Real Conversion Means Repentance
Conversion means change. However, if a conversion lacks faith, then the change is superficial, not deep. We have seen this over the years on a secular, political level. Thus, in France the rise of the extreme right-wing National Front Party in the 1980s was ironically mainly due to disillusionment with Communism. Most of the new support for a more or less Fascist ideology came from disappointed Communists. Psychologies which liked extremes simply exchanged one extreme for another.
In the 1990s a similar ‘conversion’ occurred in ex-Communist Eastern Europe, where yesterday’s Communists suddenly became today’s Capitalists, intent on ‘privatising’ State industries (and pocketing the receipts). All that the ‘converts’ wanted was a self-serving ideology, not a real change, because real change means repentance. How much easier to swim with the tide: yesterday a Communist, today a Nationalist, tomorrow an EU/US Globalist. Follow the money.
These are gross but very real examples taken from the secular world. However, there are parallels with the Church. We have noted in countries of a Protestant cultural background how some Protestant fundamentalists join the Orthodox Church, stop quoting chapter and verse from the Bible and begin quoting the canons – also out of context, with exactly the same spirit of self-justification as before. The next step for them to begin condemning the church they attend as an excuse to set up their own church. Again this is the psychology of the Protestant, who, dissatisfied with the church, goes off to set up his own one.
In other words, though the context has changed, the psychology and its errors have not changed. We repeat: here there is no theology, only psychology and, at that, a self-serving one. What, constructively speaking, can be done? How can we avoid pitfalls? What are the signs to avoid? The following are notes gleaned from 35 years of observation of our common human nature. The reason for superficial conversion is always in a lack of faith. True conversion always involves a deep faith. If faith is not deep, then the following can occur:
1.Self-reliance instead of faith in God and trust in others.
Lack of faith and trust is in Russian called ‘samost’, that is, ‘selfness’. One who suffers from this will produce ‘otsebiatiny’, opinions and actions which come from the self. These may well be opposed to those of mainstream Orthodox, or result in major decisions and actions which are undertaken without a blessing. This is because the convert concerned knows that a blessing will not be given, approval will not be forthcoming. Therefore no approval is sought, no blessing is asked for.
The solution to this problem is that converts should observe others and speak to them. Communication is essential. The convert who does not communicate (except with a small clique of others who are like-minded) paints himself into a corner, retreating into his own fantasy world. All the more so if the like-minded that he consorts with are part of some tiny internet forum. Such a ‘ghetto’ situation is fatal. People need ‘to get out more’. Clearly, a stable and normal family life helps enormously. The problem often comes if the convert is single or unemployed. The convert also needs to take advice from others, for example from the priest with whom he confesses, regarding major decisions. (Though he should be careful not to fall into the trap of pestering the priest about all sorts of minor things. Spiritual maturity is about independence, but this only comes gradually).
The convert has to learn to distrust himself and to trust others who have experience – not least God. What is particularly difficult is if the convert is in some small group, chapel, parish, deanery, vicariate, which is made up of other converts, both clergy and laity. Then serious problems can begin. It is vital to associate with the mainstream, visiting other parishes and those of other Local Churches. Otherwise, the mentality of the sect or the cult can set in with disastrous spiritual consequences.
2.Spiritual Delusion (‘Prelest’, ‘Plani’)
This next temptation often follows on from the previous one. Let it be said now: the word ‘spiritual’ is dangerous. After all, the demons are entirely spiritual beings. I always worry when I hear people say, ‘I am interested in spirituality’, or they begin talking about their ‘spiritual life’ or their ‘spiritual father’. Much of this can be pride. Those who talk of ‘spiritual fathers’ usually mean the parish priest who listens to their confessions. There is in all this the danger of self-flattery: ‘I have a spiritual father, therefore I have a spiritual life, therefore I am spiritual, therefore I am holy’. Such constipated pietism is all self-delusion.
The solution is in sobriety and realism. Realism can come from socialising with others. There is nothing like a job, household bills, or a spouse and children to bring you down to earth, in case you are imagining that you are already ‘pious’ or ‘holy’. Let us remember that the only worthy Orthodox Christians are those who really believe, indeed know, that they are unworthy. It is not enough to sign a letter in the monastic way (actually not a normal thing to do unless you are under monastic obedience), putting your name and the words ‘a sinner’ or ‘unworthy’ next to it. There is here always the danger of false modesty, beneath which is concealed towering pride and anger, even violence.
