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VIRTUE 1 SIMPLICITY
Encountering the Eternal
Occupy thyself with few things, says the philosopher, if thou wouldst be tranquil. ... For the greatest part of what we say and do being unnecessary, if a man takes this away, he will have more leisure and less uneasiness. Accordingly, on every occasion a man should ask himself, is this one of the unnecessary things? Now, a man should take away not only unnecessary acts, but also unnecessary thoughts, for thus superfluous acts will not follow after.
— Roman philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius MEDITATIONS, BOOK IV, 24
Simplicity is a goal people universally have sought across time, but this urge has intensified as human society has become more complex, more industrial, more technological, and much more impersonal. There must be more spiritual abundance in life, if only we could slow our pace and teach ourselves to get along with less materially. This theme resonates in the desert. The ancient parchments known as the Dead Sea Scrolls — perhaps more accurately labeled the Secret Scrolls — contain a terse admonition: Embrace the wilderness; hold to your bosom the desert experiences of your life. Keep them close to you. Learn from them. It is a deep and recondite irony; for only in the experience of lack do we learn the secret of abundance.
The Secret Scrolls recount the shadowy beginnings of an ancient Judean sect who abandoned urban life to find a way in the wilderness sometime in the second century before the Common Era. They acknowledge the wilderness as a place of exile, but nonetheless a place of refuge for the weary, wayward soul. In symbolic, mystical language, we are told that a group of faithful Israelites have, by supernatural agency, been led out of one of the greatest cities in the world, Jerusalem, and into a desert of their own choosing. The Almighty thunders the following prophecy:
I will send the shrine of your king into exile, along with the pedestals of your statues. I will send them away from My tent. ...
— DAMASCUS RULE, COL. 7:14-15
For some reason yet unknown to us, the ancient writers of the scrolls went into exile, leaving the bustling capital of ancient Judea. The Dead Sea Scrolls — the Secret Scrolls — depict something new and fresh being born from exile, as fruit of the desert, as a "fountain of living waters." When you find yourself in a desert, real or metaphorical, do not shrink from the experience. Ask what you are supposed to learn, and then seek to apply every lesson with relentless consistency. The desert is a great teacher. The only way to survive the desert is to discover the lessons it teaches — to find the "fountain of living waters." Those who fail to find it, perhaps because they fail to look, are doomed to melt in the grip of the searing heat. A Dead Sea rule book admonishes:
All those who have become a part of the New Covenant in the land of Damascus — but have turned aside from it, betrayed it, and abandoned the fountain of living waters — will never be accepted in the Council of the People. They will never be inscribed in their sacred book....
They are like those who have melted in the fiery furnace....
— DAMASCUS RULE, CD-B, COL. 19:33–35; 20:3
A Land of Contrasts
Standing at the shore of the great sea of salt, you feel the blaze of the desert furnace. You are transported to a distant time; the present vanishes in the shimmering heat. Your very identity is blurred, absorbed among the members of a long-lost fraternal order. You imagine that you are one of them, heeding the call found in one of the faded, crumbling scrolls:
The sons of Levi, the sons of Judah, and the sons of Benjamin — the exiles of the desert — will go out to war against their enemies. They will battle against all their cohorts, when the exiled Sons of Light return from the Desert of the Peoples and camp in the Desert of Jerusalem. ...
— WAR RULE, COL. 1:2-3
You have come to a "Jerusalem" of sorts, not the physical city of Jerusalem, a city you have abandoned, but a spiritual community — the "desert of Jerusalem." You haven't really left civilization for the desert. You have merely exchanged one desert for another. You have traded a desert of clutter and stress and oppressive tension — the "desert of the peoples"— for a desert of purity and hope.
You stand beneath the sun's blazing orb, a ridge of limestone cliffs rising to the west and the great lake of brine the ancient historian Josephus called "Asphaltis" to your immediate east. There is a starkness to the landscape that fills you with awe and reverence for the Creator of the Universe. You are in touch with your environment, in touch with yourself, in touch with God. The Dead Sea has become, in spiritual terms, a life-giving fountain:
I thank You, O Eternal, because You have planted my feet beside a fountain of streams. You have placed me in a parched land, beside a spring of water in a wilderness.
— PSALMS SCROLL, COL. 16:4
You breathe in, and the very breath that you draw cleanses you. There is no impurity out here, only sand and sun and deposits of salt. All else fades away; all worldly cares vanish in the fiery heat. You are alone, yet intimately connected with a presence beyond yourself. You pause, and reflect on the nature of life. There are no distractions in this place, no obstacles to keen perception and concentration.
