This summer, my brother and I went on a backpacking trip in the Olympic Mountains in Washington. One morning, we woke up and started our morning tasks. I grabbed the water filter and went down to a little stream near camp, and when I got there, I was amazed by this beautiful scene of early morning fog settling down on the stream. Just the kind of thing that you usually take a picture of when you are on a sabbatical learning through the practice of photography! But, the water had to get pumped, so I did that first, and then when I got back to camp to get my camera I got distracted by this thing and then another and then another. Give a mouse a cookie, right?
By the time that I was finished and remembered the mist and my camera, I rushed down to the creek, and, of course, the fog had lifted and the inspiring scene wasn’t nearly as inspiring anymore. The sun had burned off the morning mist and I had missed my chance. Bummed, I strapped on the pack and vowed to be more committed next time.
That experience helps to decode today’s Scripture passage. Actually, the whole book. “Vanity! Vanity! All is vanity!” It is the catchphrase of the book of Ecclesiastes. The Hebrew word translated “vanity” here is the word “hevel,” and like a lot of Hebrew words, is actually more complex than the English translation we give it. It can mean vanity. Or meaninglessness. Or absurdity. Or, the most poetic translation is “vapor.” “Mist.” Here for a minute and then gone. Just like a creek bed filled with early morning fog. It is a vapor, a mist, that won’t last forever. According to the author of Ecclesiastes, MOST of the things of this world are “hevel.” “Vapor.” “Meaningless.” Family? Friends? Money? Success? Glory? Wisdom? Carnal pleasures? All are vapor. All are meaningless. So much of the stuff of this world is here for a minute and then gone, leaving you to chase after it again the next day.
A fun book to read, isn’t it? How many of you would put Ecclesiastes on the top of your list of favorite books of the Bible? How many of you would put it on the bottom? Anybody see it as a rather hopeless book?
I think that part of the reason that it is such a hard book to read is because it is such a different message than the one that we are taught in our culture! Health? Wealth? Honor? Prestige? Those are the ONLY things worth our time. Worth our energy. That is what makes us happy, and it is our goal on this earth to be happy! It’s even in the Declaration of Independence, isn’t it? It is an inalienable right! The “pursuit of happiness.”
And look at what the world peddles. The right look. The right stuff. The right job. The right spouse. The right family. Our cultural heroes are the ones who are smiling and well-dressed and happy! That is our goal and our ultimate task in life! When I want to get a finger on the pulse of the culture, I go to Google. And so I typed in “how can I be happy?” Except I didn’t need to! As soon as I typed “how can I be…” auto-fill knew that I wanted to type “happy!” Apparently I wasn’t the first person asking Google that question! So I clicked on it and the results were amazing. The first ten results were almost all exactly the same: lists of what you can do to be happy. “23 ways to be happier,” “10 Scientifically proven ways to be happier today,” “15 habits of happy people.” All of them had found a way to boil down the pursuit of happiness to a few short tasks. Do these and…boom! You are happy!
But I want to push back on that idea that our task in life is to be “happy” (whatever that means.) Before I do that, let me make an important distinction. For some folks, there are chemical and clinical things going on in their brain that can bring some real instability and lead them to some dark places. For those who truly deal with clinical depression here, I know that there must be some complex emotional and even chemical work to rebuild some things. For a lot of us, though, the problem is not that complex. It is the relatively simple reality that the world tells us we must always achieve some level of happiness.
But what if our task as people of faith, our task as Christians, were not to pursue happiness? I want to engage in a thought experiment today. What would it look like if we were not trying to be happy all the time? What if we rejected the premise that we should? What if there was something else going on in the life of faith? I believe that this thought experiment IS the book of Ecclesiastes.
Let me offer that there may be a way to read Ecclesiastes that is not hopeless. Let me suggest that the author is actually incredibly hopeful in his assessment of the world. But that his assessment comes from a place of realism. What he is doing is flipping the goal from happiness to something else. In fact, according to the author, the pursuit of happiness is actually a fool’s errand. And, ironically, it gets in our way of happiness. It is the trying to accomplish and succeed and triumph and possess and follow “ten easy steps to happiness”…that leads us to a life of meaninglessness.
Now, all this is a little jarring, especially after last week’s sermon. Last week we talked about looking at things and experiencing awe in their beauty. But the author of Ecclesiastes pushes back against those ideas. He asks, “what if all of the things that once gave you awe failed?” Family members turn on you. Riches fail to buy happiness. The way of worldly wisdom fails to make you a happy person. Beauty fades. Hard for me to say it, but even church doesn’t do it for you some days. Even nature fails to bring you to that place of awe. You fail to experience the awe that you once did. According to the author of Ecclesiastes, it is when you get to THAT point—the point of realizing that those things are at some level vanity and meaninglessness and vapor—that’s the moment you actually can begin to see God: When I applied my mind to know wisdom, and to see the business that is done on earth, how one’s eyes see sleep neither day nor night, then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun.
According to the Ecclesiastes, it is the pursuit of happiness that actually gets in the way of it. Chasing after those good feelings with ten easy steps is a fool’s errand. On top of that, trying is actually counterproductive! Like a dog chasing his tail, when you chase happiness you end up going nowhere. The never-ending pursuit of happiness actually brings…despair!
