A Few Recollections of Fr. Roman.
Archpriest Michael Butler
Early in 1992, my family and I were still living in Dallas, Texas. I was serving as a Deacon at St. Seraphim Cathedral under the ever-memorable Archbishop Dimitri. My wife and I had agreed that after Pascha we would move to Michigan. When I spoke to Vladyka about this, he said to me, “Oh, if you’re going to Michigan, you have to meet Fr. Roman.” At this time, I had never heard of Fr. Roman, and I told Vladyka so. He told me that everybody knew Fr. Roman, and that I should be sure to look him up when I arrived.
So it came to pass that my family and I moved to Michigan in May 1992, almost exactly 24 years ago today. At first, we established ourselves in my in-laws attic, in their farmhouse near Westphalia, and I found out, to my great delight, that Holy Dormition Monastery was not that far away. I don’t think I had been in Michigan more than two days when I called the monastery and asked to speak to Fr. Roman. I told him who I was, and that Archbishop Dimitri had told me I should meet him. He said to me, sure, I could come to visit, and he explained to me that the Berry Road exit was on Hwy 127, just after a sign warning me not to pick up hitchhikers. (This was in the days before GPS, so landmarks like this were important.)
It was also in the days when the monastery consisted of the old white farmhouse, the pole barn chapel with the kitchen and dining room attached, and the little white guesthouse out back. I remember turning into the driveway of the monastery the first time: there was a nun hacking weeds out by the road. She was working vigorously and her habit was drenched in sweat. But as I turned in, she lifted up a bright, happy face and waved to me. From a distance, I thought she was quite young, given how hard she was working. I found out later that it was Mother Apollinaria, whom I believe can still outwork anybody else in the monastery.
Father Roman met me in the sitting room of the little guesthouse. It was scarcely more than an entryway in those days, but there was a little couch and a chair, so we sat and talked. I don’t remember much about our first conversation. We just made small talk. I remember there was a lot of awkward silence, since neither of us had much to say to the other, but he told me that the monastery served Liturgy on Wednesdays, as well as on weekends, and that I was welcome to come and serve with him if I wanted. I knew then and there that I would. In fact, the very next Wednesday I showed up to serve, and I continue to serve at the Wednesday morning liturgy almost every week for the next eight years, first as a Deacon and later as a Priest.
Sure, I served Saturday night Vigils and Sunday Liturgies and many feast days with Fr. Roman, but the quiet Wednesday morning Liturgies in the little pole barn chapel are the ones that are dearest to my heart. Alas, I don’t have time to share all of my memories from those days: Mother Benedicta praying in the corner of the altar, the arrival of the young sisters from Romania, the other faithful visitors whom I came to know and love, conversations over breakfast after the Liturgy. I remember one conversation at breakfast that went on for several weeks: someone had donated to the monastery some smoked plum preserves. I might have been the only one who like to them, because they turned up on the table every time I was there, and like the miraculous cruse of oil in the Elijah story, the quantity of smoked plums never seemed to diminish. Nobody else seemed to take the smoked plums seriously, and I couldn’t believe that they were not, in fact, some kind of Romanian delicacy. Fr. Roman tried to assured me that they were nothing more than “a mistake.” It may be the only thing he ever told me that I did not believe. I confess I still think about smoked plums when I think about the monastery, and I’ve never had them since.
After serving as a Deacon for a couple of years at the monastery, at St. Andrew Church in East Lansing, and at St. John Chrysostom Church in Grand Rapids, St. Demetrius Church in Jackson had lost their pastor, and asked if I would come and perform Deacon’s services for them. (This turn of events is directly the result of prayers to St. Xenia of St. Petersburg. But that is a story for another time.) I served as a Deacon and took care of the church in Jackson for about a year and a half, until my ordination as a Priest in April 1995, when I became the pastor there. Fr. Roman was one of the Priests at my ordination. He is the one who received me through the Royal Doors and who led me around the altar for the first time. He had said to me beforehand, “Fr. Michael, when the Bishop lays his hands on your head at your ordination, pray for what is most important to you, because God will hear your prayer at that time.” There is only one thing I prayed for when Archbishop Job laid his hands on my head, and I confess to you today that God indeed heard my prayer. I cannot tell you what it is that I prayed for, because it is a personal thing, but if there is a man here today who is facing ordination, I encourage you to take Fr. Roman’s words to heart: when the Bishop lays his hands on your head, pray for what is most important, because God will indeed hear your prayer at that time.
