We continue to publish the materials of Spas TV program My Path To God, where Priest George Maximov interviews people who converted to Orthodoxy from various non-Orthodox denominations. Today Father George’s guest is an Orthodox priest and missionary Stanislav Rasputin, who was formerly a member of the Salvation Army. In this interview we learn how Father Stanislav found this path to Church, what may help Protestants overcome their prejudice against Orthodoxy, and how important missionary work is for every Orthodox Christian.
Priest George Maximov: Hello. You’re watching My Path To God. Today we have a guest from Karelia [the province of Russia that borders Finland, and was at one time part of Finland]. Father Stanislav, although you, like many, were baptized when you were a child, you accepted the faith in adulthood. Could you tell us how it all began?
Priest Stanislav Rasputin: It all started with my baptism in the waning years of perestroika. I was about four years old. I was baptized at home. Although my mother and my aunt decided to baptize me, they didn’t really understand the reason behind it. It was trendy, and that is why they decided to do it. I remember very well that the priest told them that the child must receive Communion on the next day after baptism. I also remember that my feet hurt when we were standing in the church and I told my aunt that we should leave. She agreed and I did not receive Communion. Since my relatives were not churchgoers, I just went with the tide, as they say. I grew up to be a teenager with an atheistic worldview. I read many popular scientific books. I loved biology, so the theory of evolution was the foundation of my worldview and the basis of my belief. I believed that science could answer most, if not all, life questions. I was an ordinary teenager who listened to “heavy metal” music and danced at discos. My friends were just like me.
Once I noticed that one of my friends had suddenly changed. He stopped swearing. That was very noticeable because swearing was the language of communication in our midst. I asked him what the reason for such a change was. He told me, “I am a religious person now; I just don’t need that anymore.” I thought that he had gone mad and joined some sect and as I was his friend, I needed to save him. So I told him, “Let me go there with you”. He told me that he started attending meetings of the Christian community of the Salvation Army  of Petrozavodsk. It was close to my house. So I started attending those meetings with him. I remember that the first time I went there I disliked it very much. I saw people that I thought were narrow-minded and fixated on God and religion. “In our age of scientific progress, how can people even think and talk of such ridiculous things, let alone lead their lives on the basis of these things”, I thought. Although I didn’t like it there, what struck me was that these people were different. They looked at me in a different way. They had different values. They were kind. I started attending their meetings and various events. My intention was, of course, to argue with them and change their minds. I remember how we argued for many hours about creation vs. evolution… All those times they kept telling me, “What is stopping you? Ask God himself so you can meet Him.” I told them, “Why would I do that, if I sincerely don’t believe in Him?” They answered, “What have you got to lose? If there is God, He would probably answer you somehow. If not, nothing will happen.” So I thought, “Indeed, I have nothing to lose,” and I addressed God saying “God, if you are really there, come into my life and show Yourself.” It seemed to me that nothing changed at that moment, but literally within a week my life and my worldview had cardinally changed.
Father George: In what way?
Father Stanislav: All of a sudden, I felt like reading the Holy Scripture. I didn’t know why. I asked for a Bible. I remember putting on the band I liked at the time on maximum volume and reading the Holy Scripture for hours on end. Suddenly I realized that I love my parents. It may seem strange, but even as a teenager I suddenly really understood that my parents are very close to me. I started treating my friends with respect. I stopped swearing and resolving conflicts by force. My worldview changed. I became an active member of the Salvation Army, participated in youth meetings and even preached at the services that were specially organized for youth.
Father George: So the issue of God’s existence was no longer an issue?
Father Stanislav: Moreover, a week after my prayer, I couldn’t even imagine what it means when there is no God and you don’t believe in Him. You know, when you meet God face to face, you don’t need any logical proof. The question got resolved in a natural way. So, I became an active member of the Salvation Army. Everything was great for me. There were conferences, camps, field trips, prayer meetings, services, charismatic sermons, etc. About four months later—by that time I was offered the position of a youth leader in our division—God suddenly told me, “You must convert to Orthodoxy.” This came out of the blue for me. What would conversion mean?
