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Saturday, December 12, 2009

ON BECOMING AND REMAINING AN ORTHODOX CHRISTIAN

Those who voiced their views about it.

And the actual article itself:
Quote:
"A Talk given at the Orthodox Pilgrimage to
Felixstowe in August 2001


INTRODUCTION

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.


ON
BECOMING ORTHODOX

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.


ON REMAINING ORTHODOX

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."



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