1 2 “Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever….
2 20 So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors under the sun,
21 because sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.
22 What has a man from all the toil and striving of heart with which he toils beneath the sun?
23 For all his days are full of sorrow, and his work is a vexation. Even in the night his heart does not rest. This also is vanity.”
Ecclesiastes 1: 2-4; 2:20-23
How many times have you not felt like this? You look around and you wonder why you bothered, because either it all seems to end in ways you neither expected nor wanted or there doesn’t seem to be much point to any of it anyway. Life can, at times, just seem futile .
When moments like that occur, we should stand up, raise our hands, and thank God that we are being forced to ask the question, “Is there really such a thing as hope in my life- something more than just whistling in the dark as I walk past the graveyard of my own life? Is there some way that I can learn to trust in the mercy of God while looking despair and bitterness and self-pity square in the eye?” The writer of the book of Ecclesiastes has done us a great favor by articulating what all of us, or at least most of us, feel, at one time or another, but which we often are too afraid to speak aloud- that life is nothing more than the passing of seconds and minutes and hours and days without any real meaning or purpose, and that “the real winner is the one who”, as that terribly cynical bumper-sticker puts it, “the one who dies with the most toys”.
The journey towards hope does, in fact, often begin with the sentiment expressed in the passage from Ecclesiastes- at a time of cynicism– at a time maybe when someone precious to you has died, or you have lost your job, or your sense of purpose in life, or maybe when you have been unfairly passed over, or slighted or even betrayed by someone you trusted as a friend. You may be living under a heavy cloud of depression or you may have an addiction that just won’t let go but controls your life in ways you wish it didn’t. Even when life is not so desperate, you can wonder whether just the ordinary ups-and-downs and rough-and-tumble of daily living that can seem like a roller coaster ride are really worth it. Is there not some way to find greater equilibrium and a deeper, steadier current in life? In other words, what is the answer we give inside ourselvesto the question raised by the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes about life’s vanity, it’s uselessness? If we are to live authentic lives as Christian people, at some point, we need to respond to the preacher, if only to ourselves.
I have found the American Episcopalian theologian, Cynthia Bourgeault’s, reflections in her book, Mystical Hope. Trusting in the Mercy of God, to be very helpful in thinking about this problem, and showing us the road towards a deep and lasting hope and how we might actually find joy in the very midst of disappointment. Her book is well worth reading.
The way that we usually look at things, she says, is that hope is tied to outcomes– a sense that things will get better in the future- that job I’m hoping for will come through for me, the contract I was anticipating will be granted, the biopsy will prove negative, the person I’ve been having real problems with will begin to respond in the way I like. But if things don’t work out- there is no job, there is no cure, there is no positive response, then the situation can seem, as we say, “hopeless”.
The Bible knows plenty about this usual, conventional kind of hoping. “I will love the Lord,” the psalmist says, “becausehe has heard the voice of my supplication.. . I was brought very low, and he helped me” (Psalm 116:1,5) Or, when the Israelites find themselves between a rock and hard place as they were pursued by Pharoah’s armies, the sea parted and the way was miraculously opened for their escape into freedom. These kind of things can indeed happen, but not always, and maybe not often. Where are we left in our lives when the biopsy comes back malignant, when the marriage falls apart, when the pink slip is put under the office door, when there are no miraculous interventions? Not only does the situation seem hopeless, but then it can also seem as if our religion is nonsense and God has abandoned us. I have often found that many responses to this kind of problem are sentimental, overly-pious, and at the end of the day fairly useless.
There is, however, another kind of hopethat we find in the Scriptures, one that is almost a complete reversal of our usual, conventional way of looking at things. Beneath the upbeat, triumphalist kind of hope that parts the sea and trusts that everything will just turn out for the best, at least for us good guys, there is another kind of hope that somehow sees into the wellsprings of life despitewhatever is happening. At the end of the Old Testament book of Habakkuk at the conclusion of a long litany of doom with the way things are going in the land, the prophet suddenly exclaims:
17Though the fig tree does not blossom,
and no fruit is on the vines;
though the produce of the olive fails
and the fields yield no food;
though the flock is cut off from the fold
and there is no herd in the stalls,
18yet I will rejoice in the Lord;
I will exult in the God of my salvation.
