Having, Being, and Stillness
I have a friend whose spiritual practice relies heavily on affirmations. He loves to create new ones and becomes absolutely ecstatic when he comes up with one that is particularly novel. I ran into him the other day, and he was completely beside himself
with joy. “This morning I was waiting for the bus,” he told me, “The sun was just coming up and it was a huge ball of light on a glorious summer morning. I stood there basking in its warmth and light when suddenly the thought crossed my mind, ‘I feel like a million
dollars.’ Before I knew what hit me, another thought rolled in behind it: “I am a million dollars! I am a million dollars that God is sending into the universe today to make it a better place.”
I listened, somewhat bemused, as my friend went on. “I thought about that for awhile, and kept repeating it over and over. I had never thought of myself as a really big investment that God was sending to people each day to make their lives better. It
was a whole new idea, and I liked it.
“But that’s not all.” At this point, he was bubbling over like a percolator on overflow. “As I thought about it, it came to me that perhaps the reason I am often so worried about abundance and money issues is that I have been separating myself from
wealth and abundance. All my life, I have thought about wealth as something that I have, not as something that I am. Perhaps if I thought of myself as wealth that God is sharing with the universe instead of thinking of my wealth as something outside of me, I would eliminate
the awareness of separation between myself and my wealth. It’s not so much that I have the wealth – I am the wealth. I wonder if such a realization might attract more wealth into my life?”
It was an unanswerable question, and I could only advise my friend not to adopt his new insight for the sake of getting more wealth, or he would create the separation once again. But if he wanted to think of himself as being wealth distributed to
the world by God, there were certainly a lot worse things he could do.
His excited musings started me on a train of thought of my own about the difference between having and being. I thought of the old adage from Scholastic philosophy, “Nothing gives what it doesn’t have.” You can’t, as another saying goes, get blood out
of a turnip. I once overheard a horrible conversation between two people (who should have known better) about a third person whom they both disliked very much. “Which eye is his glass eye?” one of them inquired smugly. “Oh that’s easy,” the other quipped. “It’s the one
with the milk of human kindness in it.” Ouch. I thought my jaw would drop. Yet even behind that most unfortunate bit of repartee lay the principle we are talking about here: you can’t give what you don’t have.
Yet here’s another question. Can you have what you are not? We ordinarily think of that as an irrelevant question, and proceed accordingly. Yet that is just how mistakes in thinking and in living are made. The fact is, most of us don’t see any
connection whatsoever between being and having, or don’t think it’s important to wonder about it. It’s not important, we think, who or what we are so long as we have the right degree from the right school, wear the right clothes, know the right people, have a prestigious
title, and enjoy a healthy bank account. We don’t quite know what to do with “being,” because it’s not as manageable as “having.” So we dismiss it, or maybe just never think about it at all. Or we talk ourselves into doing a sort of “corporate merger” between being and
having, putting having on the shingle and eliminating any mention of being altogether. “Clothes make the man,” right? But when life comes along to strip us of one or more of our illusions, we are left feeling naked, frightened and humiliated. How could we have forgotten
that clothes don’t walk about by themselves?
Clothes don’t make the man or the woman. We are not what we eat or where we eat it. Hertz or Avis or Budget does not put us in the driver’s seat.
And that is where being comes in. It turns out that my exuberant friend had discovered an important insight. It’s living out of who we are, not out of what we have, that makes life worthwhile. And to answer our question from before – unless we focus on
being, we can never really have.
Jesus knew that. He didn’t say, “Follow me, for I have the bread of life.” Nor do we read in the gospels, “I have a vineyard and my vines have many branches.” Not a mention of “Remember, I have many sheep and they have a good shepherd.” You’ll never
see, “Come after me, for I have a way and a truth and a life for you to follow,” or “I have a resurrection and a risen life.”
Instead it’s – “I am the bread of life.” “I am the vine and my Father is the vinedresser.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the way and the truth and the life.” “I am the resurrection and the life.”
There’s a pattern here. Whatever Jesus wanted to manifest for us, he exuded and expressed from the very core of his being.
Next question: how do we do this? Or can we?
There is a scene in Luanne Rice’s delightful Christmas book, Silver Bells, in which Catherine, who deeply mourns the untimely loss of her husband Brian, has an intimation of his presence while visiting a church. She is desperately looking for
clues as to how to help a troubled young man, and she prays to her late husband for a sign. She hears the words, “I can’t tell you, but I can show you.” That’s how it is with the affairs of being and soul – we can’t give recipes, but we can point the way.
In case you thought I had forgotten, the theme of this issue is “Stillness,” and this is meant to be an essay on that theme. And, in the end it is, because the way in to being is through stillness. “Be still, and know that I am God” – it is in
meditation, in quiet walks in the park, when standing in awe before a sunrise or a sunset, and in the pause between two affirmations that there comes the stillness that is the very heart and soul of who we are and the place of encounter with God. It is the still point
between the sobs of a grieving parent. It is in the space between the canvas and the artist’s brush, in the space between two heartbeats and before and after a lover’s sigh. We hear it between two notes of music and between two clangings of a church bell.
