An American who was Orthodox before he knew it fell in love with Romania and became the only foreigner who has received approval to serve religious services in the Moldavian Metropolitanate, at Sfantul Haralambie (St Charalambos) Church in Iasi. We have found him at St. Paraskeva’s 2014 celebrations in Iasi and asked him about Romania, family and the current feast in the Moldavian “capital city”.
Father Stephen, how did you convert to Orthodoxy?
That’s a long story. But the short version is that the Baptists kicked us out, because we believed things that were different than what the Baptist church believed, to which we belonged.
And it was later that I found out that what I believed was in the Orthodox beliefs. But I did not know there was an Orthodox Church. When I found the Orthodox Church and I found out what they believed, I realized that I had been Orthodox for many years, but did not know what to call myself.
When I finally found the Orthodox Church, I finally knew what I was: I was Orthodox.
How did you get to sell your property in California and establish here, in Iasi?
I fell in love with the people, the culture and the country, but I needed to convince my wife as well. So I brought her here the next year to visit for three weeks. My intention was to go back home after she experienced Romania and say: “What would you feel about moving there some time?”.
We were here only three days together and my wife saw the property near Father Radu’s was empty and she asked who owned it. And he said: “I don’t know, but I think it’s for sale”. And she said: “Well, I want you to help us buy it, because we are going to move here and build our home here”.
I was in awe and shock, because I had not said anything to her. But she said: “I know you love it here and I know you love the people. And I love them as well. If this is what Gods wants us to be, then this is where we are going to be”. So she made the decision to come before I even asked her. I didn’t think that she would leave our four grandchildren behind. But she was willing to do even that to come here and make our home here.
So it was the Spirit of God working in us together that said the same thing at the same time and we understood that it was God’s will to come here.
What does this celebration of St. Paraskeva of Iasi mean to you, personally?
It’s hard to take it all in, because I haven’t been out amongst all the people, taking part in the festivities yet, like the Liturgy on Tuesday. And I understand there’s a ceremony where the relics of St. Paraskeva is carried by the clergy around the city. And I haven’t had the opportunity to partake in that yet.
This being my first one, I’m still a little bit in awe of it because there are no such things in America. We have secular things like that in America, like Independence Day, which is celebrated across the country, and of course, Easter is even celebrated across the country, because the Protestants and the Roman Catholics keep it on the same day. Many times the Orthodox don’t keep Holy Pascha on the same day. Christmas pretty much has gone to a secular celebration and away from the spirit of Christmas.
So to see this kind of influx of people for the festival of St. Paraskeva is awesome.
Why people gather is such big crowds around relics?
The holy relics are sacred. They have miraculous power in them, as God wills it to be. I know of cases in Alaska that people have visited the cave of St Herman of Alaska and have rubbed some dust of these caves on a sick person and that person was cured.
The holy relics have so much meaning and so much power because the saints themselves are not dead. They are still part of the Church, they are still much alive in the Kingdom of Heaven. They pray for us and work miracles on our behalf.
This is a way of touching the Kingdom of Heaven, which we look forward to at the end of our lives. But in reality the Kingdom of Heaven is not something that we live with at the end of our lives, it’s something that we live with here and now. And relics are part of that being in the Kingdom of God.
You counsel couples before marriage. What problems do these couples have?
One of the major problems here in Romania, unfortunately, is alcohol. And alcohol is a destroyer not only of lives, but also of marriages as well. The biggest problem other than that is that young couples, when they get married, they have no premarital counseling. And they are literally two strangers who have pretended to be someone they’re not in order to get the approval of the other person. Once they are married, they become their real selves. The marriage ceremony is now over and many times the bride and groom wake up to somebody they have never known.
The job of the premarital counselor is to take and expose to the couple who they really are and allow them to be transparent with one another and get rid of all the baggage that they’re carrying into the relationship, of the things they bring from their families and their upbringing, things which are detrimental to the marriage. And to keep those things which are helpful to the marriage.
Also, one of the big problems that I’ve seen so far is that the couples do not leave their parents when they marry one another. Because the Scripture is very clear, that says: “A man shall leave his mother and father and cleave to his wife and the two shall become one flesh”. But many times the husband and wife do not leave their parents and still remain attached to their parents, which means that they cannot become one, as they’re supposed to. And this makes for many-many problems in the marriage relationship.
What advice do you have for young people who want to get married?
My greatest advice to them is to seek a qualified premarital adviser and go through a regimen of counseling at least six months prior to the wedding. And to look at themselves in the way that God sees them and to not pretend to be somebody else in order to make a charade of who they are in order to capture the person whom they think that they love. And my other advice is to try and examine what they understand to be love. Because most people – old, young, it doesn’t make any difference – do not really understand what love truly is, according to the Holy Scriptures and according to the realities of life.
One of the first questions that I ask a couple when I counsel them is: “Why do you want to get married?”. The answer overwhelmingly is: “Because we love each other”. And I tell them: “That is absolutely the worst reason to get married that ever could possibly be!”. This shocks them. But, from that point on, once that I’ve got their attention, I can develop the concept of what love really is and then to get them to understand that what they have may not be what love truly is and (may) just be something superficial, which does not hold up when crises come along in a relationship.
Foto: Tele M