New Converts, Beware!

I begin to compose this post with a few disparate ideas floating around in my mind. Perhaps by the end they will have bounced off each other and arranged themselves into some sort of coherent structure.

As I have said in the past, before I first made contact with an Orthodox priest and began worshipping at an Orthodox parish, I learnt much about Orthodoxy through books and the internet. For all of the good such learning brings, the method can have its disadvantages, one of which, in my case at least, was that when I arose from the font a new creature I did so with all sorts of ideas of what the Church ought to be, how She ought to look and conduct Herself, how She could do things better.

In my zeal for professing my perception of the benefits of the restoration of the Western Rite, (which featured indirectly in my journey to the font, although it would be a year after my baptism before I worshipped in that rite), I dismissed the concerns of those who were more guarded.  This was for two reasons: firstly, because I lumped together the legitimate concerns that came from careful consideration and observation with those that were based on nothing more than prejudice and ignorance, and dismissed them all; and secondly, because my lack of experience of life in the Church prevented me from understanding what people meant when they criticised the haste with which new converts were ordained to serve the Western Rite parishes and missions, which often themselves comprised recent converts.

Well, some time has passed since then.  While I cannot make any claim to be a shining beacon of Orthodoxy, the past six years have given me enough experience to be able to see the truth in some of those concerns, which do not affect the Western Rite alone but all those who board the saving ark of the Church, having previously sailed in other vessels on the turbulent sea of life.  I have experienced this myself, where new converts, fresh out of the font, or who have perhaps not yet even entered it, have had all sorts of ideas about what the Church is doing wrong and see it as their role to make it right.  These have often been based on flawed perceptions of what constitutes inclusiveness and exclusiveness, misguided ideas about the relationship between church and state, as well as the basis, purpose, and direction of the liturgical worship of God, often mixed in with a good dose of clericalism inherited from a previous ecclesiastical homes.  Among the examples that I have heard have been:
  • calls for the Holy Doors in the iconostas to be left open throughout the Divine Liturgy so that the people can see.
  • questions asked in an accusatory tone about the priest facing east with the people to pray, preventing the people from seeing.  ("Back to the people" was the disparaging term used.)
  • a flat refusal to enter the Orthodox Church if their heterodox baptism is not recognised.
  • a refusal to enter the Orthodox Church unless the Western Rite is made available to them.
  • calls for various prayers to be chanted aloud so that the people can hear, even though the liturgical tradition has them spoken by the priest in a low voice.
  • services always and entirely in English because this is the official language of this country.
  • a call to arms for the Church to try to influence secular politics surrounding various issues that are quite separate from Church affairs.
  • an attempt to redefine the diaconate as an order of social workers.
I was guilty of similar things myself - at first.  There is almost a sense in which the new Christian (for that is what a newly-baptised person is, regardless of his previous life), is seeking, perhaps unwittingly, to mould the Church according to his own will rather than submit himself to be moulded by the mind and heart of the Church.  This is nothing other than pride.

That is not a condemnation of new converts who fall into this trap.  They are at the beginning of a journey but this is often very difficult for them to see when at that stage.  I know it well: I was there. The discovery of Orthodoxy happens, and may be kept quiet at first because it the enquirer's new, exciting thing to explore.  He may read a few books - usually the standard works by Alfeyev, Ware, and other big names that non-Orthodox may have heard of - and increase his book-knowledge over a few weeks or months in this way.  Armed with this pot of elfin gold, the enquirer, convinced that a few books and articles have given him a firm grasp of Orthodoxy, ventures into the world of the internet discussion forum, where he reads and begins to engage in discussion of which jurisdiction has done what, which bishop has fallen out with whom, who is in schism and who is "canonical" (whatever that means), and may even learn a few canons that he can quote entirely out of context in order to make him appear knowledgeable when he moves on to the next stage, which is "coming out" to friends, family, and church contacts as somebody who is taking the plunge.

Contact with an Orthodox priest and worship at an Orthodox parish usually happen at some point during the course of this process*, and eventually the person is baptised (or may be received into the Church by economy, if this is permitted).  The point of recounting all of this is to illustrate that the entire experience of this new Orthodox Christian has been one of exploring, searching, learning, and journeying towards a specific point: entering the Orthodox Church.  When that happens, the summit is reached, the goal of all of his efforts of months/years has been achieved.  Everything that he has done in his spirtual life for some time, whether it followed the somewhat cynical description given above or whether it was much more immersed in prayer and proper spiritual direction, has been geared towards that one thing.  Now, at last, he is able to identify himself as a member of the Orthodox Church.

It can be very difficult to approach somebody in that state and bring him to a point of understanding that what he has just experienced marks the beginning of the journey, and not the end.  It is the start, not the finish line, and the race is still very much set before him.  The focus of weeks/months/years now needs to change but this knowledge only comes from experience of having lived it, and trying to communicate it to somebody who does not have that experience is like trying to make a small child understand what will happen if he sticks his hand in the fire.  An obedient child may indeed avoid the fire, trusting the nurturing voice of the experienced big brother, but even that child will not really understand what it is to get burnt until he experiences it at some point in life.  So it is with the spiritual life.

