The Ascetic Imperative – A Matter of Communion

Among the more interesting experiences in my life was the two years spent in a Christian commune. It was not West Coast fancy, much less connected to anything historic such as the Bruderhof. It started with two very zealous Jesus freaks (myself and a friend), an apartment, and something of a necessity thrust on us by accident. The accident was a housefire where two other young Christian friends were living. The fire claimed the life of one and left the other injured as he jumped from a window to survive. We took him in (first, as something like a border). Somewhere, in the course of prayer, we decided to live communally. At the time, immersed in the daily study of Scripture, it seemed the most obvious way to live.

I was working 40 hours a week in various jobs (they seemed to come and go – well, actually, I got fired more than once, but that’s another story). My friend was working part-time and doing college courses the rest of the time. Turning my money over for the common good simplified my life.

The communal life didn’t stop at money. We began to explore what it meant to share a common life. Our questions were framed in the only language we knew: what does the Bible say? The questions and answers of that dialog were informative. With those questions in mind, we became aware of a steady stream of admonitions in the New Testament urging believers towards a life of asceticism. Fasting, vigils (praying through the whole of a night), sacrificial giving, radical forgiveness are all considered commonplace and normative. We had no tradition to draw on, and thus we practiced such things without guidance. We learned many things the hard way. There is now a long string of decades that separate me from those fervent years.

No one told us to do the things we did, and no one told us to read the Scriptures in the manner we undertook. What we did was to read the Scriptures with the question in mind, “What should we do?” That stands in stark contrast to the typical question, “What should we believe?” Had our study been primarily directed to matters of doctrine, I think we would have lost our way. Strangely, our instincts were correct.

The teachings of Christ are not, primarily, metaphysical pronouncements about the nature of things. Instead, they are commandments regarding what we should do – based on who God is. “Love your enemies – because God is kind to both the good and the evil.” This pattern holds throughout Christ’s teachings. It is a directive that intends to shape our lives such that our lives themselves become a “living theology,” a revelation of the nature of God made known in the shape of our actions.

In our secularized world, most people behave in the same way: as consumers bound by the passions and commands of their economic masters. The “good life” is described in terms of money and pleasure. If you have enough of both, then you are living the “good life.”

I can see, in hindsight, that many of the things of my youthful fervency were less than perfect. We had no ear for holy tradition and the experience of the Church through the ages. Nonetheless, we were struggling to become deaf to the demands of the culture. There is a gap in my culture memory, for instance. My awareness of popular music stops with the year 1971 (the year that we began the commune). I simply quit listening. I’ve never re-entered that marketplace. I’m not interested.

I could wish that this same deafness extended to much else (news cycles, etc.). With those things, I struggle as much as others.

St. Paul wrote to the Corinthians saying:

You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart.” (3:2-3)

If we do not “become the Scriptures,” then reading them will have been in vain.

Christ says the same thing in a different manner:

If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (John 15:10)

In this saying, Christ reveals that the keeping of His commandments is a means of communion. It is not a legal or moral matter. Rather, keeping His commandments is a means of embodying Christ Himself. This is theosis in its most immediate form.

Understanding the commandments and the discipline of putting them into practice is a matter of communion

For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what communion has light with darkness? What accord has Christ with Belial? Or what portion does a believer share with an unbeliever? What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said,

“I will make my dwelling among them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore go out from their midst, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be sons and daughters to me, says the Lord Almighty.”(2 Cor. 6:14–18)

God “walks among us” as we walk “in His commandments.”

This last passage also points to the contradiction that such a practice brings about with the secularized world. Living in the world, we often fail to see that our lives are always an act of communion. To live mindlessly in this culture is inevitably an act of “channeling” the culture, of living as an expression of the culture in human form. We shop because the culture shops. We “care about stuff” because the culture “cares.” We worry because the culture worries. We weep when it weeps and become angry as it rages. We unconsciously live as “epistles” of the culture (the Scriptures would name it as “Mammon”) even as the culture whispers to us that these are our own thoughts. We imagine ourselves to be willing individuals, centers of consciousness defined by our choices. In point of fact, we are often little more than mouthpieces of the culture-mind, our “consciousness” created elsewhere and marketed to us. If you feel no tension with the culture around you, then you have been swallowed alive and are being digested.

There is an ascetic imperative, an utter necessity to enter into the struggle that is Christ’s own struggle. We fast because Christ in us fasts. We pray because Christ in us prays. We forgive because Christ in us forgives. We love because Christ in us loves. We give because Christ in us gives. Such a life is a sign of contradiction, a repudiation of the world’s claims to be “normal” or “just the way things are.” The life of Christ is the true life of the world, the purpose of all things.

People came to Christ with this question: “What must we do to be saved?” Ultimately, the answer is, “Do Christ.” We walk in Him and He walks in us. This is the ascetic imperative. This is the crucified life of grace, the salvation of the world.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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109 responses to “The Ascetic Imperative – A Matter of Communion”

  1. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Dee,

    I’m not negating at all, in any way, that doing becomes knowledge, that obedience is better than sacrifice or arm-chair theologizing. I’m just saying, what are the blocks in our imagination that prevent us from tackling/embracing asceticism. I happen to believe it’s because we don’t have the right imagination, and that to the extent we live in a parish (or with a Gospel) that does have the right imagination and supports it familially, we will benefit. Others will not like it and see it as extreme perhaps. But the benefits will outweigh the cons.

