On Being and Doing: Thomas Merton

Continuing to struggle with Merton, pushes me deeper to discover who I am and how I understand my vocation and calling. Merton’s great, probing reflection for me in these thoughts from his work, “No Man Is An Island”, is “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.” May we always struggle to be only who God calls us to be (I wish that were always easy).

Isaiah 58.13-14
13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;*
14then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 7: Being and Doing (Part 2, pp. 120ff)
• It is useless to try to make peace with ourselves by being pleased with everything we have done. In order to settle down in the quiet of our own being we must learn to be detached from the results of our own activity. We must withdraw ourselves, to some extent, from effects that are beyond our control and be content with the good will and the work that are the quiet expression of our interior life. We must be content to live without watching ourselves live, to work without expecting immediate reward, to love without instantaneous satisfaction, and to exist without any special recognition.
• Our Christian destiny is, in fact, a great one: but we cannot achieve greatness unless we lose all interest in being great.
• 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.
• We do not live just to “do something”. We must engage in a wise alternation of activity and rest. We do not live more fully merely by doing more, seeing more, tasting more and experiencing more than we ever have before. On the contrary, some of us need to discover that we will not begin to live more fully until we have the courage to do and see and taste and experience much less than usual. Everything depends on the quality of our acts and expressions. 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 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.
• The value of human activity depends almost entirely on the humility to accept ourselves as we are. The reason why we do things so badly is that we are not content to do what we can.
• The fruitfulness of our life depends in large measure on our ability to doubt our own words and to question the values of our own work. The man who completely trusts his own estimate of himself is doomed to sterility. All he asks of any act he performs is that it be his act.
• 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. Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all. I would be liberated from the painful duty of saying what I really do not think and of acting in a way that betrays God’s truth and the integrity of my own soul.

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