Because I was ordained a little later in life, when I was 33 years old, and because I was ordained through the OCA’s late vocations program, I was assigned a mentor for the first three years of my priesthood. The Holy Synod of Bishops assigned Fr. Roman as my mentor. Oh, how I wore him out with questions. In the beginning, I don’t think I could blow my nose without checking with Fr Roman how a Priest is supposed to do that. But he was patient with me, like he was with everybody, and in time I learned how to serve and to pastor my flock and I didn’t burden him so often with questions.
I remember right after my ordination, Fr. Roman offered to let me serve at the monastery every day for 40 days so that I could learn how to serve properly. Alas, work and family obligations didn’t let me do that, but instead of serving alongside Fr. Roman on Wednesday mornings as I had as a Deacon, he insisted that I serve the Liturgy myself. Since he was my mentor, he would serve with me and make sure that I knew what I was doing. So, the first Wednesday morning that I served as a Priest at the Monastery, Fr. Roman vested fully and served as a second Priest, standing to the right of the altar. The next Wednesday morning, he put on his stole and stood in the altar and watched what I did. The Wednesday morning after that, he said to me, “Fr. Michael, you know what you’re doing. I’m going to go and sing with the sisters.” And out he went and left me alone in the altar to serve. That is how Fr. Roman mentored me.
A few months after my ordination, my wife and I bought a house in Jackson. We decided we would have an open house and invite Fr. Roman and the sisters to come for the house blessing. So Fr Roman blessed my house and the sisters sang. Afterwards, we had a little celebration. Nick Simon, who was also there, and who had brought a six pack of craft beer for the party, handed me a bottle of it with a sly smile and told me I should offer it to Fr. Roman, which I did. Fr. Roman looked at the label to see what I had given him: Pete’s Wicked Ale. He exclaimed to me, “Wicked Ale! Fr. Michael, cast this from your house!” And then he laughed ... and drank the beer.
As you all know, Fr Roman was usually upbeat and joyful. Thank God, his joy was contagious, and I always felt better for being with him. One time, I was staying with him in the St Nicholas house and we were walking up to the church for a service. I must have been complaining about something, because he stopped at the corner of the new guest house and said to me, “Hieromonk Daniel used to say that priests should always be joyful, because not even the angels in heaven share our dignity.”
He also told me, more than once, that I should never lose my sense of humor. He could always laugh at himself. One morning at breakfast after a Liturgy he said, “Fr Michael, there are two things which are a scandal: a fat Priest and a skinny pig,” and he patted his stomach and laughed.
I do miss his laugh...
I only heard him speak harshly one time. He was preaching at Liturgy on a Saturday morning and he was upset with people who would not close their mouths on the spoon when they received Holy Communion. He rebuked them for lack of faith: did they really believe they would get sick from the Body and Blood of Christ, which is the Fountain of Immortality and the Medicine of Incorruption? If Holy Communion never, in fact, touches your lips, how can the Priest say, “Lo, this has touched your lips. It will take away your iniquity and cleanse you of your sins”?
Once, I asked Fr. Roman how I could be a better Spiritual Father for my people. He told me to let them talk and for me to listen. People come to the Spiritual Father because they are burdened or feel guilty, so it is important to let them talk and for me to listen. Give them consolation and simple answers, but beware of those who just want comfort. There cannot always be comfort in life. Suffering and pain are necessary for salvation. When people can thank God for their suffering, then they have salvation. He himself came to thank God for his time in prison. And be sure to pray for the people, as well.
I liked to hear his stories about his days in Romania. He would talk about his childhood in Moldavia, his time at university, when he served as a priest in the Carpathian region. When he was a Deacon, he was assigned to guard the relics of St. Paraskeva in the cathedral in Iaşi. He said he witnessed many miracles that St. Paraskeva worked for people, “but our Faith is not founded on miracles; it is founded on Christ.”
