So Jesus said to the Twelve, “Do you want to go away as well?” Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life…
by Fr. Andrew Phillips
The psychology of neophytes (recent or old) is universal because human nature is universal. To quote some real life examples, regardless of whether we are talking about a Protestant who has become a Roman Catholic, a Roman Catholic who has become a Protestant, a Frenchman who has become a Buddhist, an Englishman who has become a Muslim, or a German who has joined the Orthodox Church, neophyte idealism remains the same.
Yes, idealism, and often the bookish sort, because that is what we are dealing with when we deal with neophytes. Neophytes always want to live the ideal, the convert to Roman Catholicism wants to become a Papist now, the convert to Protestantism wants to know the whole Bible by heart by this evening, the convert to Buddhism wants nirvana straightaway, the convert to Islam wants to become a Sufi mystic today, the convert to Orthodoxy reads the Philokalia and wants to become a hesychast just like that.
But it does not work like that. The error of all neophytes is that they want to run before they can walk. By definition that means that they fall over. And when you fall over, you hurt yourself. And when you hurt yourself, you can do one of two things: you can pick yourself up and tell yourself, ‘I have been humbled, now I will listen to voices of experience and like everyone else will first learn to walk before I try to run, all the more so as no-one ever asked me to run, I imposed it on myself’; or you can pick yourself up and walk away in the bitter depression and despair born of pride, giving up the struggle for self-improvement.
This is called lapsing and that is extremely common among neophytes and is always caused by pride, lack of faith. I remember an elderly nun who had been in her convent for fifty years who would say:
‘I may not be a very good nun and certainly I am no saint, but I have seen them all come and go, one after the other, but at least I am still here’.
And ‘still being here’ is what salvation is in part about because we cannot be saved without perseverance, which is faith, hope in God’s Providence.
To change deep down takes years. We cannot become saints just like that, as some converts think when they take some out-of-context quotes from the Church Fathers and contemporary saints to justify their pride. That is why God gives us a lifetime to live and we are to make use of every moment in that lifetime, for we do not know how soon that lifetime will end. However, we have to be realistic, we do not impose impossible burdens on ourselves of our own proud will, but measuring ourselves and ask the experienced first before taking on anything. We take on ourselves what God gives us and no more. To be idealistic in everything means to suffer from the pride of illusions and he who suffers from illusions always suffers from disillusions – that is from depression. In other words, depression comes from pride.
Over the decades we have seen many cases. The first error of the neophyte is to confuse the outward with the inward. For example, we have seen the neophyte join the Church and, though he or she is married, they have started dressing like monks or nuns. Such individuals, sometimes with anger and aggression, then despair because reality does not conform to their high ideals. Such rarely remain in the Church for long, either they lapse or else they end up in sects, which are only the exit-doors from the Church. When neophytes do remain, they start dressing normally like everyone else.
Another example is with birth control. Realizing that the ideal of the Church is no birth control, we have seen intellectual and idealistic neophytes have large numbers of children – whom they do not know how to bring up and as a result fall into depression. Common sense (though not idealism) tells us there are cases where we have to choose the lesser evil. There are non-abortive methods of contraception, compromises with the ideal, but they do allow us to bring up some children properly, children who then stay in the Church.
Some would say that they will live without contraception, and so they simply do not have sexual relations. However, we have also seen the result of such decisions in the wrecks of two marriages, where one woman sought comfort with another man because her husband refused her the affection that she so desperately craved, and where one man went off with his secretary. Contraception: we do not bless it, but we allow it as the lesser evil.
In the average parish let us first have the humility to follow average Orthodox. We certainly venerate the saints, but we are not saints and we have no pretensions that we are or will become saints. Yes, we are climbing a ladder to heaven, but we are only on the first rung and at the end of our lives we may only get to the second rung. We do not imagine anything else.
Yes, we are not good Orthodox, but what we do know is that we are doing our best. That is not very much, but our hope is anyway not in our own feeble efforts, but in the mercy of God, which alone can save us. Average people are the people to imitate first. Let us recall the words of the Gospel:
‘In your patience you possess your souls’.