A new friend of mine has this on her Facebook page: “We’re human beings, not human doings.” This reminds me of Evelyn Underhill, whose admittedly Platonic approach to mysticism seeks to find the eternal world of being over and above the ever-changing world of becoming (or “doing”). I’m also reminded of the Buddhist notion that all things are impermanent — the world of becoming is also of necessity the world of change, of decay, of death. Finally, I am reminded of the theme of the Lay Associates retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit this past weekend: that contemplation, the contemplative life, is ultimately not something we do — like centering prayer or lectio divina — but is truly and finally simply something we are.
All this is true enough (although I chafe at the Platonic idea that being is somehow “higher” than doing). But I’m left with wondering: are we to concentrate so entirely on our being, that our doing simply gets ignored? This seems to me to lead to the heresy of quietism. Quietism, where we are so liberated from having to do anything that we end up doing… nothing. We end up reacting with hostility and anger at life’s demands on us. We become angry because we are so stressed out, and yet we refuse to take the steps to de-stress ourselves: steps that include, ironically enough, practices like meditation and centering prayer.
So once again I find myself sitting, next to Thomas Merton, in the belly of a paradox. Embracing the contemplative life means not having to do anything, but simply to be, in the present, awake, mindful. And embracing the contemplative life means making choices, which is the most fundamental thing we have to do. I, for one, have been noticing that my silent prayer seems to have hit a plateau: my patterns of distraction seem to be dancing around me in circles, and while I’m fairly disciplined at embracing the silence every morning, my vesper silence pretty much isn’t happening. So what am I to do? Yes, “do.” It seems that I have a choice: I can “be” happy or unhappy with where I am; if I choose to be happy, I don’t have to do anything — and nothing changes. But if I choose to believe that things can change for the better, than I have to do something about it (even if that “something” means simply to pray, to ask for help, to get out of my own way so that the Holy Spirit can act in my life). The risk of overemphasizing what I do, of course, is Pelagianism, the idea that my own well-being, wholeness, salvation, whatever you want to call it, is entirely up to me and fully within my ability to achieve. But the other risk, as I’ve pointed out, is quietism: sitting around, doing nothing, simply being whatever I am, passive and convinced that everything is perfect just as it is and I need to change nothing. I’m not very interested in being either a Pelagian or a quietest. So I’m left in the paradox, trusting that the contemplative life is not about what I do, and yet doing what I think needs to be done (in my case, considering options like a class on meditation or Shambhala training or something along those lines).
To embrace the contemplative life, there is nothing we need to do. And to be a contemplative, there is no limit to what we will be asked to do. Find the nonduality in this one, and you’ll be well on your way…