Conversion to the True and Living God

nikolai_bruni-candle_bearer_in_a_convent_1891I grew up in a culture where religious conversion was frequent as well as often short-lived. Religiously, the only remedy to many of the ills of life was conversion. On the face of things I could hardly argue with that now. However, the deeper problem within that particular religious culture was a very truncated view of conversion. For many, conversion was accompanied by emotion (it should be truly “heart-felt”) as well as decision. But the only action that accompanied conversion was frequently a “rededication” of one’s life to Christ. The heart of Southern evangelicalism, at the time, was to “bring people to Christ,” though that phenomenon was defined in a very narrow manner. Thus I watched numerous individuals who needed much longer and deeper “conversions” fall short and frequently “fall away.”

Today’s religious culture is far more diverse though not necessarily for the better. The range of definition of “the spiritual life” can run anywhere from “successful living” to sainthood (and this is only a description within American Christianity). Conversion today can frequently mean a “change of membership” though conversion is not usually associated with changing churches within Protestant Christianity. Americans frequently “shop” for Church as much as they shop for everything else. Recent sociological studies have shown this to be an almost dominant component of our modern religious landscape. Market forces not only drive our economy but often our ecclesiology as well.

Thus the problem of true conversion becomes yet more complicated – even if only by the plurality of strange voices. I am an Orthodox Christian and I believe that the truth of the Christian faith has not altered since its inception. It has not and cannot alter because it is nothing other than the living communion of God and man in Christ. The difficulty of conversion is to find one’s way through the multitude of voices to hear the one true voice of God.

And this carries us to our own heart. I have had many conversations with those whom I would describe as “religious seekers.” Sometimes the largest question in their mind is one brought on by the many voices they hear. How to choose? How to decide? Having been formed and shaped as a consumer, only a consumer’s heart is left when it is God we seek to find – and God cannot be bought – He is not and never will be a commodity.

Thus, even conversion to the Orthodox faith is not an immediate answer to the question of true conversion – particularly if it is simply a choice among choices – a consumer’s decision based on comparision shopping. For true conversion is also a matter of our true heart and not the heart of a consumer – which is a creation of the delusions of this age.

In a strange, semi-prophetic passage in the Epilogue of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the author describes the dreams of Raskolnikov as he lay sick and in prison:

In his illness he dreamed that the whole word was doomed to fall victim to some terrible, as yet unknown and unseen pestilence spreading to Europe from the depths of Asia. Everyone was to perish, except for certain, very few, chosen ones. Some new trichinae had appeared, microscopic creatures that lodged themselves in men’s bodies. But these creatures were spirits, endowed with reason and will. Those who received them into themselves immediately became possessed and mad. But never, never had people considered themselves so intelligent and unshakeable in the truth as did these infected ones. Never had they thought their judgements, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions and beliefs more unshakeable. Entire settlements, entire cities and nations would be infected and go mad. Everyone became anxious, and no one understood anyone else; each thought the truth was contained in himself alone, and suffered looking at others, beat his breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good. They did not know whom to accuse, whom to vindicate….In the cities the bells rang all day long: everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why, and everyone felt anxious…

It is a strange delirium, one we have seen fulfilled in various ways. “Everyone was being summoned, but no one knew who was summoning them or why…” So here is the crux of the matter – reaching our own true heart. I believe this is a great gift of grace, particularly in a confused and confusing world. Apart from such grace knowledge of our heart would be likely impossible.

But, by God’s grace, having found that true heart, one must not take it lightly. Obedience to the heart in grace is important and a matter of daily struggle. We are commanded to take up the cross and follow Christ, and there may certainly be a moment at which we first obeyed that commandment – but that moment is only a beginning of conversion, the first step on a lifetime’s road of repentance. Golgotha ends in a tomb and then the resurrection. Taking up that Cross daily is also a matter of remaining faithful to one’s true heart, despite all the noise and confusion about us. It is steadfastness and courage as well as a simple tenacity. For the madness of the world is real though we are all called to be among the “few.” Being obedient to one’s true heart is a faithful obedience to Christ who is our own true heart.

I stated earlier that conversion to the Orthodox faith was not an immediate answer to question of true conversion. This is not the fault of the Orthodox faith but the fault of our heart as we approach this treasure God has preserved for us. Once having kissed the Gospel and the Cross, we then have to daily press forward, not trusting in the Church as though it were only another institution to which we have attached ourselves, but trusting in God who is our sure hope and the constant life of the Church in which we live.

The daily pressure of our world is to silence the truth of our heart and turn us again to our consumer mentality. Thus each day we say “no” that we may truly say “yes.”

20 Responses to “Conversion to the True and Living God”

  1. Robert F. Says:

    Fr. Stephen,

    “The daily pressure of our world is to silence the truth of our heart and turn us again to our consumer mentality.”

    Father how can we recognize this consumer mentality, without becoming critical or negative? It is in our nature to consume after all. Where to start, and how to remain untouched? Also, what advise would you give teens and pre-teens in this regard?

