THE HERMIT AND THE ACTIVIST

This essay about the tension between activism and the reclusive life first appeared in the January 1999 issue of Shambhala Sun and subsequently in a very condensed version the July/August 1999 issue of Utne Reader

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.
Matthew 6:6

When I was a boy growing up in the Methodist church in Ohio I remember hearing again and again that passage from Matthew. Even as a child I knew going into your room meant withdrawal, a place away from the world, a place where, even though as a boy I didn’t know these terms, one might enter into a state of meditation or contemplation. Thus prayer, and by inference religion itself, had some important things to say about removing oneself from the world in order to see the world and the self and God more clearly.

At the same time that this message came through to me, I was growing up in a family where my maternal grandparents had spent time in Africa as missionaries, and upon their return to America had taken a church in the heart of downtown Cleveland, in what came to be known later as “the inner city.” My grandfather was an exponent of Walter Rauchenbush’s “Social Gospel.” My grandmother was a medical doctor who ministered to the men in Cleveland’s factories and to the needs of their wives and children.

Thus I grew up understanding that the religious urge had, among other things such as the moral strictures requiring that I not play cards or go to movies on Sundays and in general be a “good boy,” the religious urge had a dual purpose: on the one hand withdrawal from the world for prayer, and hopefully enlightenment, and on the other hand engagement with the world in order to join in the battle for truth and justice and so forth.

As a child and young man my efforts at contemplative prayer were manifested for the most part by spending about half my life fishing. By the time I was in college my social conscience was fairly well developed and I was involved in political causes of various kinds. Looking back now over thirty years, one particular involvement comes to mind, because in it, it seems to me now from this perspective, lay the kind of naive goodwill that would later be dashed, as all naiveté must always be dashed, and lead to a crisis in my understanding of religion’s dual purpose: engagement and withdrawal.

It was 1961 and I was 21 and the leader of my college’s delegation to The National Turn Toward Peace Movement, a nationwide effort organized by college students to urge President Kennedy not to resume nuclear testing. There were thousands of students in Washington out in front of The White House, and students in front of every State House across America. You may remember this event. It’s the one where John Kennedy, seeing the demonstrators out in the November cold, had coffee and doughnuts sent out to them. A shrewd political move no doubt but one also from some other age.

I led a contingent to the State House in Columbus, Ohio. I remember my sign. It said: NO NUCLEAR TESTING. END POVERTY, HUNGER AND DISEASE. It was as if since tens of thousands of college students were getting together for the weekend to stop nuclear tests, we might as well get more done than that, we might as well, while we were organized and at it, also end poverty, hunger and disease.

The assassination of John Kennedy in 1963 began a descent out of that kind of naiveté for many people my age which I think continues to this day. Nevertheless, over the years that followed I worked as a street gang worker in Cleveland and Hoboken and was engaged in various ways in both the civil rights movement and the protests against the war in Vietnam.

Then from 1967 to 1969 my wife and I went to work at Lincoln University, an all Black college in southeastern Pennsylvania. Living as a part of a small minority of white folks in a predominately Black world two years after the Watts rebellion and the assassination of Malcom X and at the height of the Black Power movement was an experience that let me see the depths of racism in America, and see also white America’s recalcitrant unwillingness to do anything about that racism, that radicalized me for the rest of my life. During this time also, you will remember, the war in Vietnam increasingly disrupted American life as no war since The Civil War has done. Then it was 1968 and Martin Luther King was killed, then Bobby Kennedy and less than two months after that the Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

That August as the streets of Chicago smelled of tear gas and blood from the cracked heads of demonstrators and all of America watched on TV as Abraham Ribicoff castigated Mayor Daily for his Gestapo police tactics and Daily responded, his hand cupped to his mouth, soundlessly, yet very clearly for all to see: “You motherfucker!”, it seemed to me that America had fallen into a state of total anarchy. I was done with anything political and ready for complete withdrawal, retreat into something smaller, more personal, and I wanted to get as far away from the center of America both physically and spiritually as I possibly could. Therefore, coming to the mountains–the mountains, the forest, the desert: the wilderness: all traditional places for retreat and withdrawal–seemed like a logical step. We came to northern Vermont to homestead, to start a new life, to escape a totally disintegrated society.

We had had our naiveté beaten out of us, but not our vanity, and we imagined we might not only start our lives all over again but perhaps even America all over again also. I went to work in the woods with my neighbors. My wife got elected to the local library committee, I got elected to the local school board.

By the time I moved to Vermont I was reading Lao Tzu’s TAO TE CHING. This tiny book of eighty little chapters half of which are about the way to personal enlightenment, the other half concerned with a vision of what the good society should be, became as important to me on a daily basis as The Bible had been to my parents and grand parents. My political activism transformed itself from trying to end all poverty, hunger and disease in a single weekend to trying to get the 4th grade teacher in one tiny elementary school in the mountains of northern Vermont to stop making kids sit in their chairs until they peed in their pants. There is a moral in this story, in this progress from the general to the specific. Any writer or Taoist can tell you what that moral is.

