For what profit comes to us from the toil and anxiety of heart with which we have labored under the sun? All our days sorrow and grief are our occupation; even at night our minds are not at rest. This also is vanity.Ecclesiastes 2: 22-23
There is perhaps no more “counter-cultural” text in the scriptures than the Book of Ecclesiastes. To hear or read it is, for most of us most of the time, an experience of cognitive dissonance. Most of us were formed with the belief that life is what we make it. If things are not going well it is because we have not worked hard enough, and if we only work harder we can turn things around and realize our hopes and aspirations. Yet, yesterday on the 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time the first words of the day’s scripture readings are “Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All is vanity!”
Were we to be really honest with ourselves, we have to admit the truth of what Qoheleth says. There is a deep and painful darkness underlying the Puritan ethic that is the source of the “American Dream.” As we strain for control and dominance and wealth and position over each other while seeking security and permanence for ourselves we are only increasing our anxiety and strengthening our propensity to violence.
In less than 14 hours yesterday, we had two more mass shootings in the United States, a total of four in the past week. Having been out of the country for the past three and a half weeks, I experienced even more strongly than usual the sense of our societal madness. Although every other developed country acts to respond, with a fair level of success, when a mass act of violence occurs, we as a people continue to declare that there is nothing we can do about it. We blaspheme against God when we offer our prayers, time and again, while doing nothing. We allow the project of a minority who seek power and wealth to stymie the appropriate political action that would serve the good of the whole. There is a profound rot at the core of our society, and we refuse to acknowledge it and so are incapable of responding to it.
At first blush, one might say, “Well, isn’t this exactly the meaning of Qoheleth’s philosophy.” If all is vanity, then there is nothing to be done. It is just the way things are, so we must accept it. All action is meaningless anyway. Yet, this would be a profound misunderstanding. The teaching of Ecclesiastes is not that our actions are meaningless; it is rather that we must learn how to act in accordance with the truth of things and not out of our own ambition and seeking of security and personal gain.
The gospel that the Church pairs with this reading from Ecclesiastes is the teaching of Jesus found in Luke12 concerning greed. It is the familiar story of the rich person who has an unusually bountiful harvest but instead of sharing his windfall he builds bigger barns to store it. The American ethic of the prosperity gospel teaches that bounty is a gift from God to the virtuous, the greater the bounty presumably the greater the virtue. So, the drive to accumulate wealth and possession for oneself becomes insatiable. And the society itself supports such an aberration, for if one is poor it is due to a lack of industriousness and virtue.
But the gospel of Jesus tells quite a different story. Jesus says that all our accumulation of wealth and our striving for permanence and security is the aberration. For Jesus, there is life that is far deeper and stronger than the demands of the ego for prestige, power, and wealth. And because this life is the truth, all of our misguided attempts to control, even our own life and future, will inevitably come to nothing. This is the vanity of which Qoheleth speaks. In all that we strive for at the level of ego, there is ultimately only agitation and anxiety. As Psalm 62 reminds us, “Only in God does my soul rest.” (Psalm 62:1)
To hear the words of Ecclesiastes proclaimed yesterday at mass was a great consolation for me. I had been feeling the sorrow that comes when it seems that all of our efforts are for naught. I was living with the kind of discouragement that could lead one to “give up,” to settle for the kind of perverse acceptance with which we live with gun violence and climate change. Without realizing it, I was falling prey to a conventional reading of Qoheleth’s words, if all is vanity what difference does it make. Let me carve out a comfortable place for myself and abjure my responsibility for the whole. Or, to put it more colloquially, “To hell with it (or them).” We appropriately call such a feeling “discouragement” because it is a moving away from the deep eros and desire of our own hearts, where we know of a different life and possibility.
Ecclesiastes is such a striking exception from much of scripture because it describes not the desired or aspirational but the actual experience of life. Its message is not that we should give up the work that is our call in the face of such vanities, but rather that we are to learn how to work differently. What is vain is not the work and effort. Rather, what is vain is our pursuit of self-enhancement, personal security, and personal gain in our work. As human, these are always an aspect of our efforts. The struggle between spirit and flesh of which St. Paul speaks is the inner conflict inherent in our efforts: we are, on the one hand, attempting to serve reality and the truth while, on the other, we are also serving our own security, dominance, and comfort. Life reforms and transforms us by reminding us of the futility of the latter, that we might increasingly live the way, truth, and life of the former.
Serving the “conventional wisdom” is always easier than serving the transcendent dynamic of reality. it is far easier to assume the stance that there is nothing to be done (that will buttress my ego) than that we should continue to spend ourselves in the seemingly unattainable but reality-oriented pursuit of God’s will. When Julian of Norwich says that “All will be well, and all will be well, and all manner of thing shall be well,” she is not offering an excuse for giving up. She is rather teaching that it is possible to work and to pray in trust and joy without ceasing. Although I have known, at times, such joy in my work, I quite readily forget it when circumstances remind me of the truth that Qoheleth proclaims: “All is vanity!” There is a tendency as I work to narrow my vision, to see the value of my work in terms of outcome. This is what is vain. To whatever degree that my work is truly obedient, that is in service to God’s will and to reality, it is not in vain. For “all will be well” ultimately.
Adrian van Kaam says that our life is “a unique task, assignment, and mysterious call.” Jesus lived always mindful of that unique task, assignment, and call that was his. At every moment, in every human encounter he was mindful of the work that was given him to do by his Father. From the moment we are born to the moment of our death, our life is that unique task and call. The project is God’s project. It is when our project diverts from God’s that its vanity will always become manifest. The corollary of this is that, as in the crucifixion, even when the work, if it is the work of God, seems futile, it is not. As the disciples on the way to Emmaus, we can become discouraged when our hopes and expectations are disappointed. We can in that discouragement be tempted to distance from our hearts and to turn away from our call, to return to the conformity of conventional wisdom. Yet, also like them, in the breaking of the bread of our lives with Jesus, we can experience the rekindling of the flame of our “task, assignment, and mysterious call” that is one with his, and then get back to work.
Think on thisRami Shapiro, The Way of Solomon: Finding Joy and Contentment in the Wisdom of Ecclesiastes, p. 28
What lasting good do you derive from all your efforts and schemes?
What profit outlives the flow of time?
Treasure cannot buy security, nor power lay siege to permanence.
If you are trapped in the quest for permanence,
each day boils with anger, frustration, and needless suffering.
Night grants no rest,
and your mind seethes in rage over the theft of security.
You center your world on self,
you pamper yourself with pity,
you delude yourself with vanity—
and none of it gives you what you seek.
For your pursuit of permanence is but the ego’s fight from truth.
The pursuit is vain,
the prize is mischief,
and in the end all you have is what you are:
emptiness upon emptiness upon emptiness.