Those suffering from some form of spiritual delusion will often use complex or exotic words or practise the faith in some exotic form like no-one else. A sadly popular practice is to begin dressing in a new ‘uniform’ (black is a favourite colour), for men to grow long hair and beards (giving the impression that they are monks) and for women to wear long, dark skirts and dresses, covering their heads with huge scarves. This is the dress of the sect. The Church says ‘dress modestly’. That means: do not stand out or attract attention by your dress. It is worthwhile bearing in mind the French proverb: ‘L’habit ne fait pas le moine’: ‘The cassock does not make the monk’. The superficial convert (and strange forms of dress and hairstyle are superficial) always prefers an outward change (for example dress) to an inward change, that is, repentance.
3.The Intellectual Approach
This problem can occur among small groups of highly-educated converts, especially in University towns. An academic approach often leads to abstract fantasies, the knowledge of the virtually unknown writings of a Church Father, but no knowledge at all of how to make the sign of the cross or how to help other people. The intellectual approach may mean reading a book about the Church in preference to actually going to Church.
The solution here is to attend Church services and have social contact with others. A mind that is shut in on itself and its intellectual interests will dry up for lack of spiritual nourishment of the heart. This will in turn lead to a falling away from the Church, as the mind grows tired of intellectual games with theories and ideas which are often only vaguely connected with Church life. Thus, intellectuals forget the main roads but move into side roads and dead ends.
The fundamental error here is to imagine that the Church is about intellectual ability. It is not. the source of the Faith is in the Holy Spirit, Whose seat among human-beings is in the heart. Our intellectual understanding depends on how pure our hearts are, not on how many books we have read. Only if our hearts are pure will the Faith radiate into our minds and illuminate them. And to have a pure heart means to repent for sin. For it is not the intellectuals who will see God, but ‘the pure in heart’. It was ‘the fishermen’, not the philosophers, who ‘were made most wise’.
This stage can follow on from the previous one. The superficial convert will always want to impose his opinions. He will be puffed up with self-importance, with the imaginary ‘role’ he plays, with books he has read, with recounting his ‘spiritual experiences’, with ‘the important people I have met’, with an extensive knowledge of some obscure event or person in the past. He may be feverishly excited about some event or what some clergyman has said in his private opinion. The solution: Know that all passes and that tomorrow is another day, that is, a fresh opportunity for us to repent.
In such cases the convert is full of excitement, everything is happening, it is all very important, this event is ‘unheard of’, and that he, of course, has an indispensable role to play. Know that we are but dust and that the cemeteries are full of indispensable people. If you did not know this, read the psalms, the foundation of monastic reading. Know that the Church is Christ’s and actually what any of us say or do is purely of passing, local interest. Keep out of the limelight, stay away from futile disputes. Know also that that nobody ever went to heaven, because he was right, because of his opinions. People go to heaven because they have love in their hearts and therefore actions, not because they have opinions in their heads.
This difficulty also leads to gossip, a bane of convert groups. And gossip can lead to slander. A slippery slope indeed. Self-importance can also lead to self-advertisement, self-publicity, the temptation of emphasising the outward side of any Church activity. ‘Yes, our church is expanding, we are very ‘successful’’, they say. In reality their little ghetto is a tiny chapel, an empty shell without substance. It is self-importance that leads some Protestants to proselytise and display themselves. Solution: Be modest. If not, know that the Protestant who rams the Bible down people’s throats has discouraged far more people from the practice of Christianity than the opposite – modesty. And know that modesty is actually realism.
Fanaticism is often associated with neophytes, newcomers, who want to be more Orthodox than the Orthodox. It is a well-known temptation. It is notable how many Muslim fanatics are converts, many of them from Western backgrounds. So John Smith, beneath a huge beard and robes, becomes Mohammed Rahman, and Joanna Smith, behind Muslim robes and veil, becomes Fatima Abdullah. Foolishness and superficiality. Faith is not about changing clothes and names, it is about changing what is inside us.
In the first sort of fanaticism, that berates and condemns all others like the sectarian pharisee, the convert is like paper that is on fire. But what happens to paper that burns? It flares up and then goes out. There is no more fuel left, only ashes remain. Or he is like a child who cannot walk, but who is already running. What is the result? He falls over. Having learned his lesson, the convert can then understand that the solution is moderation. This is the advice above all other advice of the Fathers. If there is moderation, then there is hope of spiritual maturity, won through hard-earned experience of real life. If not, there will be cynicism, then discouragement and falling away.