  2. Conversion to Christianity at Freedom of religion in India Says:

    […] Conversion to the True and Living God « Glory to God for All Things […]

  3. Stephen C. Says:

    When I think of various conversion experiences and the inevitable centrality of “the penitent’s prayer” in them, this short section from Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying Comes to Mind:

    “One day I was talking to Cora. She prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too.”

  4. Mary Says:

    “They did not know whom or how to judge, could not agree on what to regard as evil, what as good.”

    This is so very, very true in our society today.

    “I stated earlier that conversion to the Orthodox faith was not an immediate answer to question of true conversion. This is not the fault of the Orthodox faith but the fault of our heart as we approach this treasure God has preserved for us. Once having kissed the Gospel and the Cross, we then have to daily press forward, not trusting in the Church as though it were only another institution to which we have attached ourselves, but trusting in God who is our sure hope and the constant life of the Church in which we live.”

    Thank you, Father Stephen.

  5. zoe Says:

    Amen and thank you. What is worst is when people (including myself) had identified themselves with sin as if the person and the sin are one and the same. This can be illustrated by the words that people usually say to justify the wrong or sinful acts, “I am born or made this way” or “I cannot help how I feel or how I think”. I’m beginning to understand that we are all made in the image of God and sin is something that we can say “no” to and not something that we must accept as part of our being or person.

    Thank you for another thought provoking post.

  6. fatherstephen Says:

    Robert,

    I think that nothing brings this mentality into the Light as well as well-grounded and guided Christian asceticism. Asceticism is inherently resistant to consumerism (and is thus rather hard for us). Of course, there are all kinds of problems that begin to surface in the practice of asceticism itself – such as a tendency to legalism or a disdain for the flesh, etc., which is why it needs to be guided. It is helpful, I observe as an Orthodox Christian, that the general parameters for such efforts are set by the Church and Tradition and not by me (which immediately takes one element of consumerism away). There is, finally, no substitute for the life of the Church. If we live and abide in the mystery of the Church, these things will, in time, become clear and take their proper places.

  7. Terry M Says:

    Thank you, Father Stephen, for this helpful piece. And thanks also to you, Zoe, for a very thoughtful comment.

    Terry

  8. isaac8 Says:

    This ties in with David Bentley Hart’s essay “Christ and Nothing,” in which he argues that a post-Christian nihilism (meaning here not hopelessness but rather the lack of any meta-narratives) dominates our culture and the choice of the individual is the real god most of us follow. The importance is in having made a choice now far more than the thing chosen. I can’t help but think a nation of mere consumers is not far removed from C.S. Lewis’s vision of “men without chests.”

  9. fatherstephen Says:

    Indeed. Hart is a very astute observer, always. Lewis’ Abolition of Man (the source of “men without chests”) is a touchstone for me in many ways. It is the ability of consumerism to literally “consume” us that strikes me. I have known elder citizens, no longer able to “shop,” who have become addicted to the “shopping channels” on television, buying mounds of interesting items, none of which will ever be used. It’s as if we’ll drown in our own consumption. A tragic image in the light of poverty in so much of the world – though I would not wish our consumerism on others.

  10. Michael Bauman Says:

    Robert sates, “..it is in our nature to consume…” Our fallen nature. One of the first commandments God give us is to dress and keep the earth, to bring it to fruition. Consumerism is a form of gluttony an abandoment of our real nature and purpose.

  11. Robert F. Says:

    Michael,

    I would classify “consumerism” as an expression of the flesh, the passions, our fallen nature.

    However, there is no denying we are consumers, and I am sure this altogether not part of the passions. Unless, of course, you have invented something we all should know about! 🙂

  12. fatherstephen Says:

    We all have to eat, I would agree. But there are ways of eating (and consuming) that are not “passion” driven. We are not beasts. Asceticism and the work of grace make this real for us (slowly).

  13. fatherstephen Says:

    I agree with Michael. We obviously consume, but we don’t consume as we were created to. Only prayer and fasting will reveal this to us.

  14. Robert F. Says:

    Consumption is precisely for me where the “rubber hits road” – to be in the world and not be part of it. Difficult. With 4 kids in our home (ages 8 ~ 14) it is a particular challenge, a daily struggle. My concern is that attending church is not cutting the mustard (only get one shot at this). “Live and abide in the mystery of the Church” – good advise, but I am not sure how this translates. But God is good and merciful, He will guide.

  15. fatherstephen Says:

    Robert,

    I’ve got 4 although my youngest is 18. In hindsight, it’s clear that children aren’t monks, and their asceticism is very unlike that of adults. Lord knows it’s a matter of daily struggle and prayer. But, in hindsight, I can see that the struggle, with gentleness and love, was worth it. My family is probably not at all normal. But my 2 oldest girls, by the grace of God are married to Orthodox priests. At least I can say that growing up in the household of a priest did not make them afraid to be married to one. I credit this to the grace of God and the Godly example of my wife, and despite my own sins.

