The Woman at the Cross

girl-at-altar

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.

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