There is no mistaking real holiness; it is what Jesus was talking about when He said that those who drink of the living water shall never thirst again. Once you have met a holy person, it takes only a minute to restore a sense of peace into your day by remembering them.
Sometimes we find a holy layperson in our own parish. Recently our congregation gathered for the funeral of a beloved elderly member. All his life, but especially in his later years, Evangelos stood firmly but kindly in the midst of many chaotic situations, calmly reminding those around him, "God will take care of it. Remember, it's for God's glory that we are here." Even when the chaos of cancer invaded his own body, Evangelos radiated a sense of serenity and acceptance that came from his total trust in God.
Trust and serenity are what the holy persons I have known have in common. That is what that magnetic force was that drew me to follow Mother Alexandra as my spiritual mother after meeting her only once at an Orthodox women's retreat! And that is what attracted so many women from so many walks of life to follow her into monastic profession at Holy Transfiguration Monastery in Ellwood City , Pennsylvania. Holy people become transparent, so that what you experience with them is the Holy Spirit within them!
The woman I knew as Mother Alexandra was born Princess Ileana of Romania . She fled Communism in her native land, was married and raised her children, and eventually entered a monastery in France. When friends donated land for a monastery in Pennsylvania , she settled alone into a trailer on the property, with only her prayers and her vision to begin a monastic community. God opened the way. By the time I met her in the late 1980s, the monastery had grown to twenty-five sisters. The property included the original trailer, two more houses, a chapel, refectory and monastic living quarters, plus gardens, a cemetery, and an outdoor worship area.
It was there that I learned how extremely important the monastic life is in the life of the Church. The spiritual tools of monastic discipline and devotion help to refine and hone simple faith into a laser of spiritual clarity. Historically, our monasteries have yielded some of Orthodoxy's greatest saints and spiritual guides. They also have provided the setting for the Holy Spirit's works of mercy and spiritual salvation in many people's souls, both monastics and guests seeking haven there. (In many cases, monasteries provided the means for physical salvation by providing a means to live, in community, for people who might otherwise perish from the face of the earth.)
The value of the monastery Mother Alexandra built has little to do with buildings, or even the size of the monastic community she bequeathed to us. Our monastics are the keepers of the eternal flame of prayer. They keep our world in one constant prayer that circles the globe, as monasteries in each time zone take up praying the full cycle of liturgical worship each day. When we pray in our parishes and in our homes, we are joining in that circle of unending prayer. This constant praise, thanksgiving, and intercession for the world vivifies the Holy Spirit's power for good and holiness in all creation, and is the constant line of defense and triumph against the evil one and his workings.
Having said that, I must admit that for me the greatest value of Mother Alexandra's life is not in her works, her prayers, her monastery, or the perpetuation of monastic life. The greatest, most humbling and spiritually moving gift God has given to me was and is to be in her presence. Knowing Mother Alexandra was to experience the complete trust in God that permeated her life, and the lives of those around her, with the serenity that is the "peace beyond all understanding." The opportunity to receive her counsel, to accept her love and most of all, to be in her presence (whether participating in a retreat, worshipping together in the monastery chapel, talking privately in the library or casually in the monastery kitchen) was profoundly the experience of being in personal relationship with Christ. Even a few moments of remembering the strength and serenity of her presence brings tears of gratitude to my eyes and a longing in my heart to be reunited with her and with the Christ whom I glimpsed through her.
The last time I saw Mother Alexandra on this earth, we knew she was ill and would be dying. I looked into her clear, grey-blue blue eyes as we embraced. Her gaze was like looking into a deep transparent pool. My eyes teared as I said," Mother, will I get to see you again?" Without any hesitation, she replied matter of factly, "Oh of course, dear, if not in this world, in the next." Remembering that moment brings up all the grief and tears of missing her afresh. But at the same time, the memory brings me immediately into the serenity of her complete trust in God. In just one moment of remembering, I am brought to my knees, humbly experiencing once again both the deep remorse and the joy that the presence of holiness kindles. Thank you Lord. May her memory be eternal.