The Orthodox and the Convert
Behold, the Kingdom of God is within you
(Lk. 17, 21)
It is a truism to say that belonging to the (Orthodox) Church and confessing (Orthodox) Christianity are a way of life and require struggle (asceticism). And yet it is this that new converts do not understand. They tend to think that the Orthodox Church is either less or else more than the Church. Therefore, they tend to think that struggle is not necessary, as, it seems, in Non-Orthodox denominations, or else that the struggle which is necessary does not come from within ourselves, but requires some sort of exotic external supports, as, it seems, in Non-Christian religions. Where do such false ideas come from?
The false ideas come from outside the Church, not from theology, but from psychology. And the psychology of the neophyte or convert is universal, for fallen human nature and its proud mood-swings are the same worldwide and always will be. The illness of ‘convertitis’ contains above all an inferiority/superiority complex. Its psychology (in very extreme cases, psychopathology) may feel inferiority, because it is new to the faith and lacks experience and natural reflexes in it. However, it may be tempted to feel superiority to others, because it has made a conscious choice, unlike the cradle Orthodox. Hence the old saying: ‘The cradle Orthodox has knowledge and experience, but the convert has zeal’. What is necessary is knowledge and experience, which can only come with time, as well as zeal, which can only come with the virtuous circle of ascetic life and sacramental life, which deepen our faith.
Some converts come from practising Christian, Protestant or Roman Catholic, backgrounds. Others may be completely fresh to any form of Christian practice. Depending on the background of converts, on how much there is to react against, they may fall into one of two extremes.
The first extreme is strictness. Here the neophyte may use and mispronounce foreign or weird words, may decide to dress exotically or in strange colours (like black), with long hair and beards for men, long dresses and curious head coverings for women. They may adopt exclusivist and esoteric practices, placing great value on details which have little value, rattling on about ‘canons’, failing to see the wood for the trees.
They may practice a sort of ‘Eastern’ and ‘mystical’ guruism, constantly talking about ‘spiritual fathers’ and ‘elders’ or ‘techniques’. They may fall into condemning others, especially ‘ethnic’ or cradle Orthodox. Worst of all is when their condemnations turn towards Non-Orthodox, who will be condemned to the hellfire of Protestant fundamentalism and any punishment imaginable. Such converts tend to be very unstable, especially if they have been affected by Non-Christian teachings or drug-taking in their previous life.
The source of all this is pride, which confuses the psychic and psychological with the spiritual (= Orthodox Christian). People need to move on from this shallow first course to real Orthodox food. This is the essence of (Orthodox) Christianity, which is humility.
The second extreme is laxity. ‘I was a Christian before I came here, so I have nothing to learn’, they say. The reality is that they must always go back to the start in order to begin learning all over again, because everything they learned before is a distortion. Only later will they be able to understand this. Fasting will not be considered important and will even be mocked. There will be no effort to attend weekday services, which are always moved to weekends. Different calendars will haughtily be dismissed – ‘I am above calendars’, ‘I am universal’, they will say. Vigil services will never be attended. The lives of saints will remain unknown and even the existence of certain saints will be denied.
There may develop a ‘know it all’ mentality, again with contempt for (Orthodox) Christians who have actual knowledge and experience. There may be a strong tendency to intellectualise, to discuss irrelevant books, continually quoting ‘the Fathers’ (apparently far more important than reading the Gospels or morning prayers). Talking and theorising, continual ‘meetings’ will be far more important than attending services and praying or actually doing things for the Church – like cleaning, painting, gardening, building, sewing and cooking. Those of a Protestant or Anglican/Episcopalian background may show contempt for clergy, especially bishops, and impose a rigid attitude of obligation towards taking communion as often as possible, without understanding the need for preparation before communion, especially the prayer rule and the sacrament of confession.
The source of all this is pride, which confuses the intellectual and theoretical with the spiritual (= Orthodox Christian). People need to move on from this shallow first course to real Orthodox food. This is the essence of (Orthodox) Christianity, which is humility.
Unfortunately, these classic convert extremes, which anyone with a little experience of (Orthodox) Christianity will at once recognise, may be combined. The two extremes combined produce the strangest neophytes of all and great instability.
The treatments to the above illness, ‘convertitis’, are:
1. Learn to walk before you run. It is often said that it takes seven years to become an (Orthodox) Christian. It is true that a few take a little less long. These are generally people who have not come from any religious background and are fresh to any form of Christianity. It is also true that after forty years some are still nowhere near being (Orthodox) Christians. These people are generally those from a very rigid or extreme previous backgrounds (the charismatic movement, for example) or from a variety of religious backgrounds, which produce instability. They may spend all their time simply condemning where they were before and those who were with them, never learning to move on to the essence of things.
2. BE WITH and BE as ORDINARY as others. LIVE in mixed parishes and with mixed languages. Otherwise you may fall into a reverse nationalism. There is nothing worse than the hothouse of convert groups/deaneries/dioceses (and internet fora). Mix with ordinary, normal Orthodox, who dress normally and take things in their stride. Do not cut yourselves off from the mainstream. (Orthodox) Christians are only ordinary people trying to survive in the modern world and despite it live in the traditional (Orthodox) Christian way.
3. If possible, travel to countries, where (Orthodox) Christianity has been the main religion for centuries. Of course, there is a danger even here. We can think of one person who went to Greece for a week and came back proclaiming ‘Holy Greece’. He had spent all his time visiting churches and monasteries. He had omitted to see the ‘Orthodox’ butchers’ shops full of ‘Orthodox’ on Wednesdays and Fridays or visit the prisons full of ‘Orthodox’ thieves, rapists and murderers. In a similar way, we came across another who proclaimed that Russia had been ‘Holy’ before the Revolution. He was quite at a loss to explain why there had been a Revolution – carried out by baptised ‘Orthodox’.
4. If possible, therefore, live for a time in a country where the majority has been (Orthodox) Christian for centuries. At least live with families of cradle (Orthodox) Christians.
The Signs of Recovery
The signs of recovery are:
1.When you have stopped reading and started praying.
2.When you have stopped using the word convert and use the word Orthodox instead.
3.When you make the sign of the cross spontaneously and also outside Church services.
4. When you understand that the ‘old’ calendar is the Orthodox calendar, but do not fall into old calendarism, fully understanding and respecting those who are on the ‘new’ calendar out of the piety of obedience, not out of ideological preference, which is called new calendarism.
Maturity in life always comes through suffering. In (Orthodox) Christianity the sign of maturity, the result of suffering, is a little discernment – also known as common sense. This means understanding that it is often not what we do that is important, but why and how we do it. It means understanding that intentions and motives are often more important than acts, that the spirit is more important than insincere words.
Archpriest Andrew Phillips
25 August/7 September 2009