Interview: From an Unificationist Preacher to an Orthodox Christian Priest

We continue to publish the materials of Spas TV program My Path To God, where Priest George Maximov interviews people who converted to Orthodoxy. The guest of today’s program is Archpriest Lev Semyonov. He was baptized at a mature age, but all the years before his baptism he always considered himself Christian. After taking interest in their interpretation of the Bible, he joined the Unification Church … How did he, a Unificationist preacher and one of the leaders of the Russian division of this sect manage to separate the truth from lies? Is it difficult to quit a sect and why? What should you do if your close friend has joined a sect? What are the things you should never do in this situation? These are the questions that we will be discussing with Father Lev in today’s program.

Priest George Maximov: Hello! You are watching My Path To God. The guest of today’s program is Archpriest Lev Semyonov, Senior Lecturer, Doctoral Candidate of Historical Sciences, and head of the Spiritual Enlightenment Center of St. Tikhon Orthodox University of Humanities. I will tell you right away that Father Lev spent several years of his life in the Unification Church, a religious organization founded by Sun Myung Moon. Moreover, he held a high-ranking position in this organization, working as Deputy Chairman of the Council of the Russian Division. We will talk to him about this, but we should probably start from the very beginning.

Archpriest Lev Semyonov: Thank you, Father George, for making it easier for me. My religious quest dates back to my childhood and youth. Without discussing them, it would be difficult to understand how I could make that fateful mistake and lost six and a half years of my life as an adult.

As you suggested, I will briefly tell you about my distant childhood. I was born to a family of teachers and physicians. At that time, speaking about religion was not customary; moreover, it could be dangerous. I was an only child, so in a way I was spoiled. Unfortunately, I did not receive any religious education when I was a child. Although, a certain inherent affinity for learning about something empyreal manifested in me in my very early years. Nevertheless, I was ignorant in the matters of religion. For example, when I was five or six years old, I was passing by a church and saw a beggar asking for alms and making the sign of the cross. I didn’t know the meaning of that sign. I wanted to find out what it meant, but since my parents never talked about the Church, I intuitively would not dare to touch upon this subject and ask them about it. Instead, this was how I explained it to myself: This man is asking for alms and probably wants to show that he needs help, so he uses this gesture to show where it hurts. This story may seem amusing on one hand, but on the other hand, it is sad as it shows my absolute ignorance in the matters of faith.

Now let’s talk about the time when I was 17. It was the spring of 1963. I was looking for something in an old, early twentieth century oak bookcase. It was huge, and books on the shelves were placed in three rows. This is very good in terms of capacity, but extremely inconvenient when you want to get a book from the second or the third row. The advantage of this bookcase was that it allowed my parents to hide the books that they for some reason didn’t want to leave in plain sight. Once when I was looking for a book in the third row on the top shelf, I noticed a book that I never saw my parents read. It was a very nicely made book in morocco binding with golden edges and a golden cross embossed on the cover. When I opened the book, I saw that it was the Gospel.

The text was arranged in two columns: in Church Slavonic and in Russian. That was the first time I held the Holy Scripture in my hands. Standing on the stool that I used to get to the top shelf, I started reading it from the very beginning. As at that time the questions of faith were quite foreign to me, Jesus Christ’s lineage that is described in the beginning of the Gospel didn’t seem interesting, but when I read further, I understood that this wasn’t something you read standing on a stool, it was something that required your full attention. Thankfully, there was nobody in the house on that day, so I climbed off the stool and kept reading until I finished all four Gospels.

Father George: What was your impression?

Father Lev: This was a turning point in my life. It shocked and amazed me. I was overwhelmed with the knowledge about this new, totally different way of life! It was a different reality, a different meaning of life. When my parents came home from work, I was so overwhelmed with juvenile naivety and enthusiasm that I made them sit on the sofa while I read the Gospel to them: “Just listen to this!” I kept on reading the book to them throughout the week until they heard all four Gospels.

Then I said something that shocked them. Remember, it was the spring of 1963, Khruschev was in power and persecution of the Church was at its peak. Amid all this, a 17-year old boy, after reading the Gospel of John, announced to his parents, “I have decided to become a priest, and so this summer I want to go a seminary to get proper education…” In response, they launched, so to say, the counter-propaganda campaign. They explained why I should not be doing this. Now, half a century later, I can understand my parents’ motives. I was their only son and, given the existing situation, they wanted a different future for me. They thought that perhaps I should be involved in some research. They thought that becoming a priest was dangerous and tried to talk me out of it in any way they could.

When they exhausted all their reasoning and saw that I was not giving up, they came up with their last argument that was irrefutable in my perception. They said, “Ok, Lev, you are turning a deaf ear to what we’re saying and you don’t care about your future. But have you thought about us? You are our only son. If you become a priest, people will wonder how we, a deputy principal at school and a physician in the hospital, could raise our only son to become a priest?” They won’t let us work long enough to be eligible to receive pension. We hoped that when you gain your footing, you’d be helping us and we will have some sustenance in our old age… If you go ahead with this, we will be blacklisted.” Under the existing conditions, this forecast was quite realistic. A person would be better off working as a night guard in a kindergarten, than being a deputy principal accused of bringing up her son so that he decided to study in a seminary. Alas, these were the times my generation grew up in. I hope that today’s youth wouldn’t forget about that period, because there is a lesson to be learned from those dangerous times and it is important to prevent those circumstances from happening again.
I couldn’t fend off this argument, because while I could decide my own destiny, I could not let my parents down. As a result, I made a decision that seemed a compromise to me: I decided to study the history of the Church and Christianity at the historical faculty. And I did.
This story about my journey is too long, so I’ll skip dozens of years and tell you what happened when I was 44. It was 1990. I was already a Candidate of Historical Sciences and a Senior Lecturer. I was delivering lectures at the university on such subjects as ancient history, the history of the world culture and religious studies. One day they summoned me to the rector’s office and the first pro-rector of the university suggested that I should go to some conference. He said, “Considering the subject of the presentations, this is right up your alley, something to do with religion.” It was an international conference, by the way, held in Sofia.
Father George: Father Lev, how did you perceive yourself at that time? Did you consider yourself a Christian, a religious person?

Continue reading here: http://orthochristian.com/93202.html