VANITY OF VANITIES, ALL IS VANITY.  The first of today’s readings invite us to engage in philosophical reflection on the human condition in this world of time. At any rate that is how such Fathers as Gregory of Nyssa and St. Jerome responded to these lines from Ecclesiastes concerning the Vanity of all world things. Origen summed up the message of this Wisdom book as teaching detachment from the ambitions and pleasures of this life and recommended it especially as reading for the early stages of the spiritual life. Centuries later, St. Bernard was to follow in this same tradition advising his monks, in the first of his Sermons on the Canticle, to prepare themselves for the higher reaches of prayer by first mastering the lesson taught by our author, known as Qohelet, in Hebrew, Ecclesiastes in Greek.

There are various surprising features to this text, one of the more obvious of which is the fact that is contains a number of discrepancies. In one passage (4:2) we read: ‘ those now dead are more fortunate than those still living"- a passage that surely makes us wonder what kind of a teacher we are dealing with-; then, later in his book we find: "a live dog is better off than a dead lion." (9:4), an observation to which we find easier to give our assent. There are a number of similar instances where observations of life stand in high tension if not downright opposition. What are we to make of such a writer? More importantly, what is his place in Scripture? What is God revealing in such a work. Rightly to grasp the message of ths text, it would seem, we must follow the example of our author and confront life in all its rawness and complexity, and do so in light of our faith in God. For, though Qohelet seems cynical at times, yet he mentions God 41 times and acknowledges him as the creator and ruler over all. He has particular care for the just. As we live out our days we discover that the human condition is replete with conflict and paradox. Facing this is the task assigned to the human person, in all realism. This is the primary occupation of each of us, and as we engage in such reflection on experience we meet God where he challenges us to faith and trust in his divine wisdom and plan. To believe that, in spite of all appearances, life has a meaning, that it is governed by a plan we understand at best only darkly in this life, this is the message of this wisdom teacher. Though his teaching needs to be complemented by the revelation brought by the Lord Jesus, it stands as a pointer to the sobering fact that happiness in this life is elusive and evanescent. We are made for nothing less than the life imparted by God which is not limited by the passing flow of time, but rather the fullness of eternal light and divine love.

In the Gospel today we are told that HEROD HEARD OF ALL JESUS WAS DOING AND WAS VERY CURIOUS TO SEE HIM. We can bring various attitudes to the words that speak to us of life in the manifold forms it assumes. The desire to know more fully, to have a more explicit and detailed understanding of the world, of creation, of human affairs, of God himself is present in unequal degree in our race. However, in some measure it is a feature of every human being to want to know, to gain fresh information for some purpose or other, hopefully, to arrive at understanding of what is essential for happiness and fulfillment. That is another way of saying that to be human is to desire wisdom, the knowledge of true life. This longing for truth arrived at by exploring creation is the basis for scientific pursuits, for philosophy, for theology. It is a wholesome curiosity. It can readily be prevented, however, and result in a kind of futile business about peripheral and trivial matters that consumes energy and time and clutters the mind and imagination with images and thoughts that prevent earnest pursuit of life-giving understanding. St. Bernard of Clairvaux made the topic of this pernicious curiosity the starting point of his first book on monastic spirituality.("The Degrees of Humility and Pride") Herod’s desire to see Jesus, as the event showed, was spurred by too much of this ineffectual curiosity; it crowded out the wholesome longing to encounter the One whose very being is the incarnation of life-giving truth. The spiritual life as St Benedict presents it, is ordered to the disciplined, daily search for those truths which at once reveal the nature of the created world and the way to engage it so as to arrive at the fullness of life in the vision of God. To enter upon this search whole-heartedly is, in the best sense of that word, to be curious to see the Lord Jesus and to know him who has become for us the wisdom of God and the source of everlasting life.

Abbot John Eudes Bamberger

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