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On Zeal

They have a zeal, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.

Romans 10, 2-3

There is a well-known saying that: 'Born Orthodox have knowledge, but converts have zeal. What we need, however, is both zeal and knowledge'. There is of course truth in this, but the saying in the above form is objectionable for three important reasons.

Firstly, it must be said that there is no such thing as 'born Orthodox'. We do not become Orthodox until we are baptized. Secondly, the saying is objectionable, because the word 'convert' is quite inappropriate. The only converts to the Church are those who were converted today. Everyone else is an ex-convert, in other words, they are simply Orthodox. Thus, I cannot find reference in the Scriptures to the Mother of God or the Apostles as 'converts'. True, the Apostle Paul was 'converted' on the Road to Damascus, but after that he ceased to be a convert. And so we all cease to be 'converts', Western European, Eastern European (and most of them are new Orthodox too), Middle Eastern, North American, or anyone else. Finally, the above saying is false in this form, because both many lifelong Orthodox and many new Orthodox may have neither zeal nor knowledge. In fact, if we were to make the above saying into a Christian and accurate one, then we might instead say: 'Lifelong Orthodox often have knowledge, but those new to the faith often have zeal'. Now let us look at this Orthodox form of the saying more deeply.

First of all, zeal. Although the words 'zeal' and 'zealous' have positive associations, the words 'zealot' and 'zealotry' generally do not, carrying undertones of fanaticism. However, there are different forms of zealot fanaticism. There are those who condemn all others who do not share their faith (their parents included, thus breaking the Fifth Commandment) and become troublemakers in their parish, with hatred and condemnation for anyone who is not as bigoted and narrow-minded as themselves. But there are others who set about 'reforming' the very Church that they have joined - because it is not 'modern enough' for them. Personally, I have met more of the latter 'liberal zealots' than the former pharisaical ones, but I would not suggest that overall the pharisees are any less numerous than the modernists. Thus, we see that zealotry, or fanaticism, can go in any direction. Our conclusion is that zeal in itself is merely a tool, like any other form of energy; in itself neutral, it must be channelled, like any other energy.

In reality, the problem with zeal is that if it is not channelled, it will attach itself to externals. Thus, the zealot who insists that everyone in his or her parish must be dressed identically. Anyone who does not is to be condemned and cast out of the sect. Thus, the zealot who insists that everyone in his or her parish must read the books of their ecumenist guru. Anyone who does not is to be condemned and cast out of the sect. Typically, the new Orthodox who has not yet become Orthodox, who in fact still deserves to be called 'a convert', has not yet grown out of such attachment to externals. It is then the attachment to externals which makes zeal dangerous.

Therefore, when we speak of the need to channel zeal, we are in fact talking about the need to 'internalize' zeal. To make zeal internal, we are talking about doing something far harder than condemning others, because they do not conform to our own self-invented external standards. To internalize zeal is to stand through all the services praying, discreetly, preferably at the back of the church. It is to say our prayers at home, making prostrations to use up our physical energy. It is to keep the fasts secretly, without talking about them. It is not to talk about ourselves, but to listen and to observe. It is to read the daily Gospel and Epistle quietly at home. It is to go to confession discreetly and regularly, with sincere repentance and self-reproach. It is simply to keep the commandments.

The fact is that there are two types of zeal, external and internal. External zeal judges others, it is fleshly, full of censoriousness and sensuality, spreading its 'own righteousness'. Only internal zeal is good. Why? Quite simply, because it is self-judging, it is spiritual, full of humility and purity, spreading 'the righteousness of God'. For, as it is written: 'Blessed are the meek', not 'Blessed are the zealous'.

Fr Andrew

August 2006

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