Father George: How did He say that specifically?
Father Stanislav: This wasn’t a voice that I heard or a thought that came to my mind. It is very difficult to explain to people who haven’t experienced it. Using the most appropriate analogy, I can say that my whole soul understood that God was telling me this. Every little cell of my body. I understood that this thought was not mine; I understood that it was not my wish. I had many prejudices against the Orthodox Church. We were taught that this is the Church where God is dead, where people pray to idols and don’t have any connection with the living God. Naturally, I thought that God probably made a mistake. I felt so good with Protestants—My new friends, my mission and my duties were here. Why would I need some other Church, especially the one that, as I though then, was bad and dead? But God said, “You need to go there.” So, the first thing I did was to go to a church. I met the priest there. I remember, I had an intense argument with him and called him an idolater. Later, when I became Orthodox, I, of course, went and apologized to him.
So all this time God was telling me to convert to Orthodoxy. I started resisting Him. I said that I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t know anybody there and that nothing there was interesting for me. This lasted about eight months. All that time God was steadfastly telling me, “You must convert to Orthodoxy.” I was about to give up, so I said, “Okay, I will go there.” I would go to the church for the evening service, stand there from the beginning to the very end, praying sincerely, but understanding nothing. On Sundays, I would still go to the Salvation Army meetings. The only thing that I began to feel in the Orthodox Church was a certain wholeness. But my mind was still telling me, “What are you doing here? You don’t know anybody here. They speak a language that you don’t understand [Church Slavonic]. Back there you have your friends and everything is clear. There is the way to your destiny and your progress.” So the next day I would go to the Salvation Army. Everything there was good for me, and I liked the people there. But this feeling of wholeness was missing.
Finally, after eight months of this internal struggle, I said, “Okay, God, so you want me to convert? I will do it.” This was a leap of faith on my part. An action that showed my trust in God. This happened on July 28, 2000. I said to the pastors in advance, “I have a calling to convert to Orthodoxy.” Many people didn’t understand me, of course. They said, “What? Where are you going? Think about it.” But the pastors were wise and said, “If you really believe that God is calling you, then go.” So on that day they announced at the meeting, “Our brother is converting to Orthodoxy.” And I left them.
Father George: So you started living as an Orthodox Christian?
Father Stanislav: Yes, I remember my first confession. I remember my first Communion. I remember how I started discovering the world of Apostolic Fathers. Before that, I unfortunately did not understand the logic of many things in Orthodoxy. During the first month, I didn’t even make the sign of the Cross or kiss the icons. I thought, “Why do I have to do that?” But as I was submerging into the real church life, everything was becoming closer and clearer to me. It was my experience of church life that made me understand the profundity of Orthodoxy.
Father George: How would you define the difference between what you felt in Protestantism and what you received in Orthodoxy?
Father Stanislav: You know, when I was a Protestant, it felt like a ripple on the sea—you see some movement, but you don’t see any depth at all. The words are the same: God, salvation, etc., but there is no profundity. When that ripple is gone, you see the depth. So when I really started living a church life—going to confession, receiving Communion—I saw the depth and the treasure of all the benefits of Orthodoxy. Of course, I had to break my Protestant way of thinking.
Father George: What was the most difficult part?
Father Stanislav: Accepting the veneration of the Mother of God.
Father George: Yes, many former Protestants mention it.
Father Stanislav: Yes. You know, I honestly and sincerely prayed, “God, grant me this knowledge. I do not understand it”. Not only did I not understand it—I couldn’t accept it in my mind. And God miraculously gave me this understanding. I remember I was going to a store on a bleak fall day and all of a sudden I felt happiness in my soul. I asked myself, “Why am I happy?” And I realized that I was happy because I understood why we venerate the Mother of God. It became so inherently clear to me that I said, “Yes! The Most Holy Mother of God, help us!” I just said this prayer all of a sudden. That was my last barrier and now there were no reason for me to cling to my Protestant past. Being a priest and having lived in Orthodoxy for 15 years, I understand that the profundity I found here can only be found in Orthodoxy.
