Yesterday I met an Essene monk. This is how it happened: Christi, Adah, and I went to Redwood Falls for lunch (actually more that the baby would fall asleep in the car – it worked pretty well). We were driving back to Morgan when we passed a man standing on the side of the road about half a mile outside Redwood. He was all bundled up, had a pack on his back, and he had his thumb out. To my surprise, Christi pulled over. He trotted over to us and threw his pack into our trunk.
He said his name was John, and that he’d been on the road for 84 months. He informed us he was on a pilgrimage from northern Minnesota to Iowa. I’d had a touch of windburn on my face after my four hours of shoveling snow the other day, but that was nothing compared to his face. The parts of his face that were exposed to the cold and wind were red, chapped, and sore-looking. The cold and wind had begun to carve deep dry cracks in his skin. He saw the cross sticker on our car and his face lit up. “Are you believers?”, he asked eagerly. We affirmed that we were. He was even more pleased to find out that I was a Lutheran pastor. He told us that he was an Essene monk who was traveling around.
That floored me, because the Essenes were a Jewish sect from before the time of Christ. Some people think that the inhabitants of Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found) were Essenes, although scholars debate about that. Josephus, an ancient Jewish historian, mentions them. They were known for being separatist, dressing entirely in white, and being preoccupied with ritual cleanliness – bathing often, observing the purity laws to the letter, and so on. And apparently we had one riding in the front seat of our Fusion, dressed in several snowsuits if his appearance was anything to go by, and looking for something to eat or a place to warm up.
We chatted with him the ten or so minutes to Morgan. Apparently he’d grown up Roman Catholic and had decided to become Evangelical Covenant (a Reformed sect) through the influence of Young Life, a youth ministry. Then he’d had a vision of Mount Shasta, in California, and the vision gripped him. He couldn’t get it out of his head. Eventually he packed his car and drove out to Mount Shasta, where he met the Essene master teacher (I forget the title he used) and was ordained as a brother monk in the Essene order. He lived in California for some time after that, plying his trade as a landscaper. In tony Oakland he went door to door offering his services as a landscaper, wearing his white robes and wielding his chainsaw. Since the Essenes consider it very important to treat the earth well and preserve the environment (so he told me), he didn’t use regular petroleum bar oil in his chainsaw. He used vegetable oil – claimed it smelled like popcorn when the saw was hot.
In the course of time he felt called to start his pilgrimage, so he traveled to Minnesota and started out for Iowa. He no longer had his car, so he walked or hitchhiked. He said it got lonely at times; not much fellowship by yourself on the road. Still, he sounded content with his life. He said he’d seen some awesome sights – the weather, the stillness of the woods. We asked if he’d been out in the big snowstorm we’d had the other day, and he said he had not. The police had picked him up and told him he couldn’t be out on the road in that weather.
We took him to Front Street Bar in Morgan so we could buy him some food. The place was empty except for the girl wandering around behind the bar, waiting for someone to arrive. We sat down and he ordered a double cheeseburger. Christi and I had sodas. I received a minor shock when he peeled off his hood and his stocking cap: his head was completely smooth, like a cue ball. Just sitting and chatting with him, he hadn’t seemed all that monk-like – but seeing his shiny scalp suddenly made me conscious that this man had chosen a very different life than I had.
He shared a few fascinating tidbits while he ate. He claimed that the Essenes were the ones who washed Christ’s body after He had been taken down from the cross – which actually made a little sense to me because their fixation on ritual purity meant they would have had a pool big enough to wash a body. But there’s absolutely no way to prove it. He spoke the phrase “our Lord” with such reverence, you could tell it was capitalized for him – like this: Our Lord. John was always very careful to note, “This isn’t Biblical, but this is what I believe” – which I appreciated. At least he acknowledged that much. He also claimed the Essenes had buried the Dead Sea Scrolls, “but then we went back later and dug them up.” Oh. I see. Makes sense. (But what did I see in the museum in Israel, and Milwaukee, and Minneapolis, then?)
