We are all baptized into the Church but then we all have to grow into Her, going through the process of conversion so that we become Orthodox. Whatever our nationality or culture (human-beings are the same all over the world), we can identify five stages which we have to go through in this process. What are they?
This comes first as it is the most basic stage, only one up from non-belief, which is why it is so widespread among the newly-baptized. Superstition is closely connected with magic for, like magic, it presupposes that a spiritual effect is automatic, that no effort of faith is required from us. For example, we have the driver who drives like a maniac but thinks that an icon or cross in his car will protect him, the footballer who makes the sign of the cross before he kicks the ball even though he has been playing dirty all the match, or the prostitute who thinks that by drinking holy water every day, she is forgiven. Their attitudes all show superstition, a belief in a magical effect of what they do, regardless of their lack of repentance and so real change in their way of life.
Closely connected to this is ritualism. This is the belief that a ritual which is correctly carried out will save us, even though we do not pray during the ritual and act against its spirit. To put the letter above the spirit is always wrong. This does not mean that rituals are wrong, every religion has rituals for the simple reason that we are not angels and have bodies, and thus express ourselves physically, whether through standing, kneeling or making bows, prostrations and the sign of the cross. We need to follow rituals correctly in order to discipline ourselves, but that does not mean that we have to make rituals into ritualism, ritual-worship. We worship God, not rituals, otherwise they become idols. Let us not confuse the means with the end.
Connected with ritualism, there are those who make the Faith into a national ritual, that is idolatry of their nation and State. Such nationalism is profoundly alien to genuine Orthodoxy, for Orthodoxy is catholic or conciliar, that is international, both local and global. In Western nations where the State is paramount, nationalists proclaim ‘England for the English’, ‘France for the French’ etc. Only unChurched Russians say ‘Russia for the Russians’ or ‘Romania for the Romanians’. The Churched say ‘Russia for the Orthodox’, ‘Romania for the Orthodox’, regardless of nationality. The Faith always comes above worldly concerns and so above State religions with their false conservatism and phariseeism. Of course, this does not mean that we should fall into the opposite extreme of denying the Incarnation of our Faith into the lives of different nations.
The fourth stage in Churching, which does not concern everyone, is to overcome intellectualism, the use of the reason, which reduces the Faith into mere booklore. Booklore, abstract knowledge, merely puffs people up and makes them proud and therefore foolish, as the Apostle Paul remarks. This is exactly the opposite of the desired result, which is humility. Abstract knowledge is irrelevant since actions speak louder than words. An intellectual knowledge of the Faith is spiritually irrelevant as it is theoretical and disincarnate and so often associated with liberalism and modernism etc. It comes from an uncleansed, spiritually unenlightened mind. Only the touching of the heart can affect the will and so lead to action. An intellectual or outward knowledge of the Faith is useful in explaining the Faith, but it can go no further. Since it provides no example of living Faith, of action, it is ultimately superficial, a house of cards.
The next stage in Churching is to pass through emotionalism. This means pietism, the pious feelings that we may have in Church, but which are only feelings. These can lead us to act correctly towards others, but they can also become spiritually dangerous, since if the heart is impure feelings create self-satisfaction and self-delusion, the concept that somehow we are ‘already’ saved because we have such strong feelings. Often this emotionalism goes hand in hand with a personality cult, the devotion towards an individual (often a member of the clergy), which approaches superstition and ritualism. In any case, emotionalism is superficial, although less so than intellectualism because at least it involves the organ of the heart, not the organ of the intellect. At least with such emotional pietism, there are some positive results, for feelings are less abstract than thoughts. However, feelings are only feelings, they are still not spiritual since they do not come from the eye of the heart or nous that connects us to God, they come from the uncleansed heart.
If we have passed through these five stages, we are Churched. Now we enter the spiritual realm. This is called spiritual life because it is only when the spirit is moved that the will makes sacrifices and so words become actions. It is spiritual life that is the life of the Church. Those who are Churched have entered spiritual life, for their priority has been the Church and not all the other idolatrous traps that we have listed above. This sixth stage of life, Churching, prefigures the struggle towards the seventh stage, which is the entry into heaven.