    My son expresses no interest in priesthood (he’s into computers) but he is devout in his faith. My youngest is deeply committed to her faith as well. I know that their involvement in Orhtodos youth retreats and summer camps were important as well.

    All those things added together are ways of saying that the daily struggle is met on every front. Keeping an Orthodox home – with prayer, church, feast and fast seasons – complete with arguments, negotiation, victories and setbacks all work together. In the marriage service it says, “The prayers of parents are the foundation of a home.” Nothing could be more true. I continue to think it is a primary duty to pray for my children and their homes and believe that our parental prayers are a foundation. I know that my in-laws prayers were and are a foundation for my home – though they were not Orthodox. I believe that I am Orthodox to a large extent because of their prayers – because God is good. As my interests moved towards Orthodoxy, my wife was always ahead of me. She had and has a fine honed sense of the truth and a fearless faith that is willing to obey. Thus I know I am blessed well beyond my own faith. Why such kindness should have been given to me, I can only credit to the kindness of God.

    But I know that the daily struggle, monotonous on occasion, is worthwhile – eternally.

  16. Robert F. Says:

    Thank you for those encouraging words. It is overwhelming at times, with the apparent non- stop barage from our popular culture. You are truly blessed, how fulfilled you must be for and because of your children. This is our true desire for our children: the legacy of a living faith. I can think of no other thing as important as that, neither wealth or status. Everything else pales by comparison. “What profits a man if he gains the whole world but loses his soul?” Conversion to the True and Living God – this sums up the aim of our existence. Thank you Father Stephen. Now on to my prayer closet 🙂

  17. fatherstephen Says:

    I will add to those thoughts that before we became Orthodox, no matter how we tried, there was nothing to offer our children within the life of the Church to which we belonged other than a pervasive error and an enthronement of the culture. We had no guarantees about our children when we converted (the oldest was 17 at the time – the youngest was 6). But in terms of the lives of our children, I can only say that we waited dangerously late in their lives and were met with the mercies of God. We had begun sending the older children to Orthodox retreats and camps at least 4 years before we converted, and kept Orthodox prayers and fasting, etc., in our home. The kindness of God and His mercies are beyond anything I could have asked. Again, I seriously credit my wife with her role in keeping a devout home. God delights in doing good for us. His mercy endures forever.

  18. Meskerem Says:

    Robert F. ,Having 2 kids myself, it is difficult to stay away from the consumerism and the environment they are being raised in. If they do not see it at home they will still see it around them since they are mostly outside their home.
    Even to teach them the Orthodox discipline and rules and make them understand is difficult. They are good in prayers but fasting was the hardest to teach them. I agree with father here in introducing them as much as possible in Summer camps and youth retreats. The first time they went to summer camp they came back so different, would not talk much, understood the discipline of fasting, (they went during the apostle fast). One time my son told me (my oldest), “you know I do not want to turn my music in my car after attending Vespers”. I think this is a huge blessing for me to hear this.
    The most important is the youth retreats being with kids of the same Faith like them is a huge plus as they are left out there with all kinds of things that we see now. They will have so many questions answered in these groups as well, where we parents cannot fill in sometimes.

    Christ is risen!

  19. Karen Says:

    Dear Father, bless!

    Being the only Orthodox in my home, with a middle schooler and special needs nine-year-old and a husband who loves Christ but has been seriously wounded by legalism in his past (so it is difficult to keep Orthodox asceticism in its proper perspective), this has been a tricky path to negotiate. I have a propensity to anxiety and so I do worry about the spiritual formation of my children. It does come down to prayer. My son exemplifies in many ways the typical American kid. My husband and I joke that he is a marketer’s dream! Everything he sees he wants–and the most souped up and expensive model! (Needless to say, his wants are most often deferred!) On the other hand, there are some encouraging signs. Sunday school and school staff alike have on several occasions spontaneously volunteered how impressed they are with my son’s respect for authority and his peers and what a great kid he is. He won the award for good sportsmanship two years in a row his last two years playing ball with park district leagues. Then just the other day, my husband was recounting the details of a serous truck accident he had heard about where the driver averted crashing into other cars (with a load of steel coils) by crashing into a concrete and steel bridge support. (Miraculously, he walked away with only a scratch on his arm, and no one else was injured, though his load was all over the road and his cab was completely mangled!) My son grew serious and thoughtful and then said, “If I were a truck driver and my only choices were to crash into something and kill myself or crash into a bunch of people and kill them, I would kill myself.” I took great encouragement from that–the Holy Spirit has ways of getting through, despite imperfect circumstances and our own failings as parents. My son’s school is also named after a young graduate who became a soldier and died by falling onto a grenade to save the other members of his troop. I’m sure that knowledge has also helped to feed this perspective–at least on a subconscious level.

  20. Robert F. Says:

    Thank you Meskerem and Karen for your sharing your stories.

    Our kids are scheduled to attend summer camp this summer. Our oldest came back from winter camp and was, like your kids Meskerem, a changed person.

    Because this is so important to my wife and I, and seeing all the bad stuff going on (even in the Church!), we tend to fall prey to anxiety at times.

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