Vanity of Vanities

I offered the reflection at Mass yesterday, here at the Eastern Point Jesuit Retreat House, where I am on the directing team for an 8-day retreat. My focus was on the first Mass reading, from the book of Ecclesiastes, which wearily proclaims, “The sun rises, the sun goes down….  All speech is labored; there is nothing one can say.  The eye is not satisfied with seeing, no is the ear satisfied with hearing. … Nothing is new under the sun.” All in all, pretty depressing sounding.

What is the point?  That is the question the Book of Ecclesiastes considers.  What is the purpose and value of human life?

The author of Ecclesiastes (commonly thought to be King Solomon, writing in his advanced years) has sought meaning and happiness through wisdom, through self-indulgence, through success, wealth and honor.  He has pursued all of the treasures of the world, and achieved many of them.  And yet, none of it satisfies.

 “Vanity of vanities,” the reading opens, a superlative expression that seems to denote utter emptiness.  The Hebrew word for “vanity” is hebel (or hevel; I have seen it both was), which literally means “breath” or “vapor” – there is nothing to hold onto in any of these achievements.  They come, they go.

In the verses following this reading, the author expounds on this theme:  he tells us he built houses and vineyards, he constructed woodlands, acquired slaves, amassed silver and gold, brought in singers for entertainment, had many luxuries and so forth.  But he looked at all he did and all he had and still exclaims “behold! All was vanity and a chase after wind, with nothing gained.”

Standing on their own, none of the things of this world – success, wealth, honor, not any of the treasures and gifts of the world, as sparkling and as shiny as they may appear – are sufficient to bring us happiness, to give our life meaning.  They come, they go; they give us nothing that ultimately lasts.  Temporary pleasures all.

What does bring ultimate happiness, ultimate meaning?  St. Augustine put it well: ‘You have made us for yourself O God, and our hearts are restless until we rest in you.”  Or as today’s Mass Psalm today puts it: You are our refuge O lord.

 St. Ignatius understood this well, which is why he opens his Spiritual Exercises with a consideration titled the First Principle and Foundation, which Ignatius saw as the key to the spiritual life, a statement of human meaning and purpose.  The opening line (in the literal translation of the consideration) reads: “The human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our lord, and in so doing, to save his or her soul.”  Or, as David Fleming puts it in his contemporary rendition: The goal of our life is to live with God forever.  God, who loves us, gave us life.  Our own response of love allows God’s life to flow into us without limit.”

God is the end; everything else – all of the things of this world are the means by which we grow in relationship with God and each other.  Divorced from God – turned into ends rather than. means, as the author of Ecclesiastes recognized, they profit us nothing.

 This doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy what we have.  When we make, or someone serves us a tasty meal, by all means enjoy it.  A good book, a walk on the beach, an ice cream cone with your favorite flavor of ice cream.  Whatever it is, enjoy!  But we need to understand that worldly pleasures will never be enough for us.  They will never bring lasting pleasure.

So, the invitation is to hold things lightly.  Appreciate the things of this world, but do not grasp onto them as ends, as things that can bring ultimate pleasure.  In one part of his First Principle and Foundation, Ignatius says:  “In everyday life, then, we must hold ourselves in balance before all of these created gifts insofar as we have a choice and are not bound by some obligation. We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God.”

This is a prescription for spiritual freedom.  Spiritual freedom doesn’t mean I don’t have preferences.  This is not masochism – all other things being equal, I would prefer to be healthy to ill, and I would prefer to have many more years of service to God before I die.  But I recognize that I can find God in all of it.  So I don’t get attached to any of my preferences.

And spiritual freedom does not mean I do not have anything.  (I can still have my iPhone, and my music, and my computer.)  It means there is nothing I cannot give up, nothing I could not give away.  Whatever I have, I can give up.

In the letter to the Philippians Paul says, “I have learned, in whatever situation I find myself, to be self-sufficient.  I know how to live in humble circumstances; I also know how to live in abundance.  In every circumstance and in all things, I have learned the secret of being well fed and of going hungry, of living in abundance and of being in need.  I have the strength for everything through him who empowers me.”

That is the spiritual freedom we seek!

As I suggested in my reflection, this attitude is extremely counter-cultural.  Everything in our culture tries to convince us if we just had more – more money, more power, more things – we would be happy.  And so: politicians lie and scheme to better their position, people destroy their family life trying to climb the corporate ladder, some step over others to secure their own positions, others spend money they don’t have to buy things they don’t need. Vanity of vanities!

This temptation, or course, is nothing new; the temptation has been there from the very beginning and has always been there.  Today’s short Gospel passage reminds of that – of a king (Herod) who was so greedy and lustful for power and sex that he put to death a man he knew to be holy so as not to look bad in front of his friends and family.  It is a good reminder that failure to have a proper relationship to this world is not just futile, but potentially dangerous.

 And so we ask for the grace to hold all that this world has lightly.  I ended my reflection with an excerpt from a reflection titled Let Go of Everything but God, written by Howard Thurman, a prominent religious figure who played a leading role in many social justice movements ad organizations of the twentieth century.  Thurman writes:

I must let go.
For so long I have held to the habit of holding on. Even my muscles
Are tense; deeply fearful are they
Of relaxing lest they fall away from their place.
I cling clutchingly to my friends
Lest I lose them.
I live under the shadow of being supplanted by another.
I cling to my money, not so much by a wise economy and a thoughtful spending
But by a sense of possession that makes me depend on it for strength.
I must let go—deep at the core of me
I must have a sense of freedom— A sure awareness of detachment— of relaxation….

I must relax my hold on everything that dulls my sense of God,
That comes between me and the inner awareness of God’s Presence
Pervading my life and glorifying
All the common ways with wonderful wonder.
“Teach me, O God, how to free myself of dearest possessions,
So that in my trust I shall find restored to me
all I need to walk in Thy path and to fulfill l Thy will.
Let me know Thee for myself that I may not be satisfied
With aught that is less.


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