I did not always like Ecclesiastes. For many years, I found this biblical book of reflections, traditionally attributed to King Solomon, disenchanting. God doesn’t speak directly in the book and it has a dark, almost melancholy tone. I felt as if Solomon was saying, “Can’t win, don’t try.” When I shared my complaints about Ecclesiastes with my pastor at the time, Father Jack Shrum, he told me simply, “You need to read it again.” It took me a while to do it, but I’m glad I did.
I found it offered very wise counsel that can be particularly helpful as we prepare to celebrate Christmas and spend time with our families.
Prepare for disappointment. First, with the refrain “Vanity of vanities … all things are vanity,” Solomon not only prepares us for the inevitability of our death, he warns us that our accomplishments will pass away as well. (12:8)
Work hard and enjoy life anyway. Second, Solomon advises us to “eat and drink and enjoy the good of all [our] toil.” (3:13) Rather than obsess over the transience of our lives and efforts, we should be grateful for the small pleasures that God provides. We cannot ensure the permanence of our work, but we can do good and take pleasure in the simple act of doing good.
Instead of getting upset, listen to God. Third, Solomon reminds us that God knows better than we do. His ways are beyond our understanding: “Just as you do not know how the life breath enters the human frame in the mother’s womb, so you do not know the work of God, who is working in everything.” (11:5) When we experience disappointment, we should not overreact with anger. Rather, we should go to prayer and “draw near for obedience” so we might learn from God. (4:17)
Ecclesiastes tells us to set aside our attachment to our dreams so that we can be open to God’s plans. Because we are human, we cannot fully understand why things happen the way they do. But, if we are patient and listen to God, even when we are disappointed, we can still receive blessings we do not understand.
Last year, about this time, my oldest daughter came home on break from college. Our family had big plans to make the most of a day at home with Christmas music, a relaxing dinner and a movie. Then a windstorm knocked out the power. No music, cold leftovers for dinner and no movie. Plans destroyed. Dreams crushed.
I remembered that line from Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity.” It made me sad, but it also prevented me from overreacting.
As the house cooled down, we all gravitated to the propane stove for heat. With battery life scarce, all the smartphones went dormant. Without those distractions, we gave each other 100 percent of our attention telling stories and really listening. It turned out to be the best night of the winter.
Sometimes Christian witness takes the form of inspiring acts done by people like St. Teresa of Calcutta or St. Thomas Aquinas who seemed to know exactly what they were doing. Many times, though, Christian witness takes the form of patiently and gracefully accepting disappointment, trusting that, somehow, God is still at work.
We all know that our high expectations for the holidays can undermine our ability to enjoy them. But it’s hard not to get our hopes up for a perfect Christmas. Our hearts cannot resist the longing to see our love for our family and friends realized in wonderful experiences together. So we end up juggling schedules, decorating, cooking and preparing while still getting all of our ordinary work done. We would have to be superhuman not to get our hopes up after investing all this in spending time with one another.
When things don’t work out perfectly, we should remember Solomon’s advice to be patient when disappointed and listen to God. Even though our lives are not perfect, we can set aside our dreams and enjoy the small pleasures God provides, knowing that, ultimately, he has something more beautiful planned for us.
Northwest Catholic - December 2018