42 years of experience and observation of many nationalities and their psychologies have led me to several conclusions regarding the neophyte and the problems of integration connected with conversion. And integration is vital here, for the opposite of integration is disintegration and nobody wants that. Two particular problems arise with regard to conversion. Against a distorting hothouse background of emotional zeal, these are: weakness of faith, and so insecurity in it, and lack of time spent as an Orthodox, and so inexperience in the faith. These result in the following specific issues:
Ritualism is an attachment to externals. Such superficiality can be linked even to superstition and idolatry. Thus, the occasional male neophyte who thinks that growing a long beard and long hair and wearing prayer beads on his wrist, like a monk who does that but under obedience, is going to make him Orthodox, is mistaken. Look around at all the Orthodox who have been there for generations – they do not dress like that and they are still here after 40/50/60/70/80 years. Similarly, the occasional female neophyte who wears elaborate long dresses and huge veils on her head and the same prayer-beads on her wrist is not necessarily Orthodox. Our faith depends on what we are inside, not on external ‘burnt offerings’ and what we dress in: ‘Make in me a clean heart, O Lord’. ‘A humble and contrite heart, O Lord, wilt Thou not despise’.
Another convert sign is the dogmatization of details. Thus, for a few converts the Six Days of Creation must be interpreted literally as six 24-hour periods, otherwise their faith is worthless. And yet the Church has never set such literalism as dogma. Six days may indeed mean six 24-hour periods, but we should not be ignorant of other interpretations or, above all, that most of the Church Fathers are completely silent on the subject because it is so unimportant – the salvation of our souls does not depend on such details. An even more dangerous dogmatizing tendency is the ‘starets-ization’ and ‘spiritual fatherization’ of the priest who listens to their confessions. This is a form of self-flattery. They are saying: ‘My ‘spiritual father’ is a holy elder (they often prefer the Non-English words starets or geronda’ in order to mystify), so therefore I am too’. This is spiritual delusion.
It is notable that some converts of a Protestant (= literalist) background initially quote canons as they used to quote Bible verses – aggressively, rigidly, mercilessly, sometimes in order to humiliate others and justify themselves. This is pride. It shows a lack of experience, that in certain pastoral situations we have to react differently, it shows an ignorance of human realities. Recently, for example, we came across the case of a man who had been thrown out of a parish by a recently-ordained, untrained, convert priest, because he had started living with his fiancée before he married. It had needless, negative consequences. Such narrowness soon becomes sectarian, and leads to people cutting themselves off from the Church, so that they become big fish in a very little pond. Here is an example of narcissism, the spiritual illness of self-love.
Another convert tendency is to fall into nationalism, ignoring the multinational reality of life in the Church. Coming into contact with other nationalities, they revert to nationalism in a self-defence mechanism. If there is no evolution, this can bring spiritual death because nationalism is an attachment to this world, worldliness, which is placed above the Kingdom of God. All unrepentant nationalists die out because they do not pass on their prejudices to the next generation. Nationalism can be a devotion to any country. Sadly, some of the worst cases that we have seen are among certain ex-Anglicans, who not only freeze out other nationalities, but also other classes, for Anglicanism as a State-founded and State-Church ideology is profoundly middle-class and pro-Establishment. Specifically Anglican nationalism leads not just to a nationalist club, but to the exclusive class club and the clique.
The next convert trend we can notice is censoriousness, negativity and the condemnation of all creative initiative (this is born from an insecurity of faith). These tendencies are all coloured by phariseeism, that is, the clinging on to irrelevant details. Spiritually, we should judge (= condemn) only ourselves, not others, for the salvation of others depends firstly on the salvation of ourselves. If we cannot save ourselves, then we can most certainly not save others. And God is the only Just Judge. This negativity comes from the hardening of the heart and can infect older people especially. We are often saved from it by the presence of young people and children.
The intellectual convert may sometimes be prone to dreaminess, disincarnatedness, the abstract. They may reduce everything to a mere idea. If so, their practice of Orthodoxy will not last long, indeed their practice may never happen as lapse comes very soon. Talking about the Church may be their forte, but without experience, without standing and praying at the services, without looking after and bringing up children in church, without the hardship of fasting, such talk is irrelevant. In some cases, they may continue in the Church for some time and may evolve a whole ideology of dreams and fantasies, but these will not be connected with reality and will never lead to anything concrete. With time the intellectual always disappears because it is all words and not deeds.
The good news about convertitis is that it can be and is healed, with time, patience and compassion. People come and people go, but there are those who stay the course. These are the ones who are not ‘religious’ (part of a system or ideology), but are ‘spiritual’, that is, they have feelings. They are those who are sincere, patient and ready to make humble sacrifices and they are eventually healed, sometimes even quite swiftly. We should always recall that it is pride that goes before the fall (the Latin word for fall is ‘lapse’, as in ‘collapse’). And sincerity, patience and humility do not lead to lapse, but to firm and long-term commitment.