Thomas Merton: Being and Doing, Part 3

I continue to be amazed at the insight Merton had on the human soul. In this final reflection on “Being and Doing”, Merton pushes all of us to reflect on work and rest, sound and silence, being and doing. His line, “If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth.” My prayer is that our lives will not be a hell on earth. -JES

Matthew 12:1-6
At that time Jesus went through the cornfields on the sabbath; his disciples were hungry, and they began to pluck heads of grain and to eat. 2When the Pharisees saw it, they said to him, ‘Look, your disciples are doing what is not lawful to do on the sabbath.’ 3He said to them, ‘Have you not read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4He entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence, which it was not lawful for him or his companions to eat, but only for the priests. 5Or have you not read in the law that on the sabbath the priests in the temple break the sabbath and yet are guiltless? 6I tell you, something greater than the temple is here.

From Thomas Merton’s No Man is an Island, Chapter 7: Being and Doing (Part 3, pp. 127ff)
• One who fails well is greater than one who succeeds badly. One who is content with what they have, and who accepts the fact that the inevitably miss very much in life, is better than one who has much more but who worries about all he may be missing. Happiness is not a matter of intensity but of balance and order and rhythm and harmony. Music is pleasing not only for the sound, but because of the silence in it: without the alternation of sound and silence there would be no rhythm. If we strive to be happy by filling all the silences of life with sound, productive by turning all life’s leisure into work, and real by turning all our being into doing, we will only succeed in producing a hell on earth. If we have no silence, God is not heard in our music. If we have no rest, God does not bless our work. If we twist our lives out of shape in order to fill every corner of them with action and experience, God will silently withdraw from our hearts and leave us empty. May we learn to pass from one imperfect activity to another without worrying too much with what we are missing. It is true that we make many mistakes, but the biggest of them all is to be surprised at them: as if we had some hope of never making any.
• The relative perfection which we must attain to in this life if we are to live as children of God is not the twenty-four hour a day production of perfect acts of virtue, but a life from which practically all the obstacles to god’s love have been removed or overcome. We have this selfish anxiety to get the most out of everything, to be a brilliant success in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. We can only get rid of this anxiety by being content to miss something in almost everything we do. We cannot master everything, taste everything, understand everything, drain every experience to its last dregs. If we have the courage to let almost everything else go, we will probably be able to retain the one thing necessary for us – whatever that may be. If we are too eager to have everything, we will almost certainly miss even the one thing we need. Happiness consists of finding out precisely what the “one thing necessary” may be, in our lives, and in gladly relinquishing all the rest. For then, by a divine paradox, we find that everything else is given to us together with the one thing we needed.

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