ON BECOMING AND REMAINING AN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN
Talk given at the Orthodox Pilgrimage to Felixstowe in August 2001
We sometimes hear people talking about how they came to join the Orthodox Church. Although each story is interesting and may even be extraordinary, I think that the stories of how people remained faithful Orthodox Christians despite temptations may be more helpful. As it is written in the Gospels: 'In your patience possess ye your souls'.
Moreover, I have called this talk not, 'On Joining the Orthodox Church', but, 'On Becoming and Remaining an Orthodox Christian'. For joining the Orthodox Church or becoming a member of the Orthodox Church, which is concerned with external changes, is not at all the same as 'Becoming an Orthodox Christian', which is all about internal changes. And remaining an Orthodox Christian is even more important, which is why I have devoted three times as much time to it here as to becoming an Orthodox Christian.
CONVERSION AND INTEGRATION
Let us define our terms by talking of a number of words which are used in this context. First, there is the useless phrase 'born Orthodox'. This does not exist. Nobody is 'born Orthodox', we are all born pagans. That is why we first exorcise and then baptise. More acceptable are the terms, 'born to an Orthodox family' and 'cradle Orthodox'. It is interesting that people who condescendingly use terms such as 'born Orthodox' call the children of 'converts', 'converts'. In fact of course in their incorrect language, the children of 'converts' are 'born Orthodox'!
Then there is the word 'convert'. When people say that they are converts, I first ask them: 'Converts to what?' To Greek folklore? To Russian food? To Phariseeism? To nostalgia for old-fashioned Anglicanism or Catholicism? To an intellectual hobbyhorse of syncretism?
True, in one sense we are all always converts because we all have to be converted to Christ constantly. That is the sense of Psalm 50. The Prophet David too was converted, 'born again', after his great sin. Unfortunately, the word convert is generally used not in this spiritual sense, but in a secular sense.
I hope that when people call themselves 'converts', it means that they are converted to Christianity (which is the correct word for Orthodoxy). I also hope that when they say that they are 'converts', it means that they were received into the Church very recently. Sadly, I must admit that this is not always the case. Over the years I have met people who joined the Orthodox Church ten, twenty, thirty and more years ago, and they are still 'converts' and even call themselves 'converts'. And this even among some clergy, prematurely ordained.
This is quite beyond me, for it means that even after years of being nominal members of the Orthodox Church, they still have not become Orthodox Christians, they still have not integrated the Church, they still have not grown naturally into Orthodoxy, and still do not live an Orthodox way of life, they still have not acquired that instinctive feel for Orthodoxy, which means that Orthodoxy is their one spiritual home, that it is in their bones and blood, that they breathe Orthodoxy, because their souls are Orthodox. They are suffering from the spiritual affliction of 'convertitis'. They have remained neophytes. They have only achieved what the Devil wanted them to achieve - to be incomplete. This is why Russians, punning on the Russian word 'konvert', which means an envelope, quite rightly say about some converts: 'The problem with the 'konvert' is that either it is often empty or else it often comes unstuck'.
There can be many reasons for the state of convertitis. It may be that people joined the Orthodox Church and then had no parish to go to, at least with services in a language they could understand. For example, I have met people who have been Orthodox for forty years but have never been to an Easter Night service in their own language! I have met people who have been Orthodox for five years and have never been to an Easter service at all, because their local Orthodox community only has ten Liturgies a year on Saturday mornings! I have met people who have been Orthodox for sixty years and have never been to Vespers or a Vigil service! In other words, such people have never had the opportunity to learn and integrate. Unfortunately, however, there are also other reasons why people do not integrate into the life of the Church.
REASONS FOR CONVERSION
In principle, clergy should only receive people into the Orthodox Church for positive reasons. The fact is that there are people who wish to join the Orthodox Church for negative reasons, for instance, out of spite for a denomination or a clergyman. This is psychology, not theology, and at that, neither very healthy, nor very Christian psychology.
I remember how in the 1970's the now Bishop Kallistos told me how a group of converts had asked him to write a book denouncing all the heresies of Anglicanism. The converts in question, and they were indeed converts, were all of course ex-Anglicans! They had not understood that their motivation all came from their personal psychological problems, their reactiveness, which they were masking behind their emotional zeal. Quite rightly, Bishop Kallistos refused to write something negative. In any case, no Orthodox would have bought the book because it could only possibly have been of interest to ex-Anglican neophytes. That was one book less to be pulped.