    Back to other discussions, if the world looked at us as nuts because we keep what seems like an impossible sexual ethic, alongside an impossible ascetical ideal, how judgmental will we look? We will look crazy, which is what Scripture actually says will happen – and we will bring out the stench of death in others. Our myrrh will contrast with the stench of corpses. I was listening to the story of how Febreze got going in the book, The Power of Habits. Originally it had no scent, it just masked odors. It was marketed originally to people who had odor problems. Stories about people working with animals where no one could get a date or have company over due to the stink, and this saved their relationship in some cases, masking/removing the odor. But they couldn’t get the product off the ground for the simple reason – and Proctor and Gamble almost threw in the towel on the product altogether that now makes over $1 billion/year – that stinky people were used to being stinky. Not easy marketing to tell people who don’t know they stink that they do. But they remarketed with fragrance and the ads now show people relaxing with a glass of wine right after they Febreze their couch, a reward for cleaning your house, and reward really sold the thing.

    I guess my point is, I think this is what Paul is getting at partially. We are supposed to carry the fragrance of Christ, and if we do, we bring out a contrast that wasn’t known before. It’s not a comfortable experience realizing you stink. But, necessary to bringing this fragrance and evidencing for others their stink, is the logic of sin and death. In a lot of ways, everything that does stink in the world, a lot anyway, is death. Same logic with Paul. But to contrast with death, we have to live anti-death lives, and this is the ascetical way in hope of New Life with Christ on the New Earth for the New Age, Ages to Ages. Humility goes with true asceticism and without it is more totalitarian. All ascetical endeavors, the entire Law, the new Law of the Spirit of Life, make for humility.

    I feel certain that the counter to the stink of this death world is living the reversal, as if the recapitulation has already fully taken place, or at least that it is here in part. And the response will be repulsion among the perishing/dying, but it’s because death was all they, and we before Christ, ever knew.

    There’s my short answer if I could have condensed it sooner, but honestly, I don’t know that I could have without thinking all of this out beforehand. But usually after these conversations, I have newer, condensed explanations, and this I appreciate, so thank you for interacting. Sorry about the name, if you don’t mind, I’ll just put Dee unless you tell me otherwise.

    As to dogma, what I mean basically is that right worship can’t exist with false dogma, or else you worship falsehoods. And you can’t have right dogma without right worship as Who is being worshipped reveals Himself in the worship, but also, God reveals to us how He is to be worshipped, and this too informs dogma. Goes both ways. God is not worshipped if He is the Deist’s god for example, A liturgy for the Deist god would look much different.

    Thanks,
    Matthew Lyon

  2. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Corrections/One other comment…

    meant to say, *not up for doing this

    meant to say, I need *no comments on apologetics (I know arguments don’t make someone Christian)

    meant to say, I will fast without compulsion and *instead of basically keeping Kosher

    Most every Evangelical or Reformed person would agree with *those

    I realize that I loosely quote a ton of Bible in these posts and don’t know if that is obvious or if I should put chapter and verses.

  3. Mark Spurlock Avatar
    Mark Spurlock

    Matthew,

    From my perspective, you and I have not been arguing at all. You earlier said…

    “I admit that I have yet to figure out how to state what we believe in a quicker way .”

    And a couple of specific questions you mentioned you often encountered were about fasting and the length of services. I tried to suggest, therefore, some short (and for many audiences, sufficient) answers to those.

    We definitely have not been arguing about engaging with those who ask sincere questions 🙂

  4. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Mark,

    I agree, I didn’t mean arguing with each other but out of a persuasion. Thanks for hanging in there with me! I enjoy the interaction and stimulation. Have a good day brother (we can still say brother as Orthodox right?) :).

    Matthew

  5. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Matthew,
    Your comment is simply so long that I lost interest before I could finish it. The first of your two long comments is nearly 2800 words. I try to keep my posts to under 1500 words, preferably 1200. But 2800 is too long. I’m going to suggest that you try to say one thing (and one thing only) in a comment, rather than saying everything. It’s a discipline, like fasting. If your comments are too long (as in over 800 words), I will delete them. That’s a discipline, too. But I have to serve readers. The comments are a worthwhile engagement – but if they’re too long – some people tune out and leave.
    I’m quite sorry, but I have to start moderating this.

  6. Matthew Lyon Avatar
    Matthew Lyon

    Fr. Freeman,

    I understand and don’t blame you. No apologies needed.

    Thanks,
    Matthew

  7. Dee of St Herman Avatar
    Dee of St Herman

    Father,
    I just listened to Fr. Roman Braga’s talk last night. Thank you so much for sharing it. Very edifying. I’m going to listen to it a few more times!

  8. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dee, et al
    It is a profoundly wonderful talk. I do not wish to traumatize anyone. But if you want to put Fr. Roman’s talk (and life witness) in context, read this short article on the Pitesti Prison in Communist Romania. Bear it in mind as you hear him speak – and marvel at the triumph of Christ.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pite%C8%99ti_Prison#:~:text=Ierunca%20further%20states%20that%20the,to%20eat%20their%20own%20vomit.

  9. Janine Avatar
    Janine

    I believe I put this comment on the wrong post. So I will simply copy and paste here:
    Father, thanks so much for the link to Fr Roman Braga’s talk. I have read some of his writing, but this has made something clear to me that is a deep answer right now. More on this later, I think. But I believe it addresses an effect of toxic shame. Shame is so isolating, and it induces a chronic loneliness, especially when it is used as a deliberate tool. Fr. Braga speaks of God always being close, always with us, a living communion. This is a powerfully loving and healing remedy for the isolation of toxic shame.

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