Week 1: Being and Doing
Our Book of the Month for May is No Man Is an Island by Thomas Merton (1915–1968), the Trappist monk, mystic, and writer. In this classic, Merton reflects on the spiritual life in sixteen chapters.
Chapter 7 opens with a beautiful reflection on being and doing:
We are warmed by fire, not by the smoke of the fire. We are carried over the sea by a ship, not by the wake of a ship. So, too, what we are is to be sought in the invisible depths of our own being, not in our outward reflection of our own acts.
Yet we so often seem drawn to obsess over our actions and achievements (or lack thereof) and to pursue more and more of them. If left unchecked, this impulse can be damaging to our innermost selves. In this chapter of his book, Merton reminds us that:
- we find ourselves in being, not in doing
- we find peace in contemplating God, not ourselves
- we find peace in being content to be “little”
I’ve pulled out a few quotes from this chapter that spoke to me. Here Merton talks about pursuing greatness and playing the comparison game. I know that game all too well; it’s something I constantly have to guard against. So Merton is really speaking into my soul when he writes these words.
Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great. For our own idea of greatness is illusory, and if we pay too much attention to it we will be lured out of the peace and stability of the being God gave us, and seek to live in a myth we have created for ourselves. It is, therefore, a very great thing to be little, which is to say: to be ourselves. And when we are truly ourselves we lose most of the futile self-consciousness that keeps us constantly comparing ourselves with others in order to see how big we are.
The deep secrecy of my own being is often hidden from me by my own estimate of what I am. My idea of what I am is falsified by my admiration for what I do. And my illusions about myself are bred by contagion from the illusions of other men. We all seek to imitate one another’s imagined greatness.
To counter these illusions and games, we sometimes need to remind ourselves to just be:
There are times, then, when in order to keep ourselves in existence at all we simply have to sit back for a while and do nothing. And for a man [or woman] who has let himself be drawn completely out of himself by his activity, nothing is more difficult than to sit still and rest, doing nothing at all. The very act of resting is the hardest and most courageous act he can perform: and often it is quite beyond his power.
Read No Man Is an Island here.
For reflection: When was the last time you sat back for a while and did nothing? How difficult was this for you?