Usually, a priest can find out whose motivation for wishing to join the Orthodox Church is negative simply by waiting to see if these people come to church services. Usually these super-zealous people who love reading about the Faith or talking about the Faith on chatlines or elsewhere, are the very people who are absent from church services. Their zeal is all in their heads or in their emotions, not in their hearts and souls and therefore not in their life and practice.
Then there are the people who have been attracted to the Church through a discovery on holiday. I call these people 'Holiday Orthodox'. Their attraction is often not actually to Christ, but to a foreign and exotic culture - the more exotic the better. Living very humdrum lives, the Orthodox Church gives them something to dream about, usually their next holiday in Crete or wherever. Again, a priest can easily find out if their interest is serious by seeing if they come to church services. Generally, they do not, because they are not on holiday! Unfortunately, some of these people have been received into the Church by undiscerning priests in their holiday destination, be it Romania, Russia, Greece, Cyprus, Mt Athos or wherever. Knowing nothing about the Orthodox Faith, they then turn up on your doorstep and you have to explain to them that although they are members of the Orthodox Church, they have not actually become Orthodox. Often, in any case, such people may well phone you but never actually come to a church service, because they lapse before they get round to attending church.
Then there are the people who come with their own agenda, often 'know it alls', who have read every book under the sun, but still have no idea of the letter A of the Christian ABC. And they come with demands which they wish to impose! 'Yes, I want to join the Orthodox Church, but only on condition that it has first been 'reformed' and 'modernised''! 'Yes, this is good, but I want to add in some Western hymns before the Canon'!, or 'I will only join the Orthodox Church when it has the same Easter as my Aunt Susan who is a Methodist'!, or 'Everything is perfect except that you use too many candles. Take away the candles and I will join the Orthodox Church'. 'I will only be Orthodox if you have an icon of St Francis of Assisi'! 'I will join the Orthodox Church on condition that everybody votes New Labour and goes on holiday to Tuscany'! These are perhaps extreme examples, but they are all real examples. They are all examples of a lack of humility. No priest should receive such people into the Church for the simple reason that they do not love and accept the Church and Her Master Christ.
There is only one criterion for entering the Orthodox Church and that is because you are convinced that it is for your personal salvation, for your spiritual survival, because it is God's Will for you, because you know that this is your spiritual home and that, whatever the cost, you can never be anything else.
ATTACHMENT TO EXTERNALS
Recently a priest who has received people into the Church for the last twenty years told me that the list of people whom he has received and who have lapsed is much longer than the list of those whom he has received and who have persevered. That priest is relatively cautious about receiving people, but I know two other parishes where the list of the lapsed is at least twenty times as long as the list of the perseverers. In those two cases, I must admit that it is the policy of those parishes which is to blame. Turn up once and ask and they will automatically receive you into the Church without instruction within two weeks.
But why then do people give up practising the Faith which they have chosen to belong to of their own free will? If we look at this question, perhaps we can learn some lessons which are useful for ourselves and which can help us remain faithful Orthodox.
First of all, we have to watch ourselves. What are we actually attached to in the Church? There are people who say: 'It was so wonderful in church today! The singing was so wonderful, the incense smelt so good!' Words like those make me think that this person is unlikely to come again. Such people seem to have a fire inside them which flares up in a burst of enthusiasm and excitement. But like all fires which flare up, they then burn out leaving just cold ashes. This attachment to secondary externals and exotica is dangerous, because we are failing to see the wood for the trees.
The attachment to externals can extend to foreign clothes, language, food and folklore. I remember in one Russian church in Belgium, you immediately knew who the converts were; the men had nineteenth-century Russian peasant beards and the women wore dowdy long skirts and seemed to be wearing tablecloths on their heads. You knew who the Russians were because they dressed normally. In a Greek church here, there were two priests, a Greek and a convert. You immediately knew who the convert was because he wore huge wide-sleeved robes and an enormous chimney-pot on his head. The Greek just wore an undercassock.
