism. He remembers her reverential fear in her first communion, her shaky but certain voice as she shared her vows at that same altar, the cold, clammy touch of her hand as they prayed before her husband’s funeral, and her muted gratitude 7 weeks later at her own son’s baptism. Today, Father Rossi knows that she prays not just for strength to carry on another day, but she prays as well for strength for her son, now five. She prays for those who have lost their spouse. She prays for divine guidance to lead her where she is needed the most. She prays for her husband, for the altar boy by the Tabernacle, for the singer/songwriter on the stage. Father Rossi knows of her struggles, but he also knows of her strengths through God. Most importantly, he knows of her faith and gratitude in these gifts of strength. She is unique, and she is no different from any of his other parishioners. She has known love, and loss, and hope, and grief.

He knows these are the people of his parish. Unique, struggling, and strengthened through Christ.

The altar boy begins to light the prayer candles, and the woman in prayer makes the sign of the cross, genuflecting before she rises once more and heads to the back of the church.

“Thank you, Father,” she says, and he just smiles.

She grins, walks on, and carries the prayers on the cross with her as she passes through the threshold and enters the world a little more protected, a little more forgiving.

Behold: The power of prayer.