Some people speak of ‘zealous Christians’, as though this were a good thing to be. However, I am always deeply troubled by that phrase, for the simple reason that zeal is by no means good. In fact, there are two sorts of zeal, one is based on pride, the other on humility. The sad fact is that the former, in my experience, is far more common than the latter. Zeal is often a spiritual illness unless it can be channelled by obedience to experience.
Bad Zeal = Contempt for Others: The Pride-Isolation-Discouragement-Lapse Cycle.
Pride comes before the fall – that is the spiritual law in all situations. And pride is at the root of bad zeal with its pharisaic comparisons with others. Pride says: ‘I am better than they are’; ‘I can do everything better than they can’; ‘as regards the others, who do not come to church all the time, who do not pray like me, who do not cross themselves often and do not keep the fasts as strictly as I do, all they are fit for is criticism from me’. Ironically, pride always boasts: ‘I am sinful and unworthy’. (We already know that you are sinful and unworthy, like the rest of us, it is part of being a human-being. Stop being a pharisee). Be intolerant of others and sectarian – and you are well on your way to your self-imposed exit from the Church. Be literal in everything, never be indulgent and show no pastoral ‘economy’ (dispensations for weaknesses).
Thanks to your mountain of self-admiring pride, you will soon find yourself in a state of self-isolation. You will flee others, but they will also flee you, for your priggish pride and grim-faced airs of superiority will turn them away. And you will have done that to yourself. Isolation is entirely your own fault. The result is discouragement, depression and despair for you, but not for the others. The final stage is when you give up, falling away from the Faith because you cannot go on like that any longer. This is because you have created a devilish brick wall against which you have been knocking your head for so long that the alternative to giving up has for you become insanity. The strange thing is that those whom you criticized so mercilessly and arrogantly as bad Christians at the beginning will still be there. But you will not.
Good Zeal = Love of God: The Humility-Sociability-Encouragement-Discernment Cycle.
Good zeal, that is, the love of God, grows out of humility, the willingness to learn little by little from each and all. For the word humility comes from ‘humus’, the word for ground, for only those who are grounded are realists and you can only build on solid ground – never in the demon-haunted air. In order to learn, you must first admit that you know nothing, that you have come to learn, not to teach and preach, that you have an enormous amount to learn and that it will take a long, long time, that gradualism is vital, that books will help you little here, that you have to learn from other human-beings who have the one thing that you cannot get from books – whoever you are – experience. If you start running without first learning to walk, you will inevitably fall over (see above). So learn to walk before you run.
If you have humility, you will have the willingness to learn. And for that you must be sociable, talking to others, so that you can learn from them, asking them questions, ready to listen to them, obeying them and serving them. If you are sociable, mixing with others, you will not know of isolation and so the discouragement that comes from isolation, for you will find encouragement from others in any simple human contact. That is why monks and nuns live in community, not in isolation. After all, you are new, the others were there long before you and, moreover, they are still there. If you want to be like them, copy them because they have discernment, which is the ability to see the psychology that lies behind what people say and do. It is the opposite of spiritual blindness. And it is the key to survival, your survival.
After over forty years, I can write the above. They can be summed up by the following story that happened six years ago. An ex-Anglican priest in a jurisdiction of converts boasted to me that he had ‘made’ 200 ‘converts’ in 15 years. My reaction was to ask him how many had lapsed. He replied shamefacedly, ‘Nearly all of them’. I do wish that man had become Orthodox before he had been ordained. He was ill.