The Hermit as Activist

In search of subversive selflessness


| July-August 1999



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.”