Temporary Duty

The longer I live, the more sympathy I have with Solomon, if he is, in fact, the author of Ecclesiastes. Everything is meaningless. What can we do that has lasting significance? Very few achievements—even within our lifetimes—have enduring meaning, so what do we do, what can we do, to leave the world a better place?

Anything we do eventually is undone by time, water, and man. We fight wars and yet there are always wars left to fight. There seems to be an unending supply of bad guys in the world, from purse-snatchers to genocidal dictators. It seems the best we can hope for is a good woman, a warm bed, good food and drink, a roof over our head, and to die in our sleep, to paraphrase Solomon and tack on a bit of Kenny Rogers.

I think monastics have an insight into life’s meaning that most of us miss. They see this life as a preparation for the next. That mindset makes this life and its hunger, violence, and disease more tolerable. It’s just like I used to reframe the 9 weeks of basic training for the soldiers I counseled—it’s only 9 weeks; it’s the gateway to a better life; you just have to put up with some of its quirks and get through it.

So it seems to be with this life. Do your best to serve God because he holds the keys to the eternal life you really want. Nothing else matters; this is only 90 years, give or take a few.

There is joy in this life, but it is smaller than expected. It’s not insignificant, but it’s more personal and fleeting. A Redstart, a fountain pen, a pleasant walk as the sun fades. Even sex, which our culture has distorted into the only purpose of our existence, is small and personal, with no lasting achievement outside of procreation. Our experiences of the divine are equally fleeting. Paul, taken up to the third heaven, did not remain there, and John’s revelation could easily have transpired in an afternoon.

If Solomon had possessed a clearer view of life after death, his puzzling book may have had a different tenor, probably a more Benedictine one. He seemed to view death as the end, not a transition. As Paul wrote much later, if that is the case, we are to be pitied above all men. This life is best taken with a healthy dose of gratitude to God and grace to our fellow man. When death comes, it shouldn’t shock us or scare us. It is as natural as going to sleep at the end of the day, and should be as welcome.

For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth,
and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.
But be glad and rejoice forever in that which I create;
for behold, I create Jerusalem to be a joy,
and her people to be a gladness.
I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people;
no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.
No more shall there be in it an infant who lives but a few days,
or an old man who does not fill out his days,
for the young man shall die a hundred years old,
and the sinner a hundred years old shall be accursed.
They shall build houses and inhabit them;
they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
They shall not build and another inhabit;
they shall not plant and another eat;
for like the days of a tree shall the days of my people be,
and my chosen shall long enjoy the work of their hands.
They shall not labor in vain
or bear children for calamity,
for they shall be the offspring of the blessed of the LORD,
and their descendants with them.
Before they call I will answer;
while they are yet speaking I will hear.
The wolf and the lamb shall graze together;
the lion shall eat straw like the ox,
and dust shall be the serpent’s food.
They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain,”
says the LORD.

Isaiah 65:17-25 (ESV)


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