An Essenes Way of Living
A religious life organize life
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“The religious myth is one of man’s greatest and most significant achievements, giving him the security and inner strength not to be crushed by the monstrousness of the universe.” (Carl Jung, Symbols of Transformation)
To me, living a religious life meant shunning scientific proof in order to align with a set of outdated myths. It meant going against innate common sense and it symbolized dogmatic thinking. Finding myself in one of the most profound religious capitals in the world, Jerusalem, has forced me to shift my perspective somewhat. As I walked through the Israel Museum I realized that my definition of religion has always been organizedreligion. Not the religious experiences found within the routines and feelings of individuals in their solitude, as explained so well in William James’s Varieties of Religious Experience, but the extremism and indoctrination you sometimes see within the very devoted.
“Were one asked to characterize the life of religion in the broadest and most general terms possible, one might say that it consists of the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto. This belief and this adjustment are the religious attitude in the soul.” (William James, Varieties of Religious Experience)
In many ways, religion acts as a shield against the dangers of our many existential fears. It fortifies us against our “all-too-human weakness” (Carl Jung). But, and in my opinion more importantly, it also organizes our life, it imbeds both meaning and structure into our day to day existence. Much like the members of the Essenes community in Qumran (quoted in the image above) went about their days in the same manner as their forefathers once did, praying the same prayers, sermonizing the same sermons, a religious life organizes life.
Religion injects meaning into existence. From a Western perspective, the Essenes lived a lonely life. Their community consisted of, more or less, 200 members who lived alone in the midst of a barren, Martian desert. Seen in context, their devotion to some kind of divine order seems only natural. Though divine order can be found in an array of places: a monotheistic God, several gods, nature, the universe as a whole, etc, its importance lies less in in what we believe, but how we align with that belief. How it transforms our life, how it enables us to find meaning and create structure, even if we, like the Essenes in Qumran, were to live in a distraction-less, arid desert.
“The practical needs and experiences of religion seem to me sufficiently met by the belief that beyond each man and in a fashion continuous with him there exists a larger power which is friendly to him and to his ideals.” (William James, Varieties of Religious Experience)
A religious life, then, consists of an adherence to anything that one deems divine. For the Essenes this was their belief, amongst others, that their soul was immortal, and could be received anew after death. Hence, they spent much of their earthly existence purifying themselves. The promise of immortality gave their everyday life meaning. They put their faith into their unconscious/soul — the mysterious essence hidden somewhere within our physical form.
Lancelot Law Whyte once said: “For today faith, if it bears any relation to the natural world, implies faith in the unconscious. If there is a God, he must speak there; if there is a healing power, it must operate there; if there is a principle of ordering in the organic realm, its most powerful manifestation must be found there.” Jung reiterates this point by stating that there is a vast outer realm and equally vast inner realm within man, between which we ought to position ourselves in order to flourish. In the West there is more emphasis put upon the outer world — the world of the material. We distract ourselves with the tangible, meaning there is little room left for our inner life. The Essenes in Qumran had a drastically different life experience. In a barren desert wherein nothing grows, there isn’t much with which one can distract themselves, and thus a cultivation of the inner realm becomes necessary. A religious attitude towards live, then, becomes a much needed antidote to our contemporary, Western way of living.
All in all, there is a reason behind my attraction to the Essenes way of living. My feelings of inner unease (an innate feeling and placement in the world without instead of my world within) is both universal and the root of many contemporary religious conversions in adulthood. As William James wrote in Varieties of Religious Experience: “There is a certain uniform deliverance in which religions all appear to meet. It consists of two parts: 1. an uneasiness and 2. its solution.” The daily routine of the Essenes appealed to me in so far that it seemed to create order in the tumult which is our collective inner life. I, like many, crave a sense of harmony, a greater order, a connection with the unconscious world, or soul, or whatever you want to call it. A transcend of the self through religious practice. In the end, it does not matter whether religion is “true”, as long as it has psychological truth.