Suddenly the sky darkens. Heavy, moisture-laden clouds blow in from the west. Droplets turn to showers, driving rain to inundation, filling the wadis, the desert canyons, with uncontrollable torrents. But the ground cannot absorb the floods. The wadis, the barren chasms, swell and rush, transformed into streaming rivers that swell and rush. As the twentieth-century Israeli poet, Rakhel wrote, "And again everything flooded, and again everything stormed, breaking both the joy and the pain." Just as suddenly, the storm passes, the torrents vanish, and the desert stillness returns.
It is the principle of simplicity that draws you to the wilderness. In your mind you are one more inductee into the sect called the Sons of Light, also known as "Essenes." You are a breed apart. You are on a path different from that of the rest of humanity, even from the rest of your nation, Israel. You want life, and you want it more abundantly.
This is what you have been taught-that everyone lives in a desert of his or her own choosing. Everyone is in an exile of sorts, whether imposed or self-imposed. The only question is whether you govern the nature of your wilderness, your exile, or whether your personal desert governs you. The Secret Scrolls record your personal epiphany, the inner transformation that shapes the way you look at your desert environment:
The light inside my heart flows from Your wonderful mysteries. My eyes have been privileged to gaze on eternal realities. I have beheld wisdom hidden from human beings and knowledge and sagacity sequestered from the sons of men. I have drunk from a fountain of righteousness and from a well of strength. I have swallowed deep drafts from a spring of glory, concealed from the assembly of flesh....
The track of my steps is over solid, immovable rock. The truth of the Eternal is the rock of my steps.
— MANUAL OF DISCIPLINE, COL. 11:4-7
The simplicity you seek as you traverse the stone and sand of the desert landscape is not escape from life or its responsibilities. It is liberation, a progression to a better way. For whatever you have given up in the form of material possessions you have gained back in tranquility, peace, order, and camaraderie.
What was it that motivated this particular sect of ancient Judeans, bound by sacred covenant, to abandon the height of civilization and choose to live in a barren wasteland? What made them believe they could find God in the most God-forsaken place on earth? The story of the Sons of Light is in many ways a journey of paradox, of fellowship found in solitude, richness found in austerity, bounty found in simplicity. The bulk of them hailed from the greatest city in the land, a city which had come to rival Rome herself as the navel of the earth — Jerusalem. Nevertheless, residence in Jerusalem proved to be a dubious distinction; for the crushing stresses to which people were subjected in such a massive urban center were comparable to what city dwellers today face.
Without question, Jerusalem had become a gem, experiencing, by the time of King Herod the Great (reigned 37 – 4 B.C.E.), an explosion of growth, luxury, and opulence. There were many vast structures that adorned the great metropolis. There was an ornate Hellenistic theater, a Roman amphitheater, a vast marketplace where throngs of merchants bartered and traded, and a system of aqueducts channeling endless streams of fresh water to the burgeoning population. Three enormous towers graced the city's western approach, and a lavish palace, consisting of two huge wings encircled by a fortified enclave, had been built by King Herod. Overshadowing all was the Temple, a tremendous structure:
Now the temple was built of stones that were white and strong and each of their length was twenty-five cubits, their height was eight, and their breadth about twelve; and the whole structure, as also the structure of the royal cloister, was on each side much lower, but the middle was much higher, till they were visible to those that dwelt in the country for a great many furlongs....
— Josephus, ANTIQUITIES, XV, XI, 3
Who would not want to live in such a splendid place, of which all the world sang praises? And yet there were many who had chosen to leave Jerusalem. One gate in particular was known as the Essene Gate, due on the one hand to the fact that a sizable Essene population lived in Jerusalem, especially in the vicinity of Mount Zion, and on the other hand to the fact that so many members of the sect had left the city for good through its limestone portals. Many inhabitants of the desert site known as "Qumran" were originally Jerusalemites who had become disenchanted with the busy, competitive world epitomized by the monstrous compound of the Temple Mount. The ancient rule book of the sect declares:
Those people who belong to House of Separation, and who have departed from the Holy City ... will be judged according to the fruit of their spirits in the Council of Holiness.
— DAMASCUS RULE, COL. 20:22, 24–25
Another Dead Sea psalm refers specifically to the wilderness community — the final destination of this "House of Separation":
You will place the foundation firmly upon rock, like mighty beams upon the measuring-cord of justice. You stretch out the plumb line of truth. You select tried stones, suitable for building an unshakable fortress. All who enter that fortress will never stagger, and no enemy will ever enter it ...
