In high school I had two outstanding English teachers who introduced me to Platonism and Existentialism. They were not comprehensive surveys by any means, but the exposure was enough to captivate me. I suspect that many young people have these same tendencies, even if they never learn to define these “isms.” I was absolutely taken with the notion of a “realm of forms,” above and beyond space and time, in which the perfect essence of all things resided and with which the human mind could make some fleeting contact. I was enraptured with the idea that “I do not really belong here” and that the difficulties of adjusting to the world around me were not a reflection of my own inadequacy, but rather a confirmation of the futility and absurdity that characterized all human existence. Some teens get tattoos to express these sorts of sentiments; others indulge in the Phaedo and Ionesco’s Bald Soprano.
I was surprised and heartened to find that Scripture could more than accommodate my teenage discontent with the world, most of all in the book of Ecclesiastes. We hear the classic refrain of Qoholeth in the first of today’s readings: “vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” The teacher goes on to explain that the usual attributes we strive to cultivate cannot be reliably correlated with human fulfillment. “For what profit comes to man from all the toil and anxiety of heart with which he has labored under the sun? All his days sorrow and grief are his occupation.” What good is hard work, wisdom, knowledge and skill? What does it all amount to in the end? If we are honest, we should admit that there is no guarantee that things will “come out right in the end,” no assurance—at least in this life—that the scales of merit and reward will ultimately balance themselves out.
We all try to find “rules of thumb” that give us reliable associations between our actions and their consequences, most of all in our moral and religious reasoning. Yet it is difficult to read today’s readings from Ecclesiastes and Psalm 90 and come up with any easy technique for achieving “your best life now” in several simple, memorable steps. The psalm ends with the repeated plea to “prosper the work of our hands,” but it is a cry that rises not from one attending to the lingering loose ends of an otherwise failsafe plan, but from one who recognizes that human endeavors are almost nothing but loose ends. To “count one’s days aright” is to understand just how volatile and evanescent human life really is. This understanding yields “wisdom of heart” to the extent that it leads one to a true perspective about the significance of one’s life, and so places one in a receptive posture. The joy and gladness of which the psalm speaks is not the fruit of human enterprise, but comes only when Another “fills us at daybreak with his kindness.” His love for us is the key to our “prosperity,” since it is the only aspect of our existence that does not immediately dissolve into insignificance when we truly recognize how small our lives are in comparison with the cosmos around us.
“What is man that you care for him?” the psalmist elsewhere asks. “And yet you have exalted him above the other creatures, making him a little lower than the angels.” One of chief signs of this exaltation is the ability—indeed the compulsion—to inquire into the ultimate meaning of our existence, both as individuals and as a species. Thus our distinctive capacity to reflect upon our existence can also lead to a kind of despair, especially as we come to recognize the deep contingency that pervades every aspect of it. That contingency, it seems to me, is the central thread that holds all these readings together. There is no guarantee of happiness here below: no amount of work or knowledge automatically translates into prosperity; no degree of social capital or wealth can ultimately ensure one’s legacy in perpetuity.
The wisdom of the psalmist contrasts directly with the foolishness of the rich man who schemes to permanently secure the fruit of his labors. He imagines the conversation he will have with himself when is done building his barns: “I shall say to myself, ‘Now as for you, you have so many good things stored up for many years, rest, eat, drink, be merry!”’ We should first attend to the fact that having daydreams about future conversations with oneself is not usually a sign of psychological health, let alone growth in wisdom or holiness! Things become even more alarming, though, when the content of those daydreams concern one’s own invulnerability to fortune. And so God says to him, “You fool, this night your life will be demanded of you; and the things you have prepared, to whom will they belong?”
The rich man is deluded not just because he has invested his life in things that are extremely fragile, but even more because those things don’t ultimately matter. It is true that the crops in his barns and the coins in his chest cannot buy his life on the day it is demanded of him, but the fact that this impotence would distress the rich man is an indication of even greater misunderstanding: a misunderstanding of what really matters, what the true “currency” of the universe really is and by what logic it operates.
The mystery of this tragic case is that the true wealth which eludes the rich man’s grasp is not something we can observe and acquire in the way we observe and acquire other things in the world. “What matters to God” is very often hidden from our sight, since it is not something that can be compelled and controlled by our own power. One cannot conduct data-based analyses on it; one cannot legislate it or store it away for future enjoyment. In fact, it is so different from the usual things that matter to us that St. Paul employs the analogy of death and resurrection to describe our recognition and embrace of these “things that are above.” It is strong language conveying a stark conversion from the prevailing logic of the world: “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ your life appears, then you too will appear with him in glory.” St. Paul declares that the habits and ways of thinking associated with the old life must be “put to death.” There is no bottom-up evolution here, no gradual process of appropriation and transformation. What matters to “the world” and what matters to God are as different as life and death.
Here is where the Platonists and existentialists can be of service to the Christian faith. They refuse, as they should, any final compromise between the tenuous goods of this world and the abiding Good that could truly satisfy the human heart. In denying the existence or attainability of that Good, many of them can only advocate a form of despair. Yet it is a despair filled with much “wisdom of the heart,” of the kind that both Qoholeth and the psalmist propose. This wisdom is an invitation to the gospel, in so far as it leaves one unsatisfied with the wisdom of the world: the logic of domination, acquisition and protection. The true logic of the cosmos—the love that moves the sun and stars—is hidden from our sight and eludes our grasp. It is the logic that has inspired all the many hidden acts and words of the saints: deeds and prayers that no one may ever have known about, lives that never merited a Wikipedia entry but are nevertheless “hidden with Christ,” residing at the very heart of reality and “rich in the things that matter to God.”