Step By Step, One More Breath

by Carey Gauzens LCSW, CP., Psychotherapist

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Every year in some churches, during Lent, many pray a form of prayer called “The Stations of the Cross.” The Stations of the Cross are usually a walking journey to 14 different “stations,” representing the steps Jesus took on his journey to crucifixion, death and ultimately resurrection.  Those who have grown up Catholic may recognize this prayer as the Via Dolorosa  a commemoration of what is historically believed to be the actual journey Christ took along the Via Dolorosa road in the Old City of Jerusalem.  The road’s name, Via Dolorosa, translates to “The Way of Suffering” or “The Painful Journey.”

Though perhaps not for everyone, this form of prayer is a powerful physical and spiritual meditation on the very human journey that Jesus walked along the way of the cross.  Christians of all denominations, as well as those who are non-denominational can benefit from the meditation on suffering, death and resurrection, whether they feel any connection with the Catholic Church. So many of us live daily smaller journeys of death and resurrection in our own lives.  Perhaps it is the loss of a loved one, a divorce, a severe accident, or a frightening health diagnosis…. somewhere along the way, into every life some suffering comes.  What we do with that suffering, how we face it and cope with it, often means the difference between becoming resilient having been tempered by our suffering, or feeling like helpless victims, stuck, and unable to move through our pain.

 

A few years ago, two Catholic Churches in Arlington St. Charles Borromeo and Our Lady Queen of Peace began doing this ancient form of prayer using originally composed contemporary music.  Composed by local musicians, Andrew Howley and Ed Patrick, and sung on this recording by Monica Perz Waddington, Andrew and Ed, the refrain of the song repeats over and over:  “Step by step, one more breath, on the way to conquer death.”  As I listened to this moving musical meditation for the first time several years ago, the thoughts I share below came to me.   If you wish to use this music in your own church service, whether or not your church does the Stations of the Cross as a form of prayer, here are the lyrics and chords. Please credit Ed and Andrew for their breathtaking creation, if your church elects to use the music. If you wish to attend a service of the Sung Stations of the Cross, using this music, the sung stations will be held at Our Lady Queen of Peace Catholic Church in Arlington Wednesday, February 21stWednesday, March 7th, and Wednesday, March 21st.

FOR MORE INFORMATION ON HOW THE SUNG STATIONS OF THE CROSS CAME INTO BEING, AND DATES THEY WILL BE SUNG, PLEASE CLICK HERE

“Step by step…. One more breath…. on the way to conquer death.”

When I first heard the sung stations of the cross at OLQP, it was in a small circle of choir members as Monica Perz Waddington sang them for us.  The melody is beautiful and haunting…. and that refrain!

Step by step, one more breath, on the way to conquer death. It speaks to so much more in our own lives than only the memory of Jesus’s death and resurrection. “Step by step”…. I work as a psychotherapist, and one of my specialties is helping teens and adults abused as children to recover from the longterm effects of trauma.  Trauma survivors, especially those who have been carrying their trauma since childhood, frequently feel their lives are just like this:  Step…. by (painful, hard working, sometimes overtly suffering) step…most people come to me after their years of step by step–surviving one moment to the next– has finally stopped working.  They are experiencing intrusive memories, unexplained depression, increasing substance use, in order to dull the pain, or flashbacks of painful events in their lives.  And the recovery from this, and indeed any trauma, is:  Step. By.  Step.  Recovery is a difficult and arduous journey, and most people I talk with have the experience at some time or another of feeling like they cannot even stand where they are right now… they certainly cannot imagine walking all the way into health and healing.  So we take it step by step.  Each step is painful, and some steps feel downright impossible; so, the only way to make that work sometimes is to just focus on the one step in front of you, and accomplish that, no matter how seemingly small.  One of the key elements in healing is to keep on keeping on, and not to get “frozen” in one place.  Often I find myself thinking, “Step by step, just take the next right step—you don’t have to know yet what the end of the journey is going to look like.”

“One more breath”…. A common thing to do when one is feeling pain is to hold their breath in order to “brace” for the blow, or protect themselves from the suffering.  Holding our breath is something we often do unconsciously, and a repeated mantra and instruction, in healing from trauma, is to B-R-E-A-T-H-E.  Often we do not even know we are holding our breath, until someone else points it out to us.  Breathing, and remaining focused on our breath, can help us reconnect with our bodies and our feelings.  Paying attention to when we hold our breath can let us know where tender areas and topics are, and part of healing is to breathe through those feelings.  One more breath is sometimes the best people can do when they are in deep pain:  Certainly for those who are healing from childhood trauma, but also for those who are suffering in other ways. Whether we are experiencing a divorce, a death, a difficult move, an uninvited change at work or within our family sometimes the first step toward surviving and dealing with it is to:  Just.  Breathe.  One more breath, indeed, is sometimes all we can manage.

On the way to conquer death”…. Though the sung stations are referring to Jesus making his way forward through the suffering and death he endured on Good Friday— to conquer death and bring resurrection and redemption to all of us- surviving and healing from trauma is another kind of death and resurrection.  For those hurt, trauma often means the death of trust, of self-confidence, and of innocence— when deeply traumatized, a person has to lock away these things in order to cope with overwhelming pain.  Moving to conquer death in this situation means to find one’s voice, to tell one’s truth and to reclaim the joy and life that got robbed from us when we were victimized.  As I walk through this process with people, helping them take one more step toward healing, I am blessed to see individuals find their own resurrection, and the new life that comes with healing old wounds.  Both in my work, and in my own life, I often find myself singing the sung stations in my head… Step by step, one more breath, on the way to conquer death. In this season in our country and in our world, there are many types of trauma to be aware of:  refugees who have lost everything, without a country to call home, the homeless and hungry and those with mental illness, who need shelter from the storms from both without and within, people suffering the grief of facing a critical illness or grieving the loss of a loved one, and the spiritual, emotional and physical “deaths” that come from hatred, war and violence.  And of course, the women and men who have survived all kinds of violence, whether physical, emotional, sexual or spiritual.  Though I have sung this refrain from the sung stations in my head for a number of years, this particular year, I feel like I hear Jesus singing with me:  “Step by step, one more breath, on the way to conquer death.  Me too.”

Carey Gauzens, LCSW, CP is a psychotherapist in CPC’s Alexandria Center.  Carey created and coordinates CPC’s evaluation program for those entering ministry, and works with individuals and groups of adolescents and adults on issues of grief and loss, transition, depression and recovery from trauma and abuse.  Carey is also a grateful member of her church choir, and has found the music for these stations of the cross to be a prayerful way of honoring the sacred in her work as a pastoral counselor.

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