However, there is a second sort of fanaticism. It is not the narrow-minded fanaticism as above, it is the broad-minded fanaticism of the liberal. I was long ago told that ‘there is nothing so intolerant as liberalism’. This is the mentality that attempts to destroy and negate the Church, because it wants to replace it with some private, liberal ideology. Thus, normal Orthodox Christian worship is condemned as ‘liturgical piety’, which must at all costs be ‘reformed’. And when they have reformed it and produced modern, clean, intellectually correct, but entirely spiritually empty churches, they will find that they have put themselves outside the Church. Broad is the path to destruction.
This temptation can follow on from the realisation that neither type of fanaticism is the way. The temptation of discouragement is less unpleasant than others, but ultimately more dangerous. It is very widespread – and little wonder, given all the previous temptations. This is the temptation that leads to the way out of the Church and therefore away from the possibility of self-improvement and so salvation. ‘I give up’ are not words that a Christian should ever utter. Christ did not give up. The only ultimate spiritual failure is not sin (which can be repented for), but giving up. The answer to this temptation is patience and perseverance.
The source of discouragement is often in an initial exaggeration of the outward side of the Faith. Here is the spiritual law: disillusion always follows illusion. I remember a priest advising me years ago in the way of the Gospel: ‘He who starts big will certainly finish small, but he who starts small may finish big’. The solution is: Be sober and realistic. Have your feet on the ground. This is called being incarnate.
Of great importance here is to be aware that the Faith is a war, a struggle and that struggle can be defeated only inwardly, invisibly, because it is invisible warfare. Outward displays do not help. I always worry when I hear of a group of converts saying: ‘He will be ordained’; ‘this will open’; ‘we will expand and take over’; ‘that will happen’; we will be very successful’. Know that nothing happens in the Church without the will of God. Know also that the devil has ears too. Don’t plan. If someone’s ordination is broadcast long before it might happen, this gives the devil a lot of opportunities to upset it and destroy the ordinee. The temptations before ordination are enormous. Best not to speak about it. Again: Be sober and modest. Be humble.
Conclusion: A Sad Example
Rather than say anything from myself, as a conclusion I would quote from pp. 782-3 of ‘Not of This World’. Although this is an uneven book, with in its first edition many great inaccuracies, it was written about Fr Seraphim Rose and he did have common sense. Here is what he said:
‘Fr Seraphim had one spiritual son whom he saw failing into this classic pattern of the ‘crazy convert’ who thinks he ‘knows better’ than everyone. In a little mission chapel which he had built in his backyard, this man was making an issue over congregational versus ‘partitura’ singing (i.e., singing by a separate choir). On Pentecost Sunday he had a confrontation in the church with a Russian woman who wanted to have partitura singing. ‘As I rather bluntly told her’, he wrote to Fr. Seraphim, ‘I didn't build a chapel in order to perpetuate error in my own backyard…I am in no mood to compromise on this issue’, he declared’.
Fr Seraphim wrote to the man:
‘No matter how ‘right’ you may be on various points, you must be diplomatic also. The first and important thing is not ‘rightness’ at all, but Christian love and harmony. Most ‘crazy converts’ have been ‘right’ in the criticisms that led to their downfall; but they were lacking in Christian love and charity and so went off the deep end, needlessly alienating people around them and finally finding themselves all alone in their rightness and self-righteousness. Don't you follow them!….
You are still new to Orthodoxy, and yet you wish to teach those older in the Faith (and from the way you describe it, you are ‘teaching’ them quite crudely, without the slightest tact or Christian charity). Plain common sense should tell you chat this is no way to act; Christian love should make you ashamed of your behavior and anxious to learn more of basic Christianity before daring to teach anyone anything. I haven’t heard from anyone in your area, but I can imagine how your behavior must offend and hurt them. There is nothing mysterious about the fact that you are alienating people; your behavior, as you have described it yourself, is exactly the kind that drives people away and causes fights in the Church. Don't hide behind ‘English services’ and ‘no-partitura’ singing: these are only half-truths which your pride seizes on in order to avoid basic Christianity of humility and love.
Look for a moment at how it must seem to others: you couldn’t get along in the P. parish and had to drop out; now, in your ‘own’ parish, you drive people away. It simply cannot be that others are always to blame and you are always innocent; you must start correcting your own faults and living in peace with the Christians around you....