Apparently the Essenes simply try to live the teachings of the Bible in their everyday lives. He said that he was saved by God’s grace alone, which sounded like a darn good starting point to me. I don’t know what else was kicking around in his theology, but if he believed that and squared his life and faith with the Bible, he wouldn’t go far wrong. They didn’t have any distinctive doctrines, according to John. The closest they got was an unusually strong reverence or respect for the earth and all living things. Actually they sounded like hippies with an little bit more advanced grasp of history than anything else. John occasionally dropped words like “heavy” into the conversation. As in, “When my daughter’s life was taken…that was heavy.” (Shakes head and eats some more French fries.)
After he ate his food and we chatted some more, I paid for his food and we drove him to the Morgan city office. Maybe he’d find someone there who would direct him to a sheltered place to pitch his tent for the night, or even let him sleep indoors. He’d asked about the nearest town, and we told him Sleepy Eye. He was interested and asked how far it was. We told him fifteen miles. He sounded undecided on whether he would try to make Sleepy Eye yet that day, or whether he would spend the night in Morgan. The last we saw of him was his pack swinging down off his shoulder as he strode in the Morgan city office, looking for someone else to further him on his quest.
I couldn’t help comparing my life and his. He had basically severed all ties with his family upon entering the order – at the Lord’s command, he said – while I have a wife and an infant daughter. He roamed the face of the earth, looking for someone to give him food or shelter, as a sign of his dedication to God. I am firmly and determinedly planted in one place for the foreseeable future. I serve God by serving those around me. What I wanted to share with him (although it’s hard when someone’s outlook is so obviously different than your own), is that God wouldn’t want you to cut ties with your family. He gave them to you and you should love and serve them as your way to honor God. Part of John’s problem, if you want to call it that, was that he didn’t understand the doctrine of vocation.
A bigger problem, as I saw it, was John’s “feeling called” to do things. I thought, that’s all it is – a feeling. How in the world would you ever know whether or not that feeling came from God? You would have absolutely no basis for knowing. You’d be ruled by your feelings, which would be an unbearable state of affairs. The voice of God to you changes as your feelings change? What an intolerable life. That would be painful, never to have any certainty. God’s Word dispels our uncertainties and it remains true despite our doubts and the yo-yo of our emotions. Its testimony never changes, although we change constantly. John had no objective basis for his relationship with God. I thank God that I do – in the gospel of Jesus Christ, in the Word that brings my Lord to me. My call to be Pastor is an objective fact, issued through a gathered group of believers by the Lord Jesus Himself. My calling to be husband and father are likewise objective facts – God brought my wife and me together, and He made me a father to Adah. I didn’t choose those things. God chose them for me, just as He chose me to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit by belief in the truth.
I wish him well. I even prayed for him after we dropped him off. I hope he finds whatever he’s looking for, and maybe realizes that his life shouldn’t be based on feeling called, but more firmly on the Word of the Lord. Then he will truly be blessed. We could all use a little more of that. And now I can say I’ve met a real live Essene monk.
The same day I met John, I ran across this eloquent quote from Martin Chemnitz, peerless Lutheran theologian. He well states the Bible’s teaching on immediate (that is, directly from God – as John felt he was) and mediate (that is, through a group of believers – as I am) calls. I wonder what John would think of this quote. For my own part, I give thanks for the objective assurance that my call provides. I know God wants me where I am, with the people I’m with, because my call assures me of that. Those who go off and do their own thing have no such assurance. Here’s Chemnitz:
But if someone asks if immediate calls are to be looked for also in our age, I hold that one must answer him: It certainly does not behoove us to prescribe with boundless boldness anything to the free will and infinite power of God. But yet we have no commandment, at least which applies to us, to look for an immediate call, nor do we have the promise that God wants at this time to send workers into His harvest through an immediate call. But rather, through the apostles, He has given and prescribed to the church a certain form how He now wants to send and call ministers, namely through a mediate call. For, you see, there is now no need for an immediate call. For God absolutely wills that to the end of the age the ministry be bound to that word of teaching which has been received from the Son of God and handed on to the church through the apostles who were directly called. See Gal. 1:8[–9]; 2 Tim. 1:14; Heb. 1:1.
Chemnitz, M., & Preus, J. A. O. (1999, c1989). Loci theologici (electronic ed.) (700). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House. (emphasis mine)