Presvytera Melanie DiStefano lives with her husband Rev Fr Joseph DiStefano and their son Michael Seraphim. Together they serve the parish of St Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Youngstown, Ohio. Melanie has a background in Chemical Engineering and graduated from Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology with a Masters of Divinity in 2003.
There are moments in my spiritual walk when I am blessed to behold the beauty of God in a person or persons. For me the moments are few and far between, and when they do happen, I find myself feeling like St. Peter when he beheld the Transfigured Lord on Mount Tabor. I want to say, “(Lord) it is good for us to be here…let us make (a) tent.” (Mark 9:5)
I wish I could bask in His glory and taste the sweetness of His presence forever.
I had one such fleeting experience recently when my Father Confessor was sharing a story with me about his godmother, Mother Gavrielia of Blessed Memory. It was only as he began to say that he and a few others were present with her in the hospital when she was being treated for a cancerous growth that, without explanation, I felt a sweetness swell inside of me and a tiny tear well in my eye. And just as soon as it came, it went; leaving me wondering why I was so touched.
I have been reflecting upon this today, and I think I felt blessed to simply know that people exist in this world who are good and pure of heart. I could sense the realness of his experience and the love he had for his godmother and that she for him. Moreover, there seemed to be so much love present in that hospital room he described that there was no room left for the presence of sin. In my heart I knew how different and impure I was compared to the people being described to me. I felt and feel a longing to be where they are – to be holy like them.
There are times in my weakness when I envy the holiness I see in others, which seems so far from my reach. But in the blessed moments like I had yesterday, I can only be happy, happy that there really is goodness in this world; happy that there are people who are so much like Jesus that the mere mention of their names softens my heart and warms my soul; happy and grateful for how they point to His love and happy for their example of how to live Christ.
“For to (them) to live is Christ, and to die is gain. “ (Philippians 1:21)
I recall the first moment I “met” Mother Gavrielia. I was at a day retreat perusing through books and icons for sale during an intermission. A striking face all aglow with joy looked up at me from the cover of the book Ascetic of Love. Such love and joy shone from her that I needed no other prompt to purchase the book.
It has been one of those books, aside from The Bible, which has been a true life-changer for me. I’ve read it at least three times and still learn new things every time I return to it. She redefined “holiness” and “beauty” for me. She showed me that Jesus was all mercy and love; that He transcended boundaries that men created. She was not only a person created in His image, but one who grew so much in His likeness that I could see Who He was through her life.
On March 28th we will remember the day of her repose, and so it seems a fitting time to share how much her life touched mine, though she died before I met her. What an example she is to me to deny myself, for she lived only for Him and His children. Traversing the world as God led her, she loved all people of all races and creeds, the rich, the poor, the lepers, the forgotten, the criminals and righteous alike.
It is edifying to read about the lives of the Saints and glean from them nuggets of wisdom to put into practice in our lives. But it is inspiring to come to know His holy ones more intimately. They love us for Him and with their sweetness and draw us into His embrace. Then we become different, our own hearts throbbing with the love poured into them. I think this must be the goal of the Christian life, which St. Seraphim of Sarov spoke of when he said, “Acquire the Holy Spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.”
May her life continue to shine His light and her prayers continue to draw us closer to Him. Mother Gavrielia, pray for us.
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