In another Russian church, the Russians always spoke about singing, Christmas and Easter, but the 'converts' (and that is what they were) spoke about 'chanting' and 'The Nativity' and 'Paskha'. One real Russian, born in the Soviet Union, told me rather cruelly how he liked the convert in his parish because 'he makes me laugh with all his folklore'. Misguided zeal is always ridiculous. Zeal must be channelled in order to achieve something positive.
I have a Greek-Cypriot friend, born and raised in London, who told me that his favourite dish is steak and kidney pie, and how it was the first thing he would eat at Easter after the fast was over. I asked him if he ever ate at a Greek restaurant. He answered: 'Oh no, that's only for English people'. He also told me how in London at Cypriot weddings the guests have a custom of pinning banknotes to the clothes of the new couple as a form of wedding present. When for the first time he saw a wedding in the real Cyprus when he was about 25 years old, they did not do this. Why? Because they had stopped doing it in the 1960's, looking down on it as a sort of primitive, peasant custom. In other words they stopped doing it after most of their fellow Greek-Cypriots had emigrated to London, but the ones in London had kept the old 1950's practice. And then converts wanted to imitate this dead custom.
On this subject, I recently met another 'convert' who had just come back from a holiday in Greece and talked about it with great enthusiasm as a 'holy land' with all 'holy people', because 'Orthodox people are holy'. Well, I can only presume that he had spent the whole time in excellent monasteries - not all monasteries are excellent, by the way. I would recommend that such people go and visit Greek prisons. They are full of Orthodox - Orthodox thieves, murderers, rapists, pimps, extortioners. You name it, they are all Orthodox! You see, human nature is the same the world over.
What I am saying is that if we attach ourselves to externals, then we should first ask ourselves: What externals are we attaching ourselves to? If we do not use our discernment, we can look very silly indeed. All externals are only natural if they reflect what is inside us. If Orthodox Christianity is inside us, then our externals will be those of any Orthodox Christian. We should certainly make a habit of visiting other Orthodox parishes, countries where there are many Orthodox churches, observing and feeling our way towards authenticity. The worst thing is little closed communities of 'converts' who never see anything else. They can end up practising things which exist nowhere else on earth, and yet they think that they are 'more Orthodox' than anyone else! Humility is once again the solution to this illness and humility starts with realism, not with fantasy. No spirituality has ever been built on fantasy. Without sober humility, there is always illusion, which is followed by discouragement and depression. This is the spiritual law.
Seeing the reality of Orthodox churches is an excellent remedy for the illness of fantasies. Remember that some Orthodox churches are State Churches, many others have State Church mentalities. It is a sobering experience to meet any number of deacons, priests and bishops who boast to you about how much money they 'make', that they are 'off duty' at five o' clock and on Mondays and Tuesdays, and that they cannot possibly do a funeral then, and that being clergy is a much better job than what they would have done otherwise, because they were none too bright at school and the alternative was menial factory work. But it is reality. Contact with this reality can be very helpful in putting paid to misguided zeal, to convert ghettos, to what I call 'the greenhouse effect'. It gets people's feet back on the earth, and remember that is where they should be, because our religion is the religion of the Incarnation. What other people think and do is none of our business, our task is the salvation of our own souls.
On this subject, one of the main reasons why some converts do not stop being converts and so do not become Orthodox is because they do not have a job. The need to earn your daily crust, to be with other people, is an excellent way for people to start living (as opposed to just thinking about) their Faith. This can avoid what is called the temptations from the left and the right. Temptations from the left are laxism, weakness, compromise, indifference. Temptations from the right are censorious judgement of others, the stuck-up zeal of the Pharisee, 'zeal not according to knowledge'. These temptations are equally dangerous and equally to be combatted. Both waste an enormous amount of time and energy on sideshows like the discussion of irrelevant issues like ecumenism, rather than praying. Being in society is the way in which we can get to know ourselves, see our failings and avoid being sidetracked into theoretical concerns.
Some people can be so full of themselves! Some people can be very self-important and very puffed-up. They will first tell you - if you let them - their detailed life-stories and then all the latest gossip about Priest X, Bishop Y, and then Jurisdiction Z. Even though they do not know the ABC of the children's Faith. The thing is though, that Christianity, and that is what we are about, is about none of these things. If you don't have contact with reality, then you will never learn about real things. Church life is not about any of that nonsense. There is nothing so boring as discussing the personalities and activities of various clergymen or laymen, except of course sin, because sin is always boring, always the same thing. Ask anyone who hears confessions.
