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.
When my son Michael – who has special needs – is excited, or when he is trying to get a burp to come out, he does a little dance. It’s not the kind of bouncing up and down dance that little toddlers do when they try to keep time with a beat. It’s quite unusual-looking. For those who are of the generation of “Seinfeld” fans, I might be able to help you picture it by describing it as something akin to “The Elaine Dance” accompanied by Michael sound effects.
This dance can break out anywhere: at home when a favorite teacher/therapist comes over, waiting in a line upon entering school, and his favorite place of all to dance – the Communion line. Not a few heads are turned when Michael “busts a move”. It’s especially interesting to see little children react. Dumbfounded looks are the most common reaction. I can just hear the thoughts spinning in their little minds. Some imitate him. I have to remind myself that they are not mocking him, just mimicking something different in order to understand it.
One of the reasons “the dance” comes on is because kids with Autism sometimes have difficulty waiting in lines. Sensory issues like visual anomalies and misunderstanding of social cues contribute to the anxiety. But when you think about it – who really enjoys waiting in a long line? For instance, I seem to have a knack for choosing the slowest cashier in the grocery store. I guess you could call my behavior a dance of sorts: Check the time, step to the side and turn my head to peek down the other aisles, step back to the shopping cart and stretch my neck in the other direction to see how the line is moving in front of me, 2 sighs, and then check the time again. Turn to my neighbor, sing and whine “I can’t believe I chose this line!” turn my cart and Dosy-Do, off to a new line I go…
We all do our own little dances – almost all the time – we “dance” around a subject that is uncomfortable to talk about, our schedules have a “rhythm” to them, and when we have an “off- beat” day, everyone around us is affected. Relationships have their own dance steps, if you will: one person takes a step toward the other, the other follows (or doesn’t)…
Years ago in my single days, I had over an hour-long commute to work. I loved to listen to Byzantine Chant and Christian music, and though I’m not knowledgeable about classical composers, I enjoyed a couple of Classical music CDs I had. The sounds of the string instruments made me feel that my soul was being stretched and pulled – as if the violin bow was playing my very heart.
The music I was listening to was unmistakably about love. I prayed a lot on those commutes as well. My thoughts and prayers would mingle with the melodies. I felt I wanted to dance – a ballroom waltz perhaps (which by the way, I don’t know how to do). Dancing alone is OK, but I had such a longing to be held and loved – to share these tender emotions. I wanted to dance with my Lord Jesus Christ; and as tears flowed sweetly, I knew in my soul He was more than willing to oblige.
Fast forward a couple years to a Scout Retreat I was helping to lead at St Basil’s Academy in New York. My (now) spiritual father was leading a discussion group with me and a few other seminarians, and he asked the question of the boy and girl scouts present, “What is the point of life?” A little guy said “To be happy”. I was not particularly happy at this time of my life. My reaction to the child’s answer was a distinct “No…it is to be with God and know His love, but we aren’t always going to be happy. We will suffer at times.” I didn’t actually say this, I was just thinking it.
The priest went on to paint a picture in our minds that took me by surprise. He said, (to the best of my recollection) “In life we take steps in a certain direction, and when we meet The Lord He invites us to follow Him. We watch His lead, then take a step to join Him and before we know it we are dancing! And life becomes a dance…”
O to dance with the Lord always! My soul, and I believe every soul, aches for this – to be embraced, cherished…to know that one is taking the right steps, to be held up when we trip, to be lifted up high, to float in His arms, to be comforted…
How often I want to dance with my child this way…to hold him when he is afraid and hurting and make all his pain and fear disappear. I try to, but I am not He, and only He has that kind of power, the kind of love that casts out the anxiety and physical struggles Michael endures. “Perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18), and as much as I love my child, I could never honestly say it’s a perfect love. My shortcomings, selfishness, fears all get in the way. Only Jesus Christ can enter into the scene and bring a blanket of warm relief. Only His love is perfect. He IS Love! (1 John 4:8)
There are people God sends us in life who love us and teach us how to love. But all too often we expect these people to be our saviors. We expect our spouses to make everything better in our lives, or our children to love us unconditionally, or our parents, spiritual fathers, etc…but we soon learn that though we taste His love through and in our relationships, human beings will all ultimately fall short of what we hunger for. Only One can fix it all, “Only One is Holy, only One is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.”
I suppose the next time Michael is anxious at a doctor’s office, or at the grocery store, or in the Communion line, instead of getting frustrated with him when he doesn’t allow me to comfort him, I should pray for The Great Comforter to do His thing. I pray – but my faith wavers. We have been through too many blood draws, doctor appointments, and new place melt-downs – all while praying – for me to trust that The Lord will take care of things. But maybe my expectations of how God will help are “off the mark”. Maybe I just need to ask the Lord to hold Michael’s soul in His arms as he is going through what he must go through. For I know that if Michael could just feel that love wrap around him, he would know that everything was going to be all right. No matter how painful or scary the procedure, Jesus would take care of him, and me.
Maybe the prayers aren’t being answered because I want to take the lead and do SOMETHING to make the uncomfortable situation go away. The dance steps of parenting are complicated: how much must we take action on our child’s behalf, and how much to let go and let our child learn on his own? Do we really need to protect them from everything: isn’t that Another’s job description? What kind of character would he or she develop if nothing difficult ever came their way? Would there be any compassion for others’ hurts in their own soul? And, how can I expect my child riddled with fear and anxiety to be comforted by me, when I do not allow myself to be comforted in prayer? I cannot give him what I do not have.
Ultimately there can only be one leader of a dance. The Lord needs to be The Leader and I must be His follower – otherwise I will trip over my own determined feet. When I let go of my need to control every little step, life is so much easier- lighter – if you will. I am more agile and able to adjust my moves to His pace. Allowing myself to be held up and comforted by Him I learn to trust His lead. I look up into the face of Love and soar. Only here, secure in the shelter of His wings am I empowered to reach out my hand to my son’s and take him along for a wondrous ride, a beautiful dance.
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