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To Be or Not to Be

Updated: Apr 19, 2022

I have a long way to go before I have nothing to do. Thomas Merton, in one of his diary entries, talks of an old Zen koan that says that an enlightened person is not one who seeks enlightenment, or even finds it, but simply an ordinary person who has nothing left to do. And yet, such a person does not simply stop doing, for to do so would be to be a million miles away from enlightenment. No. You do it—whatever it is that a person with nothing left to do does.

This is a classic Zen teaching, of course, and one that can be tedious and frustrating if you try too hard to get it. I hesitate to settle on what I believe to be the point of the koan, but I’ll do it anyway: the person with nothing left to do is simply being. It is to be, and not to do, that puts a person in the present tense with himself, and with others, and with God. This is also Christian mysticism, and we are all mystics of one kind or another, but most of us have simply forgotten that we are. We’re like the person with nothing left to do who can’t stop doing things over and over again because, in a culture like ours, doing is everything. We must do, we must learn, we must get, and take, and earn, and accomplish, and create, and arrive, and build, and overcome, and defeat, and achieve, and win, and… and... and...

Jesus just hung there, on the cross, with nothing to do. Nothing left to do but die. And so he did. Nothing. He could have thrown himself off the cross and danced a jig in the middle of the Centurions bartering for his clothes. That would’ve woken them up. He could’ve pronounced judgment on every single one of them and read them the riot act for their shortsightedness and cast them all straight into hell. That would've gotten their attention. He could’ve preached a final sermon, or dispensed some sage advice, or sang a hymn of praise, or even cursed God. But he did none of those things, because he had nothing left to do but die. In that moment, which, we are told, may have lasted half a day or more, he just was. And because he just was, we can be.

No room on the cross for Zen koans, though. No time for trite bits of wisdom, or some deep truth that might make good copy for a hagiographic study. No, the cross was where people with nothing left to do but die go. And yet he didn't stop by trying to do more. He just hung there, simply a man left to die--with nothing left to do but die. And I'll say it again--in so doing, the rest of us were somehow all allowed to be. Some Great Cosmic Transfer happened, some Mystical Vicariousness took place that altered the shape and center of the heliocentric universe. The sun is not the center of our existence. The Son is. Because this isn’t some mere physical reality we’re contending with here, this life we live, this thing we call existence. Existence is a sacramental reality, where the spiritual is made manifest through the physical. So it is at least physical, but not merely so, and if we don’t see this, we are fated to do, do, do for the rest of our lives until we have nothing left to do but do, because, after all, what else is there to do but do in a purely physical universe?

But if you understand this life of ours as what it truly is—sacramental—you will learn, eventually, to simply be, even in the midst of all your doing. And how will that be even possible? Because, in a sacramental world, there really is nothing left to do but be. And in so being, we will have done more than we can possibly ever imagine.

So says the koan. So says Jesus:

So if you cannot do such a small thing, why do you worry about the rest? Consider how the lilies grow: They neither labor nor spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these. If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, how much more will He clothe you, O you of little faith! (Luke 12:27-28)

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