There is a Russian-American saying about converts, based on the fact that the Russian word ‘konvert’ means an envelope. The saying is: The trouble with ‘konverty’ (envelopes) is that they are often empty and often come unstuck’.
If this sounds unfair and racist we should remember first of all that today’s Russian Church is a Church of converts, about 150 million (including those now departed this life), who were all baptised there over the last 30 years.
I would also like to recall how a certain person, trying to justify the imbecilities of a certain priest said to me recently: ‘Yes, but he’s ‘a cradle Orthodox’ (an awful expression – there is no such thing). To which I replied: ‘So was Stalin’.
It is noticeable that nowhere do the apostles refer to themselves as converts, nor were they seen as converts. And yet they were. So what is the difference between a convert and an Orthodox?
Converts, in the sense that the word is used here, are neophytes, that is, they are new to the faith. The question is then, how do we stop being new to the faith and make the faith into an instinctive part of our nature, how do we become ‘old to the faith’?
It is sometimes said that ‘converts have zeal, but Orthodox have knowledge’. This is incorrect. If it were true, it would mean that you could simply become Orthodox by reading many, many books. It is just the opposite (1). In fact, converts have zeal, but Orthodox have experience. So, in order to stop being a convert, you have simply to obtain experience. This means mixing with Orthodox, senior to ourselves, who have experience, and following them in practice, not in theory.
A very simple example is how some converts think that they can ‘become Orthodox’ by copying the externals of monastics. I remember 40 years ago how, for some reason I could not understand then, male converts seemed to believe that they had to have a beard and long hair and female converts had to dress in dreary long black skirts and put huge cloths over their heads. Both sexes had to wrap prayer-knots around their wrists and wear some sort of strange boots. This was the uniform of the convert and you could spot them a mile away. It was anything but elegant and seemed to owe more to hippydom than anything else.
The strange thing was that none of the Orthodox did any of this: Orthodox men (apart from clergy) were always clean-shaven and Orthodox women dressed in brightly-coloured, just-below-the-knee-length skirts and dresses and wore small and modest head-coverings. All the converts had to do was look around themselves and copy, rather than shut themselves away into convert ghettoes and hothouses, guru clubs and cliques.
The apostle Paul says that men should cut their hair (1 Cor, 11, 14). He writes this in a context where he rebukes effeminacy. This is right, we agree with him. St Paisios of the Holy Mountain would take a pair of scissors to laymen who came to him with long hair and a long beard.
At this point some Protestants, of the Methodist or Baptist sort especially, may ask the question, why then do Orthodox monks (and also some monastic-minded priests) have long hair and long beards? The simple answer is because they are under obedience. They are not doing it out of some delusion that they are holy, they are doing it out of obedience, to their Abbot. In this sense, male monastics are not ‘men’, for they belong to a different order, outside the world.
Orthodoxy is not some weird sect, where people dress strangely. It is a way of life. It is in fact quite simply the Christian way of life, where people’s actions are the only thing that counts. It is as simple as that.
- On the subject of books, we would advise the following in this order: Read the Gospels, your prayerbook, the Epistles, the Psalter, the Lives and writings of the Saints, the rest of the Old Testament, the Lives of Orthodox elders (still uncanonized – but make sure that they are real elders, popularly venerated, and not self-proclaimed frauds). There is also a host of peripheral introductory books about the Church: Timothy Ware (for Anglican academics), Metr Antony Bloom (for intellectuals from an atheist background) Olivier Clement (for French intellectuals), Fr Sophrony Sakharov (for philosophers), Fr Alexander Schmemann (for educated ex-Protestants), Fr John Meyendorff (for historians) etc etc. But none of these is essential reading.