By Jackie Morfesis
We often hear the terms “cradle Orthodox” and “convert” as distinctions between those who are deemed to have been born into the faith and those who willingly and consciously choose to be Orthodox Christians. For many years, I too, fell into this quagmire of confusion, even in many ways, a submersion of thinking without an opportunity for real reflection. I have finally come to terms with what it means to me as an Orthodox Christian and what it may mean for others.
I, too, have had meaningful, even life-changing encounters with converts to the faith. In particular, my experiences with Father Thomas Hopko, memory eternal, both in person and in his writings. He was truly a man of incredible passion for the Lord and his gifts were used in service to the Lord, especially his knowledge, wisdom, and intellectual understanding. I often refer to the spiritual retreat that I attended at St. Vladimir’s Seminary in New York led by Father Hopko, “Sin: Primordial, Generational, and Personal” which taught me about the nature of sin. A great and anointed speaker and teacher plants seeds in our hearts that take hold and grow for years to come, not only fortifying us but allowing us to share the fruits of our growth with others.
I will always be grateful that the Orthodox Church attracts converts for they enliven, embolden, and enrich our parishes in ways that are beneficial for all. Not only pastors but parishioners who convert to the faith are a testament to God moving in our lives, speaking to our souls, and drawing us near. However, we must also be careful of making blanket statements and assumptions, false ones, about what it means to be a cradle Orthodox and/or a convert.
We like to use the language of “born into the Church”. Actually, no one is born into the church. We are all born the same. We are all born unbaptized. We are all born not receiving the Holy Spirit until our baptism. We are born into a world that is fallen, broken, and in need of personal repentance, God’s forgiveness, redemption, and salvation.
There are those who are blessed with families that guide them, educate them, and take them lovingly into the fold of their churches. There are families that baptize their children, bringing them into the church. But there are families and parents who make the decision not to. There are families that may follow other Christian denominations. There are families who follow no faith path or a different faith path. There is a myriad of possibilities.
If someone chooses to become Orthodox, to become a convert, that is certainly a very personal choice. We see this as a personal choice. But let us be clear and realize that every single day we walk with Christ, it is because we were invited. We were called. We were called to be His disciple. Called to share the Good News. Called to be His ambassador serving in His kingdom on earth. Called to pray for others and lay hands and heal in His name.
Being called and being invited means that every single day we now choose to wake up and put our lives in God’s hands, trusting in Him, in His protection, providence, and guidance. We choose to follow His commandments. We choose to do our best to live lives worthy of sanctification.
My point? Regardless of when we come to be Orthodox Christian, we are only Orthodox Christian in name unless we consciously every single day, choose to follow Him, to be a Child of God, a disciple of Christ, and ambassador in His kingdom.
It doesn’t matter how many books we read on Orthodox Christianity. How many services we attend, how many times we serve at the altar, how involved or uninvolved we are with the activities of our church, how many lectures, retreats, seminars, or courses we take on learning about the faith, if we do not take all of our studies, all of our learnings, all of our intellectual discourse, and move it to the place where it belongs: in our hearts.
This is where we meet our God. This is where we develop intimacy with our Lord. This is where we deepen our faith walk. This is where we make a choice every single day to give our lives to Christ, to belong to Him, to walk with Him, to adore Him, and to love Him, not only because we identify as Orthodox Christians, but because we truly are Orthodox Christians.
Let’s stop arguing about the benefits and blessings of being a “cradle Orthodox” and/or a convert to Orthodoxy. Let’s realize that until our last breath our God is waiting for every single one of us to surrender our lives, repent, ask for forgiveness, and receive redemption and salvation. The thief on the cross came to this realization at the eleventh hour and was told he would be with the Lord in eternity.
What does it serve us to be either a cradle Orthodox or convert to the faith if it is half-hearted? If we pride ourselves in our newfound knowledge or lifelong familiarity with the church and her customs if we do not put into action God’s Holy Word and strive to live God’s Holy Word? What does it serve us to pride ourselves in being Orthodox Christian if we see it as a cultural or social construct and do not open ourselves to a personal relationship with Jesus? If we celebrate at our festivals, enjoy our music, food, and dance, but do not dive deeper into what it means to be Orthodox? If we attend Holy Week services because it’s the time of year to show up and be a part of a holiday, much like attending a Christmas party, but not because we want to truly walk with our Lord in His Passion? Or if we feel so accomplished because we are a convert but fail to be God’s hands and feet to His children in the world and instead are enamored with the beauty of our churches, the majesty of our traditions, the holiness of our liturgies, and the legacy of faith that we have now joined?
At the final judgment, we will not be asked if we were cradle Orthodox or convert. We will not be asked how many books we read or how many degrees we have obtained. We will be asked according to scripture if we knew God and served Him in the faces of those who suffered. If we followed His commandments proving our love. We also know that the words that we will long to hear as told to us in scripture are: “Well done my good and faithful servant.” Not, “Well done my good and faithful cradle Orthodox or convert”.