Church life is about: Who will make the coffee? Who will do the washing-up? Who will do the flowers? Who will cut the grass? Who will bake the prosphora? Who will clean the toilets? St Nectarios performed the latter task when teaching in Athens, even though he bore the mighty title of 'Metropolitan of Pentapolis'. So why should we object? It is after all one of the first obediences given to novices in monasteries.
Of course, these are not the main tasks in Church life. Let us go on:
Church life is about: Who will learn to sing? Who will stand at all the church services? Who will keep all the Church fasts? Who will read their morning and evening prayers every day? Who will prepare themselves properly for confession and communion? Who will read the daily Gospel and Epistle readings?
And actually, if you want the blunt truth, which will shock some 'converts':
Church life is also about: Who will pay the bills?
Yes, Church life is about commitment, the one thing which is so missing in our present-day luke-warm, indifferentist British culture. Being a Christian, and I remind you again, that is all that the word 'Orthodox' means, is very difficult. Nobody, from Christ down, ever said anything else. Without commitment, we will never remain Orthodox. Being a Christian is about loving God and loving our neighbour. If we are not prepared to even try and do that, then there is no point anyway. Unfortunately, some people think that being an Orthodox Christian - that's a tautology, I know - is not about loving God and loving our neighbour. They think that it is about reading books, having opinions, condemning others, eating weird food, being intolerant, or dressing strangely. Our Lord never said any of that. He said: 'Behold, I give you a new commandment, love one another'.
The fact is that all Christians were once Orthodox Christians, but most of them could not take it and they fell away. Orthodox Christianity is not about being received into the Orthodox Church and then saying: 'That's it, I've done it'. It is about entering the Arena, it is about being on the Cross. So often I have heard from Anglicans: 'I know Orthodoxy is the real thing, but I could never do it'. I suppose that at least has the merit of honesty. I always think of the words of that righteous priest, Clement of Alexandria, in the third century: 'If a man is not crowned with martyrdom, let him take care not to be far from those who are'.
The solution is to read St John's Gospel, to establish a prayer routine. 'The Kingdom of Heaven is taken by force', says the Gospel.
Nostalgia is defined as attachment to the past. It is not Christian, however natural and human we all find it to indulge ourselves from time to time. The problem with it is that it distracts us from living in the present reality which is what we are supposed to do.
Some people for example will tell you that they cannot remain Orthodox because it means no longer doing what they used to do - going to the pub on Saturday nights, not eating roast beef on Sundays during the fasts. Others will tell you that they find kissing icons, relics and priests' hands (and even taking communion) unhygienic - they never used to do it. One wonders why such people bothered in the first place.
Yes, I understand the problems of mixed marriages, the dietary problems, the problem of visiting relatives who are not Orthodox, the problem of calendars. Here there are two things. First of all, the Church is not a stick to discourage us. But often people do make sticks for their own backs. If we are visiting a relative during the fast and they offer us non-fasting food, the Church does not tell us to be self-righteous prigs and refuse. It tells us to be humble. Some say: 'I can't eat that because I am holy'. Oh yes, we've heard that sort of thing if not in words, then in spirit. If your wife's Uncle Fred is desperately ill in hospital and desperately lonely and the only solution is to visit him on a Sunday morning, then the Church tells us to go and visit him. This is preferable to refusing to take your wife because you need the car to go to 'my church' and then having a family row. Common sense and discernment in our choices are essential.
As regards, mixed marriages, discernment is vital. I have seen Orthodox 'converts' pester and pester their spouses into becoming members of the Orthodox Church. The result is always negative. On the other hand, I have seen people wait patiently for ten, twenty, thirty years, without even mentioning the possibility of joining the Orthodox Church, and then the other spouse spontaneously asks to join. They have been converted by the Christian example of patience of the other spouse.