— PSALMS SCROLL, COL. 14:25–27
The members of the community had established — with God's help — their own fortress, which rose from the sun-blanched sand. A central tower stood in the center, surrounded by a maze of plaster-covered buildings of various uses. An elaborate series of aqueducts linked the settlement with the distant hills to the west — a "fountain" of fresh water for all the inhabitants. A protective wall, which gleamed brightly in the brilliant sun, surrounded the entire compound.
Transforming the Commonplace
Among the problems city dwellers are afflicted with is the difficulty in seeing the things around them in a different light, from a higher perspective. At some point, the wonder of living disappears and with it the childlike joy of discovering new insights everywhere, in an abundance of small things. Opulence breeds complacency. The more things we have all around us, the less individual meaning any of them has. But when we withdraw to the desert, we may learn to glimpse the essential oneness in all of nature and marvel once more at the elemental powers that energize the whole of creation. We no longer take for granted the dynamic forces that seem to course through nature; and we listen carefully to the tongue with which it speaks.
In the desert we become attentive even to the winds, for they have become "angels of holiness." They whisper the mind of the Eternal:
You have stretched out the heavens to declare Your glory. You have established all that is in them according to Your perfect will. You made the great winds to howl, according to their laws, before they were transformed into angels of holiness ... the heavenly lights according to their mysteries, the stars according to their paths, and all the storm winds according to their roles — the thunder and the lightning according to their duties, and the great treasuries according to their purposes. ... All proceed according to their secrets.
— PSALMS SCROLL, COL. 9:9–13
The Sons of Light practiced a daily ritual, rising well before dawn to attune their hearts and minds toward heaven in all its wonders, seeking to penetrate the mysteries, both natural and supernatural, 'round about them; for the day in which wonder is lost sight of is the day death approaches.
A study was done some years ago, in which the lives of people recognized as "geniuses," individuals of great accomplishment and impact, were evaluated in terms of their intelligence quotient, as measured by the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Surprisingly, it was discovered that the majority of them, while certainly well above average in intelligence, did not necessarily have what would be called "genius" IQs. What they did have, without exception, was the ability to look at life through the eyes of a child, always finding new mysteries to examine, new wonders to marvel at, new puzzles to solve. This is the secret of simplicity, and it is also the secret of what we call "success." The way back to joy lies in learning to transform the commonplace and make the everyday holy.
A Different Drummer
Thoreau said it well:
If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.
The community of the Sons of Light followed a different drumbeat. The Psalms Scroll says:
I thank You, O Eternal, for Your eye is always fastened upon me. You have saved me from the zeal of interpreters who are full of deceit. You have rescued me from the community of those who seek smooth things.
— PSALMS SCROLL, COL. 10:31–32
The Sons of Light were a society of rebels, probably viewed as outcasts by many of their contemporaries. They referred to those who reject simplicity as "those who seek smooth things." There could hardly be a better description of a society dominated by materialism. There are a good many modern "lying interpreters," who beguile us into believing that wealth and endless possessions are capable of making us truly happy. Yet, study after study shows that happiness is quite disconnected from "things," and that, if anything, too many possessions make us miserable! Furthermore, numerous support groups are cropping up — voluntary simplicity societies — that aim at limiting the distractions of the age of technology-gone-mad, which tend to disorder our lives and rob us of the simple joys of living.
There is an ancient Hebrew word, tamim, beloved of the Sons of Light, which appears repeatedly in the Secret Scrolls, emphasizing the essential message that all of the texts teach: simplicity in all dealings. It derives from an ancient verbal root, the fundamental idea of which is completeness, wholeness, an aggregate wherein nothing is found lacking. To be tamim is to be "perfect," in the sense of being contented, at peace, and living in harmony with oneself and with others. It is akin to the meaning of the most famous of all Hebrew words, shalom ("peace"), which also describes the quality of being inwardly filled.
The Israelite prophet Ezekiel compares the inhabitants of Jerusalem to the wood of a vine, which, when it was tamim ("whole"), was healthy; but now it is burned, charred, and utterly useless (Ezekiel 15). The prophet is saying that the only alternative to being whole and entire, that is, inwardly complete, is being reduced to ashes. Wholeness is therefore not an option, nor is it a tangential attribute for life's journey; it is a requirement for all those who seek not merely to survive but to live abundantly.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Essene Book of Everyday Virtues"
Copyright © 2006 Kenneth Hanson.
Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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Table of Contents
VIRTUE 1 Simplicity,
VIRTUE 2 Community,
VIRTUE 3 Vision,
VIRTUE 4 Labor,
VIRTUE 5 Time,
VIRTUE 6 Learning,
VIRTUE 7 Perseverance,
VIRTUE 8 Silence & Right Speech,
VIRTUE 9 Manna,
VIRTUE 10 Abundance,