Even Ascetics Need Community

Even Ascetics Need Community


They said of an old man that he went on fasting for seventy weeks, eating a meal only once a week. He asked of God the meaning of a text of the Holy Scriptures and God did not reveal it to him. So he said to himself: “Here I am: I have worked so hard and profited nothing. I will go to my brother and ask him.” Just as he had shut his door on the way out, an angel of the Lord was sent to him; and the angel said: “The seventy weeks of your fast have not brought you near to God: but now you are humbled and going to your brother, I have been sent to show you the meaning of the text.” And he explained to him what he had asked, and went away. – “The Sayings of the Fathers,” in Western Asceticism (Chadwick)

As Orthodox, we rightfully honor our ascetics and hermits. We honor the way they “leave” the world in order to devote themselves to prayer, to learn to know God better, and to learn how to live a holy life. But, sometimes we talk about them in a way that appears to say that they are self-sufficient in their separation from the world.

But, when you read the Fathers, that is not the point they make. The first part of the story of the old man that I quoted at the beginning pictures an ascetic the way we often picture one. The old man apparently was doing everything correctly. He was eating once a week; he was praying; he was fasting; he was reading Scripture. He fasted for seventy weeks, which reminds one of the seventy weeks of Daniel.

From our point of view, he must have achieved great holiness during this time. From our point of view, he almost deserved an answer from God. After all, he wanted to know God’s Scriptures better. Does not God want us to know Scriptures? Did not Jesus speak of the importance of fasting and prayer as important to our life?

But, that is not what the Fathers say to us. The old man did not receive a visit from an angel until he knew that he had to go to his brother to ask for help. It was only when he recognized that he needed his brother that God was willing to answer him. Even the ascetic needs the Church.

I learn two things out of this story. The first is that I need the Church. I cannot be self-sufficient and be a Christian. I cannot simply say that I pray to God and read the Scriptures, so I do not need to go to Church and be with my brothers and sisters. Without my brothers and sisters, God will not bless me. It is only as part of the Body of Christ that I receive blessing.

But, the second thing I learn is that no Scripture can truly be correctly interpreted by me alone. I need my brothers and sisters if I am to understand Scripture correctly. It is only when Scripture is interpreted by the Body that God’s angel will be with us to guide us to the correct interpretation.

Finally, I learn that humility is necessary. It is not until I humble myself and submit myself to my brothers and sisters that I will truly learn from God. God dwells with the humble of heart. As Saint Paul says in Ephesians, we need to submit ourselves one to another that we may know what the true will of God is (Ephesians 5).

Posted by the Orthodox Christian Network.  You can find the Orthodox Christian Network on Google+.

About author

Fr. Ernesto Obregon

I am a Cuban. My sister and I arrived in the United States of America in 1961. I was nine years old at the time and my sister was five. Yes, alone. Our mother, a widow, put us on the plane in La Habana, and we were taken to an orphanage upon our arrival in Miami. No, I never lived in Miami for longer than about six months. Yes, we and our mother were re-united. She escaped from Cuba by boat about four or five months after we arrived in the USA. We were re-united and were sent by the Catholic Welfare folk to Ohio, where they had found my mother a job and us a foster home while she learned English and got situated. So, I grew up in Ohio, had a paper route, learned to build snowmen, and moved from place to place as out mother got better jobs. Eventually she met a good man and re-married and we settled into his house in Mansfield, Ohio. I was a 15-year-old teenager.

Needless to say, none of this was necessarily guaranteed to keep me strong in the faith, although my mother tried. I rebelled during my teenage years and left Roman Catholicism for some vague hippie philosophies and a lot of rebellion. By 1970 I had been expelled from college after my first year, a year in which I was very confused and quite directionless. When I returned to Mansfield in defeat, I was approached by a friend who had become a “Jesus Person.” He took me to this “farm” that was filled with about four middle-aged adults and lots of early 20′s Jesus People. One of those adults was a Southern Baptist pastor, a former Campus Crusade staffer, and uncomfortable supervisor of hippy Jesus People, and is now the Very Rev. Gordon Walker, an Archpriest of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese. His story, along with others whom I know, is chronicled in the book, “Becoming Orthodox” by the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist.

My journey was different. I eventually ended up as an Anglican priest, and a missionary. My wife and I served in both Bolivia and Perú, and our three intelligent and very perspicacious daughters spent a decade of their formative years in South America. I ended up as The Archdeacon of Arequipa of the Anglican Church of Perú, which is part of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone, which is part of the Anglican Communion.

We returned to the USA when our children began to attend college, and I took a parish in one of the dioceses of The Episcopal Church. Within less than four years, we realized that this was not a Church in which I could doctrinally live.

It was at this point that Fr. Gordon Walker came actively back into my life and told me that it was time that I came into Orthodoxy. He was right, and I have been Orthodox ever since. I was ordained in the Antiochian Orthodox jurisdiction, but am currently serving as an attached priest at a Greek Orthodox Church. God has blessed us. We have wonderful grandchildren. And we are truly blessed.