We become still by experiencing those in-between places, by deliberately choosing to look for them and to notice them, and by expressing them in the words, “I am.”
It is stillness that gives us entry into the realm of soul and being. One of the reasons that we so often fail to appreciate being and mystery is that we do not take time for stillness, and certainly do not generally carry with us the expectation of
being surprised by stillness. And stillness often comes by surprise. One recent Labor Day, I happened to be surfing the television dial, and was surprised to find one of the networks carrying a program that for all intents and purposes appeared simply to be a video of a
beautiful beach with the waves crashing in and out. The ebb and flow of the ocean was the only sound you could hear. I sat, mesmerized by the natural beauty that lay before me. The program, as it turned out, was called “A Day of Nothing,” and ran for several hours featuring
picturesque beaches from various parts of the world. What a treat it was to sit and listen and watch and be drawn within by the exquisiteness of nature and the splendor of the oceans. On every beach, there was a brief second, if you could catch it, between the ebb tide and
the outer flow of the wave. That was the moment of stillness, the moment that drew you to the inner rhythm of your being.
The still moment is not always of such short duration. Not long ago, on another program, I heard the story of a man who several years before had lost the use of his legs and had only partial use of his arms and hands due to an accident. With the help of
an assistant, he taught himself to make exceptionally beautiful beads and to paint colorful canvases in a studio he constructed in his home. Before going to his studio each morning, the man stopped by his garden, which was ariot with colorful flowers of every sort. He
explained that by “stopping to say hello to the flowers” he was inspired to enter his studio for the creative work of his day. Being still there, he was ready to go about his work. Those initial moments of early morning stillness set the tone for the rest of his day. By
the same token, whenever he felt inclined to give in to the occasional wave of discouragement, a moment in the garden would be just the tonic he needed to get himself back on course.
Stillness is not only the key to being, however. It is the key to having as well. Though, as we have already observed, we tend to separate being and having, a thing is never really ours until we become one with it. Martin Buber spoke of the I-Thou
relationship in which the beholder and the beheld are as one. I may sign the deed to my property, but it is not truly mine until I have become one with the land. Though I know much less about wine than I would like to, I am a sucker for programs about wine and vineyards. I
have noticed that the finest wines are often produced in fields where the owners care for them, understand them, and take delight in them. Their vineyard is an extension of their deepest inner core. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus revealed the secret difference between the true
shepherd and the hireling: “I know my sheep.” As a pet lover, I know that when you give your heart to your animals, the return in their development is amazing. It breaks my heart to see pet owners who treat their pets like things, and I cannot tolerate any abuse of
animals. When Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” he was not (as is often the interpretation) saying that we should honor only inner treasure to the exclusion of outer. He was saying that any real and worthwhile treasure is a
treasure precisely because it elicits something of our sense of sacredness. In an age where our storehouses are chock full of toys and things and clutter, wouldn’t it be wonderful to live in a world where the only things in our lives were things (and people) we dearly loved
and cared about? In such a world, we might even care about our enemies!
We can embrace such a world, but only if we come to stillness. Stillness is the mother of appreciation, and the grandmother of delight. It distills even our dark moments such as grieving and discouragement and draws from them the nectar of wisdom and
maturity. It is the loom which weaves morning into evening, and dusk into dawn.
In stillness, we join forces with the God of creation and declare that the world is good and very good. Like God, we are not daunted by the power of evil – we respect it even as we go for its Achilles’ Heel, much as an electrical repairperson handles
downed wires carefully, knowing full well how to get them up and running again.
Stillness bestows those powers upon us all of us. As St. Paul says, it is when we are weak that we our strong. I once saw a program about some of the great mansions of the United States. The curator of one of them – I forget which one at the moment –
recalled that Helen Keller used to love to come to the music room and just sit. Her stillness overpowered her disabilities and she felt the music there.
So here’s to my much-excited friend at his bus stop. His stillness in the sun led to insight and exuberance which he shared with me and I shared with you. Stillness is contagious like that. Having caught it, we must now let it catch us, so that we can,
in turn, give it to the world.
© Copyright 2005 Father Paul Keenan. All Rights Reserved.
Read Father Paul Keenan's Past
April-June 2005 -
"Spiritual Spring Cleaning"
July-Sept 2005 - "The Spiritual Law of Gravity"
Father Paul A. Keenan,
a priest of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York,
is its Director of Radio Ministry in the Office of
Communications. He served as co-anchor and consultant
for the broadcasts of ABC News Radio for its coverage of
the death and funeral of Pope John Paul II and the
election and installation of Pope Benedict XVI. He
co-hosts “Religion on the Line,” a weekly news/talk
program on WABC Radio in New York City (airtime 7:00 –
10:00 a.m. ET Sundays and available live on
www.wabcradio.com.) He is a
regular columnist for Catholic New York and for
SoulfulLiving.com and serves as a parish priest in New
York City. He is the author of the books Good News
for Bad Days, Stages of the Soul and
Heartstorming, all of which are available through
this website. He hosts his own site at