Ecclesiastes and Existential Ills

By Father Justin Blanc For everything there is a season, says the Book of Ecclesiastes. As the leaves change colors and fall to the ground, it is a good time to consider this brief text that is one of the most intriguing—and disquieting—treasures of the Bible. While the book purports to have been penned by Solomon, this improbable claim is most likely an attempt (common in ancient writings) to gain authority and acceptance of the book by attributing it to a figure revered for his wisdom. The reflections found in its pages seem to be the fruit of the experience of a Jewish intellectual, rendered wise by much experience, in the third century B.C., many centuries after Solomon. Readers and scholars have come away with widely varying interpretations of this enigmatic book. While some have considered it a skeptical, even atheistic text, others have lauded it as a work of hope and serenity that invites its readers to appreciate the small joys of their brief days on this earth.

One intriguing approach to reading Ecclesiastes is that of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Culture. Ravasi, a Biblical scholar and man of great culture, has been called the Catholic Church’s version of “the most interesting man in the world.” Ravasi recognized Ecclesiastes’ ability to articulate seven existential maladies, or woes of the spirit that attack and degrade our sense of meaning and dull our appreciation of life. This is, after all, the book whose most quoted line is “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” (1:2). Rather than “vanity”, a more accurate translation of the Hebrew word would be “vapor,” “smoke,” or “breath,” but the meaning comes across clearly nonetheless: the pointlessness of human activity is a major theme that the book grapples with. Reading Ecclesiastes through the lens of these woes of the spirit goes well with Jesus’ assertion that it is not the healthy that need a doctor, but the ill. Cardinal Ravasi sees the Book of Ecclesiastes as a sort of doctor that draws near to his readers in order to give a name to those maladies that threaten the sense and meaning of our lives as we carry them out under the sun, day after day.

While Ravasi explores seven such ailments diagnosed by Ecclesiastes, here we have space to highlight just two—language and work—with the hope that it will provoke further reading and dialogue with the Biblical text.

In the Bible, language is of fundamental importance. Words are not empty and sterile, but rather living, efficacious, and pregnant with meaning and potential. Creation itself is the fruit of a Word: “God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1:3). Isaiah affirms the creative potential of the Word: “For just as from the heavens the rain and snow come down and do not return there till they have watered the earth, making it fertile and fruitful… So shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me void, but shall do my will, achieving the end for which I sent it” (Is. 55:10-11). And, of course, the Gospel of John reminds us “In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1).

Yet Ecclesiastes describes a different situation, one in which words have lost their potency: “All speech is weary, there is nothing man can say” (1:8). Mexican writer Octavio Paz, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1990, observed that a society begins to be corrupted when its grammar and language are corrupted. The author of Ecclesiastes seems to have observed a similar illness in the language of his time, “Of making many books there is no end, and much chatter is weariness of the flesh” (12:12). We are well familiar with this situation in our own time. We can be wearied by the endless chatter of blogs and comments. Ironically, as we are inundated with empty words, our vocabularies shrink and words seem to trap us in tiresome polemics rather than open up spaces of freedom and creativity.

Putting a name to the woe of the spirit that comes when language is sick, we can begin to see a way toward recovery. We must rediscover the life-giving Word, choose well what we read and listen to, and recognize the difference between idle chatter and those potent words that break the ice within us, making way for the Word that creates and recreates us. The second sickness is that of losing the sense of meaning in our work.

Ecclesiastes expresses this despair in multiple verses: “And I detested all the fruits of my labor under the sun, because I must leave them to a man who is to come after me” (2:18); “What gain is there for a man in all his toil that he toils under the sun?” (1:3); “What gain does he have that he should toil for the wind?” (5:15). Ecclesiastes clearly articulates the questions that sometimes assail us and begin to break down our sense that there is meaning in what we are doing: What’s it all for? What will remain? Why does any of it matter? Why bother? Indeed, feeling as though we are toiling for the wind can lead to bitterness and disgust, apathy and depression. When our approach to work is ill, symptoms may also include keeping a workaholic, frenetic pace in order to feel productive. Such constant activity can be an attempt to distract ourselves and flee from the anxiety that these questions about meaning provoke in us. This woe of the spirit finds its antidote in another Biblical conception of work found in the beginning, when God placed man in the garden of Eden, “to cultivate and care for it.” (Gen 2:15). Men and women are invited to be collaborators in creation with God. Our efforts, though humble like the mustard seed and hidden like yeast, are part of God’s continual creation and renewal of the world. In order to recognize the humble but meaningful way in which our work has value in building the Kingdom of God, it is important to find space for reflection and prayer between one action and another—to be, in short, contemplatives in action.

The Bible does not shy away from difficult questions. In this case, the Book of Ecclesiastes helps to put a name to some of the many woes that threaten our hope and joy of living, and in this way the book helps us to see those areas in need of a life-giving Word. As we put our experience into dialogue with God, with the help of Sacred Scripture, that Word quietly does its regenerating work in our hearts.