Daily Archives: March 10, 2023

Converts and Envelope-Converts


First I must explain the title of this essay. The Russian word ‘konvert’ means an envelope. And there is an old joke, told me about 30 years ago by a ROCOR bishop from America, that ‘the problem with ‘konverts’ is that sometimes they are empty and sometimes they come unstuck’. Beyond jokes, the real question is why can converts to the Faith sometimes be empty and why can they sometimes come unstuck? In other words, what is the difference between ‘converts’ and ‘envelope-converts’? Below we attempt to answer this question.

Introduction: Converts 

The psychology of converts is universally the same. I remember about 40 years ago meeting a Jewish man who had married a woman who, some years before meeting him and converting to Judaism, had already converted to Catholicism. When she had been a Catholic, she had been a traditionalist, a Latin masser. The husband complained to me about his wife, who had become Jewish in order to marry him, and had then started to impose very strict, zealot Jewish observances on him. Since he had always been a very secular, non-practising Jew, he found it very troublesome and it was breaking up the marriage. From his wife’s behaviour, I realised that convert psychology is universal. Someone who has psychological problems will carry them over into any religion. There is no theology here, only psychology and, worse still, pathology. Beware.

For instance, a few years ago I met an Englishman who had chosen to become a Muslim. What he had been before, I have no idea. Of course, as a recent convert he forced himself to dress like a Muslim from Afghanistan, had changed his name from Bob to Mohammed, grown a long beard, insisted that Muslim women wear a veil and interspersed his cockney speech with badly-pronounced Arabic words. He was the opposite of the other Muslims around him, all immigrants, whose only desire was to conform to English models of behaviour, to integrate and not stand out. In other words, Bob was what is popularly called a ‘beardy-weirdy’. I later heard that he had gone to live in the Middle East. Someone even said that maybe he had gone to fight with ISIS.

Some Eastern European Examples

In Russian the word for ‘convert’ is ‘neofit’, a neophyte. Since virtually all Orthodox in Russia are converts from over the last 30 years, there are also pastoral problems with some of them, who, for example, collect Orthodox books (they must have all of them, read or unread), dress in black and go off and live in forests or caves and then think they are being Orthodox. In fact, they are destroying their lives and those of their children. I have seen the same thing with Greeks and Romanians, those of an intellectual type. Baptised Orthodox as babies, they had all gone through some deep experience in their twenties (one Greek man had become a Buddhist) and then returned, chastened, to Orthodoxy. However, in countries with millions of Orthodox, such eccentrics are very, very few.

There were already such repentant spiritual tourists in the Russian emigration. Thus, Metr Antony Bloom had been an atheist until he was 14. And twenty years before him Fr Sophrony Sakharov had become a Hindu and was deeply attracted by the concepts of gurus, ashrams and mantras. Before him there had been the case of Fr Sergei Bulgakov, who had been a Marxist revolutionary. All joined, or rejoined, the Church after experiencing life. There is nothing extraordinary here. After all, all the apostles were converts. We recall how fishermen decided to follow Christ, and then a tax collector followed them. It is all related in the Gospels. As for the Epistles, these are simply letters written by converts to groups of converts in various parts of the Roman Empire. If you read those letters, you will find that some of those converts got up to some very strange things (they were ‘envelope-converts’), which is why they received instructions on how to behave and what our Faith actually is. Perhaps the most famous case of a convert is the Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9).

As for the Fathers, many of them were also ‘converts’, who had studied in some pagan school, for instance in Athens, and then got baptised. The Three Great Hierarchs, St John Chrysostom, St Basil the Great and St Gregory the Theologian, come to mind at once. And yet nobody would think of calling the apostles or these Fathers ‘converts’. Let alone ‘envelope-converts’ who were empty or who came unstuck. So what is the difference? Why do some simply become Orthodox Christians and others cause tragedies to themselves and to others? Below I describe why converts become ‘envelope-converts’.

