SOME THOUGHTS ON CONVERSION
“I have not been told why you are about to convert, but I assure you there is no point whatsoever if it is for negative reasons…” (From the Letter of Mother Thekla to a potential convert to Orthodoxy)
It has been remarked that there is nothing easier than to get an American to change his religion; or, perhaps, what is more likely the case, his denomination; or, within the Orthodox Church, his jurisdiction.
With each successive conversion from one faith to another, or hop from one jurisdiction to another, the desire is to move closer to something seemingly perfect, faultless – gold in the frontier. We pack up and move, leaving dusty towns and churches, friends and family to crumble.
We seek not so much because we are prompted by love, but rather by despondency; by distaste for our present environs, and by lust for we know not what.
As the desire to find the truth, or, more specifically, the right kind of people, painfully grows within us we still constantly fall into sin; but now we claim that the cause of our sin is the others who surround us. We see our brother’s faults as more numerous than the sands of the sea, and think that surely the fault is his – his fault makes me fall. We imagine ourselves to be Abel fleeing his fratricidal brother Cain, when it is actually quite the opposite. We are Cain, and we are caught in the act of washing our hands of responsibility for our brother Abel.
The search continues, until arriving at Orthodoxy we find the faith expressed with such a shocking degree of simplicity, and yet subtlety, that we are tempted to think that the Church is full of likewise beautifully simple, and yet wise and subtle people. People that will lift us up rather than bury us in the sands of their sins.
But our brother is just as much here in the Orthodox Church as he is anywhere else.
Cain asked the Lord, am I my brother’s keeper?
Yes, he is. As are we.
Coming to Orthodoxy in order to flee the responsibility for our brother, out of despising our brother, is a huge tragedy. Although not one that is irredeemable.
You will find that just like Cain who left his small town and founded the big city to drown out the voice of his brother’s blood crying from the ground, you will remain haunted; and perhaps you will find worse things at the end of your daring escape than those you had intended to flee in the beginning.
Perhaps the worst thing you will discover, worse than all of the sin, lies, and intrigue (keep in mind that the word Byzantine can also mean cunningly, and unnecessarily, complex), is that it is possible to have and protect correct teaching, and yet be completely estranged from God.
It is always possible for us to have a form of godliness while denying its power.
It is possible that the words of the Gospel fall on ears sealed air tight. Just as St. John the Baptist once told the Jews that God is capable of raising up children to Abraham from the stones (Mt. 3:8), it is also the case, as a friend of mine would often quip at seminary, that He is capable of raising up children to St. John Chrysostom, or St. Gregory the Theologian, or St Basil the Great. There is no merit in our claiming to be their descendants, unless we pick up our cross and follow Christ. This is the only way of seeking the highest things, of seeking that which is above. In bearing the cross we reject the temptation to dwell on, and obsess over the shortcomings of others, or to make our every decision based on how we detest others, and ourselves.
If you would be Orthodox – humble yourself; and remember that it’s a greater miracle to see your own sins than to raise the dead, and that to love our brother, even our enemy, is perhaps one of the only sure signs that we are pursuing the life in Christ.
St. Barsanuphius says it well:
“You call yourself a sinner, but in effect you show that you do not feel yourself to be one. A man, who admits himself to be a sinner and the cause of many evils, disagrees with no one, quarrels with no one, is not wroth with anyone but considers every man better and wiser than himself. If you are a sinner, why do you reproach your neighbor and accuse him of bringing afflictions upon you? It seems that you and I are as yet far from regarding ourselves as sinners. Look brother, how base we are: we speak with our lips only; our actions show something different. Why, when we oppose thoughts, do we not receive strength to repulse them?. Because, previously, we have surrendered to criticising our neighbor and this has weakened our spiritual strength. So we accuse our brother, being ourselves guilty. Put all your thoughts in the Lord, saying: God knows what is best, and you will be at peace and, little by little, will be given the strength to endure.”