Archpriest Andrew Phillips has said to me in the past that he isn't particularly interested in stories of how people become Orthodox.  Phoning up a priest and asking for baptism is really quite easy - I wish more people would do it!  What is difficult, he says, and what produces more useful stories, is how people remain Orthodox.  More and more, I come to realise that he is right.  Incidentally, for those who are interested, Fr Andrew has published on his website a transcript of a talk he once gave on this very subject.  I recommend it.

Entering the Church is not an end in itself but it is the beginning of a journey into the fullness of life in Christ Jesus, to deepen our life in God and with each other, through being immersed in the Holy Scriptures, in the doctrines of the Church, in the Holy Mysteries, in the imagery of the holy icons, that our minds and hearts may be filled with grace and our lives may be transformed, that our light may shine before men and that they may encounter something of God's grace in us.  And it is a process - a journey.

There may be an argument to be made that somebody at the outset may have a clearer view of how the Church appears from the outside than somebody who has known nothing but the interior view for years.  Indeed, it possible for those who have spent years in the Church to forget what it was like trying to find a way in from outside and we might benefit from trying on external criticisms to see whether they do indeed fit.  However, this exterior view is usually tinted by so many misconceptions that its usefulness is severely limited.  Somebody who does not understand the premise of Orthodox worship, and who comes from a confession where the form of worship commonly used is based on anti-sacerdotalist principles and is contained in a book that is a mere few decades or centuries old cannot legitimately criticise the manner in which Orthodox worship is conducted without first being immersed in it and internalising its meaning and effect.  Somebody who has little to no experience of the diaconate, or who knows of it as a lay administratve role is in no position to be giving advice on what the Orthodox diaconate should be, what deacons should do, and how the ministry needs to be revamped.

Somebody from a confession that is geographically (and perhaps ethnically) limited perhaps ought to be cautious about insisting that Orthodox worship be entirely in a particular language until he comes to see the riches of a community of people from around the world who are united by a common faith in the Holy Trinity.  Somebody from a confession that prides itself on taking a "hard line" on moral issues may think that he is of one mind with the Orthodox approach to these matters, and that we shall be impressed by this, (indeed, his experience on the internet may seem to confirm this), but one only need scratch the surface to see that the foil comes off very easily, and that what lies beneath is not gold.  Such a person may find himself shocked to learn how these matters are actually dealt with pastorally and sacramentally in real Orthodox parishes, for the care of real people who are seeking to live in Christ.

As for our approach to evangelism, an Evangelical Protestant weblog correspondent, identifying himself only as JP, commented on a blog post about Frank Schaeffer's conversion to Orthodoxy, saying of Orthodox Christians:
I couldn’t help recognizing that as he stressed the importance of them not having changed in the last two thousand years, that it is no wonder why they are almost completely irrelevant in the world at large. A foreign student has been attending my church recently; he was born and brought up in the Orthodox Church in Europe ... They gathered on religious holidays and sang songs in Latin (I believe it was). The only relevance that I can really think of them having is for historical significance, certainly not for New Testament evangelism. When I start seeing them prophesying on the streets and the markets, then maybe I will begin to take notice.

While this comes from somebody who perhaps isn't seeking a way into the Church, it reflects the same sort of prideful attitude: "I will begin to the listen to the Church when it starts to do things the way I think they should be done".  The Church needs to build itself up, to live the faith that it has received, and to ensure that there is something nourishing, permanent, and sustaining into which to bring people to carry them into oneness with the Holy and Undivided Trinity.  Long-term evangelism can only be effective if combined with this firm grounding.  This is not to suggest that there is any excuse for neglecting our mission but only to stress that conversion is not a one-off event and that getting people inside the church’s doors is not enough.  Somebody looking at the Orthodox approach from an Evangelical perspective will not see this, but only an absence of the sort of missionary zeal found in his own tradition.  Yet the failure to sustain people once they are through the door is a charge often brought against Evangelical Christianity by its former adherents.  After all, what good is there in sending out numerous invitations to dinner if there is no food to serve the guests when they arrive?

Enquirers and converts need to be aware of the pitfalls of thinking that they know everything when they come through the Church's doors; of turning up with all of the answers to questions that nobody is asking - and I do think that there is wisdom in the advice that I received (but, sadly, did not heed), to keep my mouth shut for a few years after my baptism and simply absorb Orthodoxy through its being lived in my parish life.  It is true that there is a difference between joining the Orthodox Church and actually becoming Orthodox. Baptism may effect a mystical change but it is not a magic spell, and it is only over time, with perseverance, prayer, and ongoing sustenance by grace that this becomes a lived reality.