19God, the Lord, is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
and makes me tread upon the heights.
Now here is a reversal of the way we usually respond to things. It’s was as bad as things could get in Habakkuk’s day- no crops, no flocks, no food- not a good scenario in a desert land. And yet Habakkuk’s response is not depression, not resentment, not looking around and bemoaning life, no “vanity of vanities, everything is vanity”. It’s not even some stoic kind of “let’s get through this, boys with an English stiff upper lip” approach to endurance. Despite everything, despite all the hopelessness of the situation, there is almost a spring in his step- “like the feet of a deer”- and his path leads upwards, not downwards; God makes him walk up to the heights. There is almost an “incredible lightness of being” in the way Habakkuk is responding.
This same kind of hope comes through in the folktale book of Job, when Job, after the agony of his ordeal has finally settled in and he is sitting destitute amid the wreckage of what once was his life, he exclaims: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.” Perhaps nowhere in all of human literature is there such a triumphant statement of hope. Job’s hope is not tied to any kind of good outcome that he sees just around the corner. His whole life has collapsed and even God seems to stand against him, and yet, yet, something is singing in his soul that can’t be stamped out, and it can’t be stopped.
So what is the differencebetween what we might call the “mystical hope” that Habakkuk, and Job, and pre-eminently Jesus, and countless others have had in the very midstof loss and disaster, and the more usual, conventional kind hope that we often have- “don’t worry, mate, things will, of course, get better soon”- but which is so quickly snuffed out when all the verdicts around us are negative, and then we are tempted, like the preacher in the book of Ecclesiastes to cry out, “useless, useless, it’s all useless”? What’s the difference between these two different kinds of “hope”?
The mystical hope of Habakkuk, Job, Jesus, and others like them is not tied to a good outcome they can see happening on the next step of the journey. Their hope seems to have a life of its own, despiteexternal circumstances and conditions that push against them. Their hope is somehow tied to God’s future, to God’s Kingdom which is yet to be. But the reason they can trust in this future and this Kingdom is rooted in their experience of what might be called “Presence”, their experience of being met, being heldby something mysteriously yet intimately at hand. They neither rush ahead into the future nor shrink back into the past. Rather, they somehow seem capable of living in the present,and in the present being able to know the flutter of the wings of grace and to sense the hand of God pressing into their lives. To live in hope, both for them and for us, means, I think, learning to lean into the presence that is at hand and to trust that it can and it will hold us in the midst of whatever we are experiencing as we journey towards the Kingdom which is yet to come. In a sense, the kind of hope that Habbakuk and Job and Jesus had was rooted in their ability to acknowledge and face the mess in which they were living, but also to live into the future because of the Presence they had already experienced.
[Excursus: the difference between our conventional hope and “mystical hope” can be seen in how we approach the Mystery of Healing/Unction: either we receive it because we believe it will make us better and when it doesn’t, then we think that God has lied to us, OR in this sacrament, we do ask for healing, which may or may not happen, and we are aware that it may not happen. What we are really asking for in Unction, like in all other sacraments, is that we might be put us in touch with the Presence of God (that’s what sacraments do!), in this case within the concrete context of our suffering. We are asking that Unction give us the gift of mystical hope rooted in an experience of the Presence.]
It certainly is, however, far easier to stand in the tradition of the preacher in Ecclesiastes and bemoan the fact that life sucks. That certainly is my own tendency. When things go wrong, I feel relief only if they can be corrected and sorted out. That certainly would be my default approach to hope. But if we can catch ourselves and go back to those words of Habbakuk and ponder them again. And then ask ourselves: “What will I doif things can’t be fixed? What will I lean into? What will I hope in?” How can my default sense of “it’s all bloody useless” be transformed into “yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation?” How can that happen? It’s worth thinking about!
“This is the rule of most perfect Christianity, its most exact definition, its highest point, namely, the seeking of the common good; for nothing can so make a person an imitator of Christ as caring for neighbors.” St. John Chrysostom
“Whatever is received is received according to the manner of the receiver.” (Quidquid recipitur ad modum recipientis recipitur) St. Thomas Aquinas
“Did not our Lord share this table with tax collectors and harlots? So, do not distinguish between worthy and unworthy. All must be equal for you to love and serve.” St. Isaac of Nineveh