At about this time I discovered a book by Thomas Merton, who also, by the way, died in 1968, called THE WISDOM OF THE DESERT, a collection of Merton’s translations of the sayings of the 4th century hermit/monks who populated the deserts of Egypt, Arabia and Persia and who have come to be known as The Desert Fathers. In Merton’s Introduction to that book he says these men, who were the first Christian hermits, abandoned the cities of the pagan world to live in solitude because they saw society as corrupt beyond repair. They believed that to “drift along, passively accepting the tenets of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.” They regarded the society of their time “as a shipwreck from which each single individual . . . had to swim for his life.” They were, in other words, genuine anarchists “who did not believe in letting themselves be passively guided and ruled by a decadent state.” They went into the desert, the wilderness, into solitude, in order to become mature in faith, which means, as Merton puts it “humble and detached from [the self], to a degree that is altogether terrible.”

“The Desert Father . . . could not risk attachment to his own ego, or the dangerous ecstasy of self-will. He could not retain the slightest identification with his superficial, transient, self-constructed self. He had to lose himself in the inner, hidden reality of a self that was transcendent, mysterious, half-known and lost in Christ.” The end of all this striving was “purity of heart”–a clear unobstructed vision of the true state of affairs [and] an intuitive grasp of one’s own inner reality as anchored, or rather lost, in God through Christ. The fruit of this effort was quies: rest . . . . The rest which these men sought was simply the sanity and poise of a being that no longer has to look at itself” because the self, in a real sense, is gone; it has become self-transcendent.

In order to achieve this selflessness the hermit had to abjure all pretension, all self importance–“a detachment from [the self], to a degree that is altogether terrible”–all artifice of any kind, including literary artifice. He had to become plain and simple and common, a common man among common men. In doing this, in leaving the world to save one’s self, one ends up helping to save the world by transcending the superficial, transient, self-constructed self and thus being able to see beyond the self and into selflessness, into what various eastern religions would call The Universal Soul, The One, The Tao, and what these Desert Fathers called “The Mystical Body of Christ.”

Well, words to strive for if not to live by. My own engagement with the world, the constant shuck and jive and hustle for money, the struggles of ambition and career and the conflicts of jealousy and resentment, anger and bitterness that always accompany such struggles, in other words, the dark and dreck, the sturm und drang of everyday life, leave me personally a lot further from the visionary insightfulness of quies than I would like to be.

I’ve been haunted by these ideas of Merton’s, however, ever since I first confronted them more than 20 years ago, and haunted by the questions inherent in what this kind of withdrawal into the self in order to escape the self in order to achieve selflessness has to do with anything, how it can be applied to the general good, to the active, engaged Social Gospel my grandfather believed in. In other words, even if I could achieve the selflessness of quies what earthly good would it do anyone beyond myself?

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

But. We are all so stuck in the practicality of our all American pragmatism, our can-do optimism–or at least we were. As Merton says in another of his books, a collection of essays called CONTEMPLATION IN A WORLD OF ACTION, “Let us start from one admitted fact: if prayer, meditation and contemplation were once taken for granted as central realities of human life everywhere, they are so no longer. They are regarded, even by believers, as somehow marginal and secondary: what counts is getting things done.” It’s true. How then does the contemplative, the one in withdrawal, in the wilderness, relate his or her efforts at insight in the quiet mountains to a world interested only in action and results?

Last year I read a wonderful book by Bill Porter called ROAD TO HEAVEN: ENCOUNTERS WITH CHINESE HERMITS. Porter had heard that there were still Taoist hermits living in the mountains of northern China. He began his search and everywhere he went people told him that there were none left, that the Cultural Revolution had wiped them out completely. Porter persisted and finally found someone who said, “Of course there are still hermits in China . . . .But when you meet them, you won’t know them. You won’t find them, unless they want to be found.” Slowly he discovered them–or they him–dozens of hermits, both men and women, living alone in huts and caves and sometimes in small groups scattered everywhere in the mountains. ROAD TO HEAVEN is mostly interviews with these hermits. These contemplatives and recluses share with the Desert Fathers and with all other hermits throughout the ages, I believe, the same qualities of simplicity, straightforwardness, lack of artifice, common sense, good will, ordinariness and delightful good humor.

I’ll quote at random from some of the interviews.

“Jen: Taoism teaches us to reduce our desires and to lead quiet lives. People willing to reduce their desires or cultivate tranquillity in this modern age are very few. This is the age of desire. Also, people learn much more slowly now. Their minds aren’t simple. They’re too complicated.”

“Hsieh: Lao-Tzu said to cultivate tranquillity and detachment. To be natural. To be natural means not to force things. When you are natural, you get what you need. But to know what’s natural, you have to cultivate tranquillity.” I think I can see the monk who said this laughing. I also note he says “get what you need” not what you want.

“Hsueh: You can’t be in a hurry. You have to be prepared to devote your whole life to your practice. This is what’s meant by religion. It’s not a matter of spending money. You have to spend your life. Not many people are willing to do this.”