I see this now, almost certainly not fully, but much more clearly than I did a mere few years ago.  I have been through stages of great zeal and fervour, fasted strictly and followed a rule of prayer religiously (indeed, how else?), considered monasticism, then descended into spiritual slovenliness, doubted whether there was even a God to believe in, and fallen into unashamed sinfulness for a time, before finding that God had not left me but it was I who had very nearly left God.  It is only by "hitting bottom", shedding my pride, and being open with my sisters and brothers that I have come to learn that this is simply a normal part of life in the Church, and that many of the romantic ideas of which I had been so certain before were nothing more than dreams that would be carried away on the first winds of a storm.
For He knows what we are made of, He remembers that we are dust.  Man - his days are like grass; he flourishes like a flower of the field.  When the spirit in him has passed, he will not exist, and he will know his place no more.  But the Lord’s mercy is from age to age for those who fear Him, and his justice is for their children’s children, for those who keep his covenant and remember to carry out his commandments.
Psalm 102: 14-18
Now I fast often but not strictly, my prayer life is rubbish, and my sins are repetitive.  And do you know what? It's wonderful! I am no longer deluding myself into thinking that I know more than I do, that I am more spiritually mature than I am, or that I am in any position to tell people things that I have no authority to tell them.  I realise just how much I am in need of God's mercy.  My confessions are much more frank and honest, and any little progress that I am granted by God's grace is real.  Finally, I realise that I am much further down St John's Ladder (looking up to see the bottom rung) than I once thought I was, and despite the pain of the passage to where I am, I am much happier here than where I was.

You see - I needed a lesson in humility.  All converts need a lesson in humility.  Some realise it much sooner and much more easily than I did.  I still likely have far to go in learning this lesson, but the fresh convert in me would never have allowed me even to enter the classroom.

Bearing in mind the fear of thinking I had lost faith, the pain of friendships lost, and the uncomfortable and unsettling introspection to which it all led, all of which have taught me valuable lessons, I can do little other than follow the advice of St Elisabeth to her nuns:
...say, like St John Chrysostom, as he was sent into exile: 'Glory to God for all things!'
St Elisabeth the New-Martyr

 *although it often does not, and the person remains in a perpetual state of "going to" become Orthodox.  Enquirers of this sort are discussed here.

7 responses:

Anonymous said...

Many thanks Michael for one of the most honest and illuminating pieces I have read in a long time! I am going through the self same painful and not a little embarrassing process myself presently. I have not quite come out the other end yet...and am a little raw still. I have thrown myself on God's mercy. I can do no other. In Christ, JK

Ian Climacus said...

Thank you for sharing so personally Michael.

I very much identify with the book learning and the descent 'into spiritual slovenliness'. I thought, way back in Dec 2005, that in 3 or 4 years I'd be the perfect Orthodox Christian in a perfect parish with a perfect spiritual father.

Deluded. Utterly.

Like you I am looking up from St John Climacus' bottom rung... One thing that attracted me to Orthodoxy was the concept of a spiritual father, but I ran from them as if they had the plague. I allowed myself too easily to fall into laxness of fasting or prayer: giving up at the first hurdle. I may have felt bad for a while, but I contented myself reading spiritual works, and sadly bring condemnation on myself for trying more to memorise quotes than affect a change in my life.

But the beginning of this Great Lent, when all around seemed to turn to dust, and which I started in such an appalling way, and still have some way to go, the lesson of 'humility' struck me -- and continues to strike me. I am slowly, very slowly, realising that which you have.

Sorry for the extended commentary...I have been pondering a blog on this Great Lent and you seem to have got the first serving!

Thank you again for sharing.

Michael Astley said...

Thank you, both, for your thoughts. I haven't much to add. From reactions here and elsewhere, it seems that many people recognise something of their own journeys in this, which is somewhat comforting to me. Thank you, again.

Elizabeth @ The Garden Window said...

Michael, after thirty years of combined exploring Orthodoxy and being Orthodox, I would describe myself in very similar terms indeed.
Even now I am a raw beginner in repentance and metanoia......
Sending love, hugs and prayers as we near the end of Great Lent and approach Holy Week

Christopher said...

I very much enjoyed this post.

The flexibility of rite as offered in certain native churches can grant people the impression that this is a universal practice throughout the Church. I suppose it is the shock of discovering the abundant conforming (as the body of Christ) which strikes inquirers. Personally I found it particularly alluring, non-the-less you understand Michael what eventually became of me.

Glory to God indeed. Glory to God and thanksgiving for all that gives glory.
O ye Servants of the Lord, bless ye the Lord: praise him, and magnify him for ever.

ex_fide said...

It seems to me that lots of people coming from Roman Catholicism or Anglicanism perceive Orthodoxy as having something that they have struggled to find in their own church - be it faithfully traditional Liturgy, a clear moral vision, an unbroken link with the Fathers or a strong tradition of spiritual direction. The Orthodox Church has all of these things and then some, but perhaps the temptation for prospective or new converts is to use them almost as a cross to nail other people to. The Church doesn't preserve these things for their own sake but to nourish and sustain the Christian soul on its journey to God.

Nicholas said...

I bet I could track down a few ancestral Orthodox who are against having the royal doors closed during the liturgy.

But, then again, no one is infallible but the Turkokratia!

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