Joining the Church and Becoming Orthodox

Regularly, about six times a year I am phoned by someone who wants ‘to join the Church’. Having read something, usually on the internet, or seen a youtube video or, even worse, a podcast, they are attracted. However, they are not attracted to Orthodox Christianity, only to the idea or theory of a marginal form of Orthodoxy. My answer to them is always the same: ‘Come to the service next Sunday’. Of course, they never come. The point is that they have no desire to know that Orthodox Christianity is about living a way of life, at the heart of which are the Church services. That would mean them changing their way of life. They may as an idea wish to join the Church, but they do not want to become Orthodox. And that is no use at all.

In general, it can be said that there are two sorts of candidate to join the Church. Those who want to join the Church and those who want to become Orthodox; those who come with baggage and have expectations, and those who do not; those who want to change what the Church is and those who accept the Church as it is. This is rather like some young people who think they have fallen in love, but want to change the characters of the objects of their infatuation: ‘Oh, I know he did that, but I’ll change him’, says the silly young woman who is full of her imagined abilities to change a criminal, and, ‘She’ll change once we’re together’, says the silly young man, who is pretentious. It always ends up in tears. If you love someone, you love their faults too. And if you don’t love their faults, or do not know what their faults are, or, worse still, imagine that they do not have any, you are in for a big surprise. As the old joke says: ’The only time a woman changes a man is when she changes his nappies as a baby’.

It can be said that these two sorts of candidates are either those who love themselves (they tend to egomania and weird ego-trips of garden shed Orthodoxy) and those who love God and love others. The first want to impose their pride and their proud theories because they do not love God and love others. The second accept in humility and learn. Love is the key. The first lack love, and can be singularly unloving, the second show love and so readiness to learn. This explains why so many ‘envelope-converts’ never become Orthodox Christians, but come unstuck and lapse, either into what they were before or else into some new obsession. These are the serial lapsers, who demand baptism umpteen times and drift from one ‘religion’ to another. They are empty, they take but do not give, they destruct but do not construct.


I remember serving at a Russian church in Brussels about thirty-five years ago. There were perhaps 250 people there. I immediately spotted two converts among the crowd. How? One was a woman dressed in what seemed to be ballgown with a huge headscarf/tablecloth on her head and the other was a man dressed all in black and with a huge beard. All the other women were dressed normally in knee-length skirts or dresses, most had no head covering at all. As for the men, they were all clean-shaven and I do not think any of the clergy had a beard anything like that of the convert.

This obsession with externals is typical of the ‘envelope-convert’. Eccentric dress, beards and long hair for men, wearing prayer-knots around the wrist, lapel or even pectoral crosses, icons, incense, books, fasting. Just so as you know: This disease of convertitis will not save you. This confusion between means and ends is a kind of idolatry, as it confuses creation with the Creator. No externals will ever save you, even if, when accepted in humility, they can help you. Only humility will save you. I always say to such strange dressers: look at the others in Church. They have been Orthodox for decades, for their whole lives, as their ancestors for centuries before them. None of them dresses like you. Dress like them. None of them bothers about fasting from vertebrates and invertebrates (what are they anyway?), none of them reads the ingredient labels on foodstuffs. Stop being different. Salvation is not there. Salvation is in humility.

The root of this idolatry, as that of all fantasies, is the same: pride. It is pride which is behind all envelope-converts. This can be seen in their open self-justifications for weirdness: ‘I am better than the others’; ‘I am not like them’; ‘they haven’t read the books that I’ve read’; ‘they don’t understand’; ‘they haven’t been to Mt Athos’. (These are all actual quotations). These are the people who want to be ‘more Orthodox than the Orthodox’. And they all end up being less Orthodox than the Orthodox, that is, they all end up outside the Church. Such converts always want to give advice to others, as they know everything. Yet they know nothing, apart from externals and their desire to condemn others. It is sad.

More Pride

Such envelope-convert laypeople, sometimes married with families, want to imitate monastics. However, to live in a monastery, you first of all need obedience. And that is precisely what they do not have. I remember one such family in France. They went off to live in the Cevenne mountains, living in a ruin, getting water from a stream and without electricity. The nearest shop was six miles away. After a time the fed-up wife left the fanatical, hippyish husband who spent his time ‘meditating’ and had forced her and the children to live back in the Middle Ages. (Apparently, he thought this was ‘Orthodox’). As for the children, they left with her and never set foot in an Orthodox church afterwards. The husband died a few years ago, a lonely and embittered old convert. And precisely a ‘convert’, because he had never actually become Orthodox.