Father George: What about the understanding of the word of God? Some Protestants and other like-minded people say, “Everyone can construe the meaning of it and you have the freedom, you can develop your mind and re-live the word of God through your own understanding. In Orthodoxy, you need to construe it only based on the works of Apostolic Fathers, so you mind is bound and limited…” So, some get the feeling that we lose something, some kind of freedom of self-expression. What for? Just because some ancient people said so? How can this help us understand the Bible? If you heard this before, how do you usually respond to that?
Father Stanislav: Of course, I heard it before. Moreover, in the beginning I felt some kind of constraint myself. But this is only an illusion. As you said, in Protestantism, everybody can build their castle on their own foundation. However, imagine this: everyone of us is asked to build a house, even though we are not professional construction workers. Of course, we will do our best… But the house that we will build…
Father George: Will be a shack, at best (laughs).
Father Stanislav: Of course, it will be a wreck. Moreover, a single wisp of wind could collapse it. When construction workers build a house, they use methods and designs developed by professionals before them. If the workers don’t trust the professionals and consider themselves to be superior, the results will be poor. The situation is the same in Protestantism: everyone is a small Pope. Catholics have a dogma that the Pope has the superior power in the questions of faith, while in Protestantism every pastor and every parishioner think that they have the same power. This is of course based on pride and this pride cannot give the true understanding of the Scripture. When I started studying the works of Apostolic Fathers, I understood the Holy Scripture in such a profound way that was not humanly possible for me to understand on my own. Earlier, it seemed that I had freedom, but there was no such profundity, no results. Now it seems like you need to live within certain boundaries, however these boundaries are so infinitely far away from your understanding that you will never reach them. You will never feel suffocated by these boundaries. This is the where the main difference lies.
Father George: How did your friends and acquaintances from the Salvation Army react to your choice? Did anybody follow your example? Do you maintain contacts with any of them?
Father Stanislav: I still have good relations with practically all my former friends. They ask questions, and of course, they see the changes in me. I can’t say that many followed me. Later, some people who knew about my conversion to Orthodoxy talked to me and following my example also became Orthodox. But practically none of the people around me converted. Maybe that was because at that time I didn’t have the time or desire to go back and talk about my conversion. I’m doing it today, as a head of the missionary department. I’m trying to be friends with Protestants, because they are really sincere people who want to change their way of life. Through word and deed, many of them learn that Orthodoxy is not what they think it is. Unfortunately, we often encounter a situation when Protestants have their own understanding of Orthodoxy. They argue not with the real Orthodoxy, but with some kind of caricature that exists only in their heads. So when they see the real life of Orthodox Christians, they are often surprised: “Really? We thought that everything would be different”.
Father George: Those of our viewers who are close to the first step of your experience might have questions regarding the theory of evolution. Initially, it was the foundation of your atheism. How did you resolve this issue? Many people think, “There is nothing to talk about. The scientists proved it: people evolved from apes, or rather from a common ancestor. Everything is clear here and no God is needed.” How did you handle this?
Father Stanislav: Indeed, this was one of the stumbling blocks in my Christian experience. In the few first months after my conversion to Christianity, at the very beginning of my journey I started studying this question on my own. When we read the books about the theory of evolution written by evolutionists, we don’t see any alternatives, so we don’t get the big picture. I started looking for alternative sources of information on the same question, specifically looking for scientific information. When I started to study and compare these arguments, I realized that many things in the evolution theory do not hold water. The theory itself is so unsound that you can’t even call it a scientific theory. I was studying this for years and recently started to focus on an in-depth comparison of religion and science. The more I study this issue, the more I realize that the picture of the world based on a materialistic evolutionist approach does not stand up to criticism. Even from a scientific standpoint, let alone the questions of faith.