“Q: What sutras do you study?
Kuo-shan: I can’t read. I never went to school. I just meditate.”

“Q: What sort of practice do you follow? Do you chant the name of the Buddha or meditate?
Chi-ch’eng: I just pass the time.”

“Hui-yuan: No I don’t plan to go down the mountain again. First I’m too lazy. Second, I’m too ill. I can’t walk so far anymore. I don’t want to go anywhere. I just eat and sleep and sit here all day.”

“Ch’en: What I’m telling you comes from my own understanding, not from books. People lose the Tao when they try to find it.”

In the early pages of ROAD TO HEAVEN, Bill Porter quotes an article on shamanism by Mircea Eliade saying that in central and northern regions of Asia the religious life of the people used to center around the shaman. The shaman in an ecstatic trance “leaves his body, passes through a series of heavens, and communicates with all manner of spirits, seeking and gaining knowledge for the welfare of his community. By providing a link with the spiritual world and bringing back knowledge gained there he defends his society against darkness. But at the same time, he lives apart from the society he protects.” When I read that my head almost flew off, not because the shaman leaves his body and passes from heaven to heaven gaining knowledge and talking to spirits, but because these people who believe in this shaman see this hermit/recluse as someone who actually seeks and gains knowledge for “the welfare of his community.” The shaman is a defender of his society against darkness; he is actually the protector of the society he doesn’t live within! Imagine such a society where hermits, recluses, the contemplative, is valued and supported as an important member of that society.

Porter also points out that throughout Chinese history there has been a dialectic between public service and withdrawal, between the hermit and the activist. “Seclusion and public service were seen as the dark and light of the moon, inseparable and complementary.” Yin and Yang. “Hermits and officials were often the same people at different times of their lives. And officials who never experienced tranquillity and concentration of spirit in pursuits other than fame or fortune were not esteemed in China.” Perhaps the most famous example of this way of life is Wang Wei, the T’ang poet and painter, who, after a distinguished life as a public official, became a hermit and a Taoist of the most extreme order.

The aim of this dialectic between public service and withdrawal was always the application of the principles of the Tao in personal and societal, that is, in human, affairs. Thus the TAO TE CHING speaks to both the individual and the community. In other words, the conflicting pulls I have felt throughout my life between “getting things done,” as Merton puts it, and the urge to withdraw, between ending poverty, hunger and disease in a weekend and going into my room and shutting the door to pray have in some societies from time to time been seen not as contradictory but complimentary.

Such a blending of Yin and Yang, the dark and the light, the active and the passive in one’s life, if not to be achieved, is a goal at least to be reached for. For me in recent years it has meant time alone in the mountains in silence, time reading THE TAO TE CHING, time walking, and it has meant involvement with the Vermont Community Loan Fund, a group that helps finance low income, perpetually affordable housing. I can take you to a Single Room Occupancy in Burlington’s north end where 45 formerly homeless men have a place to live or to a renovated house on St. Paul’s Street where a mother and a father and three kids live in a first floor apartment and not on the street. No end to poverty, hunger and disease here. These are modest achievements to be sure, simple and concrete but better than the street.

Yet this back and forth between the hermit and the activist, the dark and the light, the active and the passive, in this ancient Chinese tradition still seems in some way so American, so practical and utilitarian, and I suspect in most people’s minds, and perhaps in my own, the activism justifies the withdrawal and therefore clearly indicates that the withdrawal is not as important as the activism. Do you go into your room to pray only in order to come out again and “get things done”? Thus, after these twenty years, I am still haunted by the radical nature of the Desert Father’s withdrawal or by Eliade’s comments that the shaman by virtue of his reclusion actually “defends his society from darkness,” actually protects the society he doesn’t live within.

To see the hermit and the activist as different parts of the same person’s movement back and forth from Yin to Yang should be easy for well intentioned Americans with some sense of public good to comprehend. But to see the hermit as an activist, his or her withdrawal and passivity as activity, requires in our time a leap of mind and faith altogether radical.

What if it isn’t necessary for the hermit and the activist to be the same person? What if the hermit in the mountains who lives his or her life entirely alone doing nothing but “passing the time” and the activist who is “in the world” at work “getting things done” . . . what if both these totally separate, different and opposing people are actually the same person, actually unified, at one, in the Mystical Body of Christ, The Universal Soul, The Tao, The One?

My own reading and contemplation over the years has convinced me that there must be a place for the life of the total recluse, the hermit who gets nothing done. The notion of this kind of total withdrawal is unappreciated, even hated, by Americans. We as a people are still too empirical, too practical. We need to work our way toward an understanding that these kinds of contemplatives, even though we never see them and they never “do” anything at all, can become the defenders of the society in which they don’t live, the guardian’s and protector’s of the public good. This is a very old idea, so old in fact that it is new.

© 1998, 1999, 2000, by David Budbill, all rights reserved,
permission to reprint must be gotten in writing from
David Budbill: david@davidbudbill.com
or from the publication in which the essay first appeared.