He rarely mentioned the time he was in prison in Piteşti, but he would tell stories about his time digging the Black Sea canal. He remembered fondly the Catholic clergy that were imprisoned with him. “Fr. Michael,” he would tell me, “we reunited the Church every day while we were in prison.” There was a Catholic Priest to whom he taught the Akathist Hymn. Someone smuggled in a Bible that was carefully taken apart, and the books of the Bible were given out to different prisoners for them to memorize, so that they could have comfort from the Scriptures and recite them for others. Fr. Roman was given the Gospel of St. John. He regretted that he could no longer recite it from memory as he could when he was in prison. Later, he would tell me, “Pray for those who are your enemies. In the end, you will love them. It’s what happened to me.”
When I heard about his final illness, like everyone else, I was torn between wanting to rush to the Monastery to spend some time with him and respecting his need to rest and care for his health. I would see him from time to time when I was able to get to the Monastery, if he was feeling well. He and I would exchange a brief word, I would ask his blessing. If I was serving in the altar, I waited anxiously to hear him cough; then I knew that he was feeling well enough to be brought to church. If it was Liturgy, I would go out to exchange the kiss of peace with him.
It was only a few months before he passed that I was able to sit down with him for the last time. I remember that it was a cold day. One of the sisters wheeled him into the old chapel, where we had served together so often, and left us alone to talk. Fr. Roman was all bundled up to keep warm. He told me a few stories, mostly about himself, but I found that, as I listened, everything he said about himself really applied to me. It was so very subtle and humble what he did: he taught me without teaching me. If you don’t mind, I’ll keep most of those words to myself.
Near the end of our conversation, however, he began to tell me about a few regrets that he had. And I understood what he was saying. When he finished talking, I told him to wait a minute, and I went into the sacristy, where he had heard my Confession so many times, got the stole and the hand Cross he had used with me, and came back to him. He took off his skoufia, I laid the stole over his head, and I said the prayer of absolution over him. In the 23 years that I knew him, he had always said that prayer for me; only at the end was I able to return the favor.
I cried openly when I learned that he had died.
I had told my congregation in Livonia that, when Fr. Roman died, it would not matter what the day or the season was, or what was on the calendar, I was going to his funeral, period. I won’t repeat here all the beautiful details of that day, of the Vigil, the Liturgy, the burial or the meal; most of you know it at least as well as I do because you were here, too. I remember looking at him in the coffin and thinking how small he looked. Then it struck me that it was right: Fr. Roman was all used up, there was nothing left; he had given everything he had, everything he was, to Christ and to His people.
But I will tell you the part that meant the most to me. God bless Archbishop Nathaniel for it. Near the end of the funeral service, he asked me if I would help to carry Fr. Roman around the church. I told him it would be a blessing for me to carry for a little while the man who carried me for so long. And so I did. People asked me if it was heavy to carry Fr. Roman, but I lied and said, no, he wasn’t heavy, he was my Father.
I always try to visit his grave when I stop by the Monastery. It is a strange thing, but I often burst into tears when I get near his grave. The only other time this has happened to me was when I visited the grave of Elder Sophrony (Sakharov) at the Monastery of St. John the Baptist in Essex, England. At any rate, I exchange a few words with Mother Benedicta, then I sit down with Fr. Roman and we have a conversation. I am always comforted when I leave.
I will confess one other thing before I finish: I am convinced that, a couple of times in the last year, Fr. Roman has concelebrated the Liturgy with me at my church in Livonia. He stands at the right side of the altar in gold vestments and reads the Priest’s prayers in a low voice. You can make of that what you will; I know what I think about it.
I don’t know how to finish these recollections of Fr. Roman or how to bring my words to a proper conclusion. Maybe it’s because I myself am not finished with Fr. Roman. I don’t think I ever will be. I never had a Spiritual Father like him; maybe I never will again. He received me kindly as a stranger and took me in; he guided me by his word and his example; he was my Father, my mentor and ultimately my friend. I believe he saved my soul. Certainly, I am the Priest I am today because of him, and for that I will always be grateful. Maybe the best way to end is not to say anything more to you, but to say something to Fr. Roman himself, and so I say to him,
Fr. Roman, if you have found boldness before God, never stop praying for us, the children whom you have left behind. As we keep your memory, so also keep ours. May God give you an honorable place in His Kingdom. And pray for us all, so that, when our day comes, we may all join you at Christ’s right hand so that you can say with joy,
“Behold, here am I and the children whom God has given me” (Is 8.18).
May we be worthy of his prayers.