Pride and Vanity
What is it that so often prevents us from knowing the true joy of life? Pride. It is and has been our downfall ever since the beginning. It is the thing that blinds us to the truth that is all around us. The writer of Ecclesiastes, inspired by the Spirit, has seen the truth of this and is so moved by it that he writes about it with poetic wonder and beauty here in this passage at the beginning of this book. He begins:
‘Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!’ To one who has come to know and love God, this insight is often so profound that it affects the way that one lives the rest of one’s life. One comes to realize that all that one once held as important, all the titles, the growing bank accounts, the fame, the ability to acquire more and more possessions, are as nothing in relation to one’s relationship with God. One begins to realize that it is one’s growing love of God that is the true source of one’s happiness in this life. One begins then to live more for God than for ‘things.’
‘What profit has man from all the labor which he toils at under the sun? One generation passes and another comes, but the world forever stays. The sun rises and the sun goes down; then it presses on to the place where it rises. Blowing now toward the south, then toward the north, the wind turns again and again, resuming its rounds…
What has been will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun. Even the thing of which I say, ‘See, this is new!’ has already existed in the ages that preceded us. There is no remembrance of the men of old; no of those to come will there be any remembrance among those who come after.’ (Ecclesiastes 1: 2-11)
We moderns are always easily impressed with things that are ‘new.’ We take pride in all the ‘things’ that we have invented, the technologies that we have developed to ‘improve’ our lives. But even these things have come into being on the shoulders of the past. They are new only in that we have found different ways to use the things of the past. We have come to deeper understandings of the things of the past and how they can be used more effectively, more efficiently, more powerfully. All of this is, of course, impressive in the finite scheme of things. The problem is that if our focus is only on these material realities, we fall easily into the pride of thinking that we are the creators and managers of all things. We fall into the blindness of self-importance. We forget that it is God who has made all things possible, that it was he who gave us both intellect and wonder. When we lose our humility, we lose our balance. And this is our constant danger.
As Christians we are challenged by our growing knowledge and love of God to let go of our false prides and to enter into the humility of the life of Christ Jesus. But we can see in the Gospels that even those who were called personally by Jesus had to gradually learn this. Remember the passages where James and John ask to sit at the right and left of Jesus in the Kingdom. Or when Peter, immediately after he has said aloud what he believed in his heart through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, he then tries to prevent Jesus from fulfilling his mission and is told, ‘Get behind me you Satan! You are thinking in man’s ways, not God’s.’
It is difficult to turn our eyes away from the immediate gratification of things. But the truth is that all these ‘things’ are impermanent, fragile, and can be taken from us at any time. They are as nothing, so much dust carried by the winds of time into the desolation of the desert. But if we have our eyes fixed on God, if we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, if we learn more and more to obey the commandments of God, which are rooted in love for him and for our neighbor, we will be gathering riches that are eternal and that the world can not match for all of its glitter, and enticing, yet finite fantasies. Remember that we are called to be in the world, but not of it.
Christians are called to ‘look up’ toward God and the things of God. The world calls us to ‘look down’ to see only what is before us, what can be held in our hands. Christians are call to live out of love for others and for God. The world calls us, like a Siren, to love things that have no life in them. On the other hand, the love of God brings about good works here on earth and eternal fullness of life in heaven. Love of things brings about greed, jealousy and death, not just of the body, but also of the soul, which perishes into the Hell of an eternal despair, of infinite grasping and never being filled.
As we grow in our love for God, when we look back over our lives we are able to see when God was present to us, fulfilling our deepest needs and strengthening us for the continuing earthly journey toward him. We begin to see his workings in all things, but more importantly, we begin to see the face of Jesus in all others, and in that humble recognition we begin to serve others more easily and happily than we serve ourselves. When this happens God’s graceful gift to us, even when we find ourselves in the midst of suffering, is happiness. When our eyes, our minds, and our hearts are fixed on God, who is Love, we begin to know the joy that can only come from the infinite and eternal heart of God. This is the one thing that the world and all of its wondrous ‘things’ and all of its foolish ‘vanities’ can not give, for all the ‘things’ of the world are finite and, ultimately, unsatisfying.
Let us pray, then, with earnest and humble hearts, for the grace to turn our eyes, our minds, and our hearts toward God. Lord, help us to be humble enough to know that ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ Give us the graces we need to turn away from the false prides of finite possessions, and the siren calls of earthly fame, or power, and bow humbly before the One who is Love eternal. In bowing humbly before God we will be freed from the slavery of our earthly vanities and we will be empowered by his grace to seek nothing less than the strength and the desire to love all others as he loved us. In doing this we will become rich in the things that last, in the things that give life here on earth, and that will give us life eternal life in heaven where we will know the fullness of joy that will come from being in the Real Presence of God who is Love, forever. Amen.
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