Father George: I know that you’re doing missionary work both in Karelia and abroad. You visited India and the Philippines. Does your experience help you deliver the message about Orthodoxy to other people?
Father Stanislav: Of course, it does. Moreover, I thank God for having let me be a Protestant for a short period of my spiritual life, because it made me understand the way people on the other side see this world. So now when I go to the Philippines or India and talk to Protestants, it is easier for me to understand them. I know the questions that are burning in their minds when they see me. I understand what they are looking for. Every Christian is always on a quest to achieve the fullness of communication with God. They can’t get it in their faith. The issue of ascetic life is not covered in Protestantism at all, but I know how to shed the light on this issue. The same goes for the liturgical life. The notion of the Sacraments in many Protestant denominations is either missing or very vague. Recently, I asked a pastor of one Baptist church, “What is the Eucharist? Do you believe that this is the true body of Christ?” He said, “No, it is just a symbol”. Later I asked his parishioners the same question and they answered, “We believe that this is the true body of Christ.” So, I said, ‘How can you live, how can you exist as a church, if parishioners believe in one thing, while your pastor preaches a totally different thing?” I know how to show them the fullness of liturgical life. Thank God, He blessed and made me a pastor, minister and priest—so I can do this by the grace of God. Based on my past experience, I can show them the aspects of life that are unattainable in the Protestant way of thinking.
Father George: Let’s speak about your ordination. I think some of our viewers would be interested to learn how a person decides to become a priest. How did you make this decision and what does being a priest mean to you?
Father Stanislav: When I became a believer, even while I was a Protestant, I understood that service to God could be the only meaning of life. So I honestly looked for the ways I can serve God, and when I converted to Orthodoxy, my intention was enhanced by the grace of God. My secular background was in theory of law. I was teaching at the faculty of law and enjoyed being a professor because it involved direct communication with students. As I wanted to serve God, I took upon myself some duties in the parish. At first, we had youth meetings, provided social services, and studied the Holy Scripture. This gradually evolved into missionary work. Looking at many missionary priests that were around me, I saw how the lives of people changed. I understood that I wanted to serve God no matter what. My bishop, seeing my intentions, suggested that I become a priest. I talked about it with my wife. By the way, she also converted to Orthodoxy after being a Baptist for a very long time. After discussing it, we decided that serving as a priest is where one can achieve the fullness of serving God. This was a deliberate decision that was consistent with the goals and understanding of life that we had in our family. I don’t regret this decision at all.
Father George: What changed in your relationship with God, the world and people after ordination?
Father Stanislav: First of all, I started to feel responsibility for the people that God sends to me. And of course, the joy of celebration of Liturgy, the joy of standing by the altar—nothing in this life can be compared to it. That is the main difference.
Father George: Since you mentioned missionary work, I’d like to ask you: “When you meet people in Karelia or India, how do you communicate with those who do not think that they are missing anything?”
Father Stanislav: I always follow the apostle Paul’s principle, And unto the Jews I became as a Jew…, to them that are under the law, as under the law… I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (1 Cor. 9: 20-22). I always select the topics of discussion individually. With Protestants, I initially talk about understanding Orthodoxy and the Holy Scripture. Then I lead them to understand that the Church must be unified, otherwise it is not the Church. And that the Scripture must be understood the way the Church explains it, and not the way some individual sees it. As a missionary, when I talk to followers of a different religion, I must know the people I visit. For example, it is difficult to discuss eternity with Hindus. When we talk to a Hindus about eternity, they imagine their karmas, the cycle of reincarnations, the samsara. When we talk to them about eternal life, they think we’re inviting them to hell. That is why we have to choose our words very carefully when we talk to people of different cultures. We need to find an individual approach for every person. And there is one for every person. I’ve never seen a person who didn’t have a spiritual thirst. People simply want to quench that thirst in different ways. However, the void in the heart of a man cannot be filled by anything but God. Those surrogates that man tries to find in life, such as false religiousness, intellectual ambitions or sensual or physical pleasures, create an illusion of the fullness of life, but such fullness is only superficial. When people are alone with themselves and don’t have to impress anybody, they understand that they didn’t achieve any fullness of spiritual life. As a missionary, I try to show to every person that such fullness is possible and that they can achieve it in a unified Church, in God. Not on their own, as Buddhists search for nirvana, but being together with everyone in Christ.
