In the Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time we visited the book of Ecclesiastes, exposing ourselves to a challenging teaching from our Lord. We are reminded that the entire world, and all its endeavours are “vanity.” This seems strange to state, because we know that God created the world, and that the world was good (Gen 1:31). So how can we understand scripture calling all things “vanity” if they are also good?
It might help to understand what the term “vanity” actually meant in the language it was written. The word could more properly be termed “bubble.” You know, those empty things that come into existence and out of existence in the twinkle of an eye! Yes, the world, as good and as beautiful as it is, is passing into existence and abruptly out of existence: it doesn’t last. Therefore, it would be like building a sandcastle and placing all your hope into that castle – until the tide comes to wipe it away (Matt 7: 24-27). No matter how many times it is rebuilt, the tide will always come in to wipe it away – and so in this sense, such efforts are in vain – they are bubbles to burst.
What does this teach us about ourselves as human beings? It teaches us that within our own nature, within mankind’s vocation, there is a place where we ought to channel all of our energy towards that which is transcendent of bubbles, or that which is going out of existence. What is it that transcends the world? It would be that which “does not pass into and out of being” but rather that which is Eternal – God.
We are all built for happiness, as Aristotle suggested. It is the ultimate desire for which every human being lives and breathes. But it isn’t a vain happiness that bursts and passes out of existence. How much grief does one go through when they place all their hopes in such bubbles – and yet they all come to nothing. There are many sentiments which repress the very grief that has been experience – some might say, “it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved before.” And as true as this might sound, and popular to quote, saying it doesn’t change the fact that such a person whishes that loss never happened. That intuitive response is not unreasonable, it is rather a revelation into our very nature, and what it longs for: eternal love – and this comes from God alone.
We sometimes cling to such bubbles because deep down we believe that is all there is. We want to forget or put aside for the moment, the reality that such good things will come to an end, and thereby turn such created bubbles into our own Idol. This is a lack of faith in God, who has prepared for us a heavenly homeland. Heaven is the reason we were created – it is our destination, configured and programed into each soul.
According to Aristotle, when we come into contact with something good and beautiful, our soul is impressed with what he called the “intentional form” of the object of our sensation. All that means is that our soul is impressed with the beauty and goodness of that created thing in such a way that we become one with it. When you see a beautiful sunset, and leave that sunset, that beauty continues to live on in your own soul, although its beauty is finite. Therefore, we want to see more, and that impression it leaves on us, leaves us with an incredible thirst for a never-ending show of beauty. It gives us a foretaste of something we long for even more. This reveals, once again, that we are longing for more than just earthly water, as the woman at the well did (