In the smaller English parishes of the Orthodox Church, some of the problems of isolation encountered by many who join the Orthodox Church have been overcome, at least in part. If you go to what I call the 'State Church parishes', you do not often find coffee or tea provide afterwards, or a talk. Conversely, most of the English churches have church halls. Here after a Liturgy or after a weekday service, isolated Orthodox of whatever origin, can meet. One person who came her from Eastern Europe seeing this said: 'Here it is like the Early Church'. Of course, she did not mean that we are 'holy' or something like that, what she meant was that our community is close, we all know each other
And this is not in any way to say that here it is 'better' than in Eastern Europe; it is simply that we have to have a community, with a church hall, with coffee and tea, because otherwise we cannot survive as a tiny minority group confessing spiritual values in the vast spiritual desert of modern Britain. This is our survival, this is our substitute family and community in today's fragmented, individualistic, consumerist and communityless society. It is not necessary in some parts of Eastern Europe, because everyone is Orthodox, the Orthodox community is all around you. But that is not the case here.
Now I come to a very particular problem which concerns especially the contemporary English, and especially, Anglican character. The ambient Protestant culture in Britain for at least the last six generations has made people very 'uptight' and reserved, which actually is a form of pride. Confession, an important sacrament in the Orthodox Church, is very difficult for many English people to face. This is why in less uptight Protestant cultures, like in the 'shrink-riddled' USA, although people do not go to confession, they go to their therapists. There they can say everything and, since they are paying, they can be told that they are very good people. Confession is different from that. This is a delicate question and I think it is good to talk about your reservations with a priest outside confession before ever you do go to confession. Get to know one another first. Here there are a number of things to understand:
First, no confession is to a priest. It is to God in the presence of a priest who is supposed to try and give some helpful advice.
Most priests will have no objection to you confessing to another priest, outside your own parish. Some will even rejoice that you do so! Find the right confessor for yourself. If they live some way away, give them your confession by telephone, e-mail or letter. They will reply and then take the absolution from your local priest who knows about this arrangement. It is a solution used by the priest's wife and children. It could be for you.
Finally, as I have already said, there is nothing so boring as sin. I am always surprised when people come to confession and expect me to remember their last confession. I always forget boring things. One of the best confessors I ever met was almost totally deaf. After I had said my piece, most of which he had not heard, he gave me some of the best advice I have ever received.
It is inevitable that you will not get on with everyone in your parish all the time. Such is human nature. But it is not a reason for walking out, slamming the door, not remaining Orthodox. Perhaps you are spending too much time at church outside the services? Yes, we do have coffee and tea after the service, but you are not obliged to stay. Some of the best Orthodox do not! Perhaps your relations with the other parishioners are too close? Are these people you would be with in any other situation? If you have no interest at all in common, other than having a common faith, why spend so much time with them? Spending too much time with people with whom you have little in common in terms of character and tastes is a recipe for friction. After all, you're not married to them.
And the same goes for your relationship with the priest. You may have something in common in personality. But perhaps not. Perhaps you find him 'not monastic enough' or perhaps you find him 'too liberal', or perhaps just plain boring. Well, going to church is not about having a close relationship with the priest and buying the same breakfast cereal as he does. Frankly, if you know what he eats for breakfast, you probably know him too well.
Another area of friction in parish life is meetings and parish councils. Well, in most Orthodox parishes these occur once a year, after a Sunday Liturgy, during Lent. And yet I have heard of some convert groups constantly meeting, once a month or even more, discussing the same old things. This is something that comes from Anglicanism, not from Orthodox practice. Frankly, that sort of life is almost incestuous, too close for comfort. Discussion of minutiae is not only boring but also a waste of time. Worse still, some people get involved passionately and attach themselves to details. I shall always remember one person, a University Professor, at a parish meeting about twenty-five years ago who stated that if the church ceiling was repainted blue, he would never set foot in church again.
Well, he didn't. He died soon afterwards.
What will you remember from this talk? I hope the following;
We come to the Church and we remain in the Church in order to save our souls, and nothing else. Church is not a hobby, a game, a private interest, a pretence, or even a community. It is our soul's salvation. We achieve this by first being ourselves and then being the best of ourselves. If there is anything else, it is all secondary. We must never lose this perspective. If we do, then we are out of perspective and on our way out of the Church.
In order to save our souls, we first have to know ourselves, searching out and discovering our own faults, sins and failings. Then we have to take issue with them and fight, however slowly and weakly, and begin to tame them and never give up this battle. We will know when we are not doing this, it is when we start dwelling on the faults of others.
If our personal pride is hurt in the course of Church life, thank God. That is what we are there for, to become humble.
Thank you for listening.