So what do we do instead? Again, the author has an answer: However much they may toil in seeking, they will not find it out; even though those who are wise claim to know, they cannot find it out. (Ecclesiastes 8.16-17)
Stop trying so hard. “You cannot find it out.” You aren’t going to be able to fully understand God, fully see God, fully understand the awe-some-ness of God. And for the author of Ecclesiastes, that is the good news. When you stop trying to figure out God in the things of this world or even in the practices of faith, you come to a place where in the silence…in the space…in the meaninglessness…is God. In other words, when you cease your eternal striving for perfect peace of mind and the perfect job and the perfect family and the perfect church and the perfect way to understand God, when you acknowledge your own limitation and understand that you are not going to figure it out, then God shows up. Just like God does in the end of Job. And in the belly of the whale. And at the Garden of Gethsemane. In the places where our searching ends, God is there.
So many people of faith have come to exactly the same conclusion as the author of Ecclesiastes. Remember last week, I talked about Annie Dillard and the awe that she points us to in the natural world? Goldfish scales and caterpillar heads and exquisite intricacy? That is the first half of her book Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But in the second half, she starts to talk about the violence inherent in nature. The disease present. The way animals kill each other. The destruction that takes place there. And by the end of it, she has come to a place where you even wonder if she sees God in nature at all!
Several years later, she wrote about the book and what she had in mind. Indeed the book is written in two parts. The first part describes the beauty and “pizzazz” that she saw in nature, and how she saw God’s fingerprints all over it. But in the second half, she writes about what she calls the Via Negativa. It is an ancient tradition by those Christian thinkers who find that God is not always found in the things of the world, but in the absence of those things. In the silence. In the space. In the darkness. In the emptiness. In the meaninglessness. For Dillard, this was just as profound a realization as the realization of awe in the natural world. She says it this way, “Anything we may say of God is untrue, as we can know only creaturely attributes, which do not apply to God. Thinkers on the via negativa jettisoned everything that was not God; they hoped that what was left would be only the divine dark.” For Dillard and those in the Christian tradition to whom she points, when our attempts to happiness turn up empty, sometimes our best response is silence.
Consider the words of the hymn that we sing at Christmastime: Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence. Written for the Church as early as 275 after the birth of Christ, it teaches this same point that Ecclesiastes teaches, as does Dillard:
Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descending
Comes our homage to demand.
About 1200 years later, another Christian writer made the same point. St. John of the Cross was a Spanish monk in the 1500’s and a theologian and philosopher. He came to much the same conclusion as the hymn and Ecclesiastes, and found it to be good news! He wrote about what he called, the Dark Night of the Soul. For John, it was natural for a Christian to come to the point where their practices of awe become meaningless. John wrote that as we get closer to God, our prayer, our Scripture readings, our worship, all become dry and—to quote the author of Ecclesiastes—meaningless. This is John’s Dark Night. And like Ecclesiastes, it is actually good news! It means that God is pulling us to a deeper place, a place where we no longer rely on those things, the happiness that they bring, or even the awe that we experience. When we reach that Dark Night, we become able to embrace the space. The silence. The emptiness. According to John, God “weans us from all of the pleasures by giving us dry times and inward darkness.” Then, and only then, can we begin to see God not only in the big and bold, but as the ever-present Ground of Being, with us regardless of whether or not we are emotionally happy.
Dillard and the author of Mortal Flesh and St. John of the Cross all saying the same thing. Stop chasing that which fails to make you happy. In fact, stop chasing “happy.” Start waiting in silence, sitting in the space, for the One that brings you true fulfillment. Harmony. Peace.
It wasn’t until after that trip into the Olympic Mountains that I started to get that. I still was in the mood to capture all I saw, including that beautiful scene by the creek bed. If only I had paused to realize that even after the mist had cleared, that God was still there! That there was still beauty, and even if there wasn’t, there was still God. If only I had started to learn earlier that the silence and the space had as much to teach as the beauty and the majesty.
I eventually started to get it. Later on, my readings suggested that I take pictures of “space.” This is harder than one would think. We are used to taking pictures of things. We take pictures of things on backgrounds. Imagine the challenge of taking pictures of just the background. The difficulty of taking pictures of space and emptiness.
I gave it a try. Not sure how well I pulled it off. I have more to practice on this one. In photography and in my spiritual life. I pray that the God of Ecclesiastes might teach me that even if the world’s answers are “meaningless,” God is still there. And I pray that I might learn to be still and silent and hopeful. I pray that I might keep learning from folks like Dillard. In another book she wrote, Teaching a Stone to Talk, she continues to teach me:
“I have a taste for solitude, and silence, and for what Plotinus called, ‘the flight of the alone to the Alone.’ I have a taste for solitude….The light on the far side of the blizzard lures you. You walk, and one day you enter the spread heart of silence, where lands dissolve and seas become vapor and ices sublime under unknown stars. This is the end of the Via Negativa, the lightless edge where the slopes of knowledge dwindle, and love for its own sake, lacking an object, begins.”