Thomas Merton on Being and Doing, Part 1

During Wesley staff meetings each week, we wrestle with the writings of Thomas Merton who challenges us to BE in God more than to DO for God. This week, Tommy directs us to examine how we understand our being and if it is tied negatively to our doing.

Genesis 2.2-9
2And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done. 3So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.
4 These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.
In the day that the Lord God made the earth and the heavens, 5when no plant of the field was yet in the earth and no herb of the field had yet sprung up—for the Lord God had not caused it to rain upon the earth, and there was no one to till the ground; 6but a stream would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground— 7then the Lord God formed man from the dust of the ground,* and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. 8And the Lord God planted a garden in Eden, in the east; and there he put the man whom he had formed. 9Out of the ground the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 7: Being and Doing (Part 1, pp. 117ff)
• We are warmed by the fire, not 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 outward reflection in our own acts. We must find our real selves not in the froth stirred up by the impact of our being upon the beings around us, but in our own soul which is the principle of all our acts.
• My soul is hidden and invisible. It is hidden from us. We cannot see our own eyes, but we know they are there because we can see. Our soul can reflect in the mirror of its own activity, but what is seen in the mirror is only a reflection of who I am, not my true being. Much depends on how the soul sees itself in the mirror of its own activity.
• Our soul only finds itself when it acts. We must act. Stagnation brings death. I do not need to see myself; I simply need to be myself. I must think and act like a living being, but I must not plunge my whole self into what I think and do, or seek always to find myself in the work I have done. The soul that projects itself entirely into activity and seeks itself outside itself in the work of its own will is like a madman who sleeps on the sidewalk in front of his house instead of living inside where it is quiet and warm.
• Being means nothing to those who hate and fear what they themselves are. They must struggle to escape their true being. They verify a false existence by constantly viewing what they themselves do. They keep looking in the mirror for reassurance, but they do not expect to see themselves. They are hoping for some sign that they have become the god they hope to become by the means of their own frantic activity – invulnerable, all powerful, infinitely wise, unbearably fruitful, and unable to die.
• When we constantly look in the mirror of our own acts, our spiritual double-vision splits us into two people. We strain to see and we forget which image is real. In fact, reality is no longer found either in himself or in his shadow. The substance has gone out of itself into the shadow and he has become two shadows instead of one real person. Then the battle begins. Instead of one shadow praising the other, it accuses the other. The activities that were meant to exalt us now condemn us. We can never be real enough or active enough. The less we are able to BE the more we must DO. We are now our own slave driver – a shadow whipping a shadow to death, because it cannot produce reality out of our own nonentity. Then comes fear. We who “are not” become terrified by what we cannot do. We had illusions of power and sanctity, but now tidal waves of nonentity, powerlessness, hopelessness surge up in us with every action we attempt. The shadow hates and judges the shadow who is not a god and who can do absolutely nothing.
• In order to find God in ourselves, we must stop looking at ourselves, stop checking and verifying ourselves in the mirror of our own futility, and be content to BE in God and to do whatever God wills, according to our limitations, judging our acts not in the light of our own illusions, but in the light of God’s reality which is all around us in the things and people we live with.

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