Father George: How do you convey the importance of Church to Protestants? All the Protestants that I met have a distorted understanding of Church. In their opinion, if some people got together, they would become the Church. In fact, it will be just like a club, but that is what they think Church is.
Father Stanislav: First of all, I start with the issue of whether or not the structure that they call Church is blessed by the grace of God. Let’s take Eucharist, for example. If your Eucharist is not a Sacrament, a true contact with God, what will your symbol lead you to? If I offer you a symbol of a cup of tea, will it quench your thirst? If I write H2O, the formula of water, will this help you if you are thirsty? Of course, it won’t. That is, when I talk to Protestants about the unity and completeness of Church, I try to show them the liturgical aspect.
Father George: I have to say that believers, never mind non-believers, sometimes question the necessity of missionary work. Why not just be concerned with your inner spiritual development or, if you’re a priest, limit your activities to your own parish? What makes you want to be a missionary?
Father Stanislav: The Gospel. It contains the specific call of Jesus Christ Our Lord telling us to go and preach. Indeed, especially in my first years of being Orthodox, many people thought that my intentions were some kind of Protestant whim. However, preaching about your faith is a natural need for people. Preaching doesn’t always have to be in the form of words. Performing merciful deeds and actions is also preaching. I think that every Orthodox Christian must be a missionary. We all have families, but not all of our relatives are believers. Who will reveal Christ to people around us at work or school? Who will be a living witness to them? Wouldn’t it be missionary work? If we are embarrassed by it and bury this talent, we will he held responsible for it on the Judgement Day, when God will tell as, “You could have told this person about Me, why didn’t you do it?” It is not the matter of liking or disliking something, it is about whether or not people will have eternal life. Missionary work is always an issue of saving people’s souls. The price of the issue involved is very high.
Father George: Many people don’t do this because they think, “How would my relatives react, if I tell them? What if they don’t like it? What if this spoils our relationship? What if they think that I’m forcing my opinions upon them?” Did you have any concerns like that?
Father Stanislav: I practically didn’t. My firm belief in God’s existence overcame all the obstacles that were set up by my mind.
Father George: Did you feel apprehensive when you had to preach?
Father Stanislav: Never. Moreover, the first thing I did when I came to school after my conversion was to say to my social studies class, “I need to pray.” And I publicly prayed in front of the whole class, which, of course, seemed strange to many students. Often people are worried, “What would people think about me, how would they look at me? What if they stop talking to me?” But, you know, everything depends on how important the information you’re trying to convey is. If you know that somebody has a serious illness and you can help that person, it would be a crime not to say something, even though that person may not like what you have to say. However, in the end this will result in the curing of this person. Many times people came to me with problems—various addictions, family problems, etc.—and the first thing I asked them was “I am going to tell you the truth. Are you ready for it?” When people go to a shrink they are told what they want to hear, and it looks like this resolves the problem, because people always want to avoid discomfort. What I tell people is that I will be telling the truth whether they like it or not. After that, they can make their own decisions. This is the freedom of will. If you want, you can live your life the way God wants you to. If you don’t, then you don’t have to. But I warn people about all the consequences of their choice. Then they won’t be able to say, “Nobody warned me.”
Father George: Of course, if we see that somebody is approaching the edge of a cliff, we would come up and shout, “Watch out!” maybe even grasp that person’s hand to keep him or her from falling. When we understand that it is a matter of life and death—eternal life and eternal death—when the choice is so important, it is worth taking a risk. Thank you very much for this interview, Father Stanislav. I wish you God’s help in your missionary and pastoral work.