Convert pride is often manifested in idealism, as was the case above. Never think that idealism is good. It forces others. Lenin was an idealist. So was Hitler. Beware. Convert pride makes the convert think he is ‘special’ and ‘different’. This is not only in outward appearance, but also in speech, in the use of words such as ‘a temple’, instead of ‘a church’, or they will tell you that they are ‘under the omofor’ of someone. Ordinary lifelong Orthodox never tell you that, indeed they often do not even know whose diocese they are in, still less, care.

Then there are the converts who go on and on about their ‘spiritual father’ or, worse still, ‘starets’, who is probably just a very ordinary parish priest. But they want to belong to a cult. Here we encounter the problem of ‘guruism’. Twice in my life I have come across converts, one English and one Russian, who wanted me to become their ‘spiritual father’. I refused to play at being a guru. They both went elsewhere and ended up outside the Church, one lapsing completely, the other joining a cultish sect from America. The pride here is that they want a guru so as to make a saint out of him and can then flatter themselves that, as their guru is a saint, they too must be saints. ‘I am special, I have a spiritual father’, is their secret mantra.

Yet More Pride

The obsession with books can also play a role here. The ‘envelope-convert’ must have an ‘Orthodox library’. When asked to recommend an Orthodox book to read, I always reply the New Testament. This really puts them off, as what they want is some piece of exotica (because they are ‘special’, ‘not like other men’ (Lk. 18, 11)). If they reply that they have already read the New Testament, I answer: ‘You may have read it, but you haven’t understood it’. The difference between Protestants and real Orthodox is that the Protestants have read it and not understood it and therefore do not live it, whereas the real Orthodox have generally not read it, but understood it and therefore live it.

Pride is not just unpleasant, it is also extremely dangerous. Some may have read the warnings given by St Ignatius (Brianchaninov) and St Theophan the Recluse, both of the century before last, about pride. For example, there is the convert who became crazy through the prayer of the heart. How is this possible? Simply because he said the prayer without love and humility. His intention in repeating it thousands of times a day was to become a saint, that is, to become ‘better than others’. It was not to become humble. He became mentally ill not through a prayer, but through his deluded pride. The source of most mental illness and all delusion is precisely pride. I have seen this happen. This is real. If you have no love and humility, this can happen.

Some may be shocked by this, but think about what the Apostle Paul wrote nearly 2,000 years ago. ‘Whoever shall eat this bread and drink this cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord…For he that eats and drinks unworthily, eats and drinks damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you and many sleep’ (I Cor 11, 27-30). They become ill not through holy communion, but through pride. The danger is when such ‘crazy converts’, as the Americans call them, or ‘novices’, as the Apostle Paul calls them, become clergy. And yet the Apostle is clear: ‘A bishop then must be…not a novice, unless being lifted up with pride, he falls into the condemnation of the devil’ (I Tim 3, 2-6). Such clergy create whole cultish sects full of their clones.

Conclusion: Conversion Without Pride

Christ speaks of ‘envelope-converts’ in the Gospel, the ones he calls pharisees and proselytes: ‘Woe unto you, scribes and pharisees, hypocrites! For you compass sea and land to make one proselyte and when he is made, you make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves’ (Matt. 23, 15). The problem is not of course with converts who have really converted, but with non-converts, those who claim to have converted, when they have not. I have met such people who, even after fifty years, have not actually converted. Some are indeed ‘children of hell’. When someone says that he is a convert, I always ask him: ‘A convert to what?’

Every time we go to confession is a conversion. Indeed, if you do not go to confession, you will not be converted, but will always remain at that selfsame primitive level of: ‘I haven’t done anything wrong’, or, ‘I haven’t done anything different from everyone else’. I have met several Orthodox like this. Every Sunday for decades they have taken communion, but have never ever been to confession. And this from lifelong Orthodox in their fifties. There is nothing wrong with conversion. On the contrary, there is everything wrong with unconversion. But conversion is not a point, it is a process. In order to become (Orthodox) Christians, we have to convert every day. Otherwise, we shall just remain ‘envelope-converts’, empty through lack of zeal, or else come unstuck, as the Apostle writes, through ‘zeal not according to knowledge’.