The Hermit as Activist

In search of subversive selflessness

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As a child growing up in the Methodist Church in Ohio, I knew that going into your room meant withdrawal to a place away from the world, a place where you might enter into contemplation. The Bible speaks of this: “But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” Thus I knew that prayer, and religion itself, had important things to say about removing yourself from the world in order to see the world, the self, and God more clearly.

I also grew up in a family of activists. My grandparents had been missionaries in Africa and returned to America to accept a post at a church in the heart of Cleveland. So I understood that the religious urge has a dual purpose: withdrawal from the world for enlightenment, and engagement with the world in order to battle for truth and justice.

By the time I entered college, my social conscience was fairly well developed: In 1961 I led a student delegation to the National Turn Toward Peace Movement; we picketed at the White House to urge President Kennedy not to resume nuclear testing. I later led a contingent to the statehouse in Columbus, Ohio. My sign read “No Nuclear Testing. End Poverty, Hunger, and Disease.” Since tens of thousands of students were getting together to stop nuclear tests, we might as well eliminate poverty, hunger, and disease, too.

I worked with street gangs in Cleveland and Hoboken and engaged in the civil rights movement and Vietnam war protests. But in 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered, then Bobby Kennedy; less than two months later the Democratic National Convention in Chicago erupted into violence. That August I wanted nothing to do with political activism. Both physically and spiritually, I wanted to get as far away from the center of America as I possibly could.

So I came to northern Vermont to homestead, to escape a disintegrating society. I went to work in the woods with my neighbors; my wife joined the library committee; I got elected to the school board. I was already reading Lao Tzu's Tao Te Ching , 81 little chapters—half about the way to personal enlightenment, half about what the good society should be—that became as important to me as the Bible had been to my parents and grandparents. My activism was transformed from trying to end all suffering in one weekend to persuading the local fourth grade teacher to stop making kids sit in their chairs until they peed in their pants.

About this time I discovered The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton's translations of the sayings of the fourth-century hermit monks who lived in the deserts of Egypt, Arabia, and Persia. The Desert Fathers, as these first Christian hermits were called, abandoned pagan cities because they saw society as corrupt beyond repair, “a shipwreck from which each individual . . . had to swim for his life.” They were genuine anarchists “who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state” and chose solitude to become “humble and detached from [the self], to a degree that is altogether terrible.”

To achieve selflessness, the hermit had to forsake pretension, abjure artifice, and become plain and simple—a common person among common people. In leaving the world, the hermit helped save the world by seeing beyond the self into what Eastern religions call the Universal Soul, the One, the Tao; the Desert Fathers called it the mystical body of Christ.

I've been haunted by these ideas since confronting them 30 years ago, haunted by how withdrawal can be applied to the active, engaged social gospel my grandfather believed in. Even if I could achieve selflessness, what earthly good would it do anyone beyond me?

Merton's answer is simple: The self who knows selflessness is better able to see “the true state of affairs,” as he puts it, and thus step beyond the self and be helpful.

Hermits and shamans traditionally are regarded as defenders of society against darkness, protectors of the culture they avoid. Chinese history has long featured a dialectic between public service and withdrawal, between the hermit and the activist. As Bill Porter writes in Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits, “Seclusion and public service were seen as the dark and light of the moon, inseparable and complementary. Hermits and officials were often the same people at different times of their lives. And officials who never experienced tranquility and concentration of spirit in pursuits other than fame or fortune were not esteemed in China.” Perhaps the most famous example is Wang Wei, the T'ang dynasty poet and painter who, after a distinguished life as a public official, became a hermit and Taoist sage.

So some societies have seen the conflict I feel not as contradictory but as complementary—a blending of the dark and the light, the passive and the active. In recent years that has meant for me time alone in the mountains, time reading the Tao Te Ching, cutting firewood, gardening, walking. It has also meant involvement with the Vermont Community Loan Fund, which helps finance affordable housing in Burlington. No end to poverty, hunger, and disease here; these are modest achievements, but worthwhile nonetheless.

I suspect that in most people's minds—and perhaps in my own—the activism justifies the withdrawal. To see hermit and activist as different parts of the same person's life should be easy. But to see the hermit as an activist, or withdrawal as activity, requires a leap of mind and faith that is altogether radical. There must be a place for the life of the total recluse, the hermit who gets nothing done. We need to work our way toward understanding that contemplatives, although we don't see them and they don't do anything, can be defenders of the society in which they don't live, guardians and protectors of the public good.

This is a very old idea—so old, in fact, that it is new.

David Budbill is a poet, playwright, and essayist. His new book, Moment to Moment: Poems of a Mountain Recluse, will be published in September by Copper Canyon Press. From Shambhala Sun (Jan.-Feb. 1999). Subscriptions: $24/yr. (6 issues) from 1345 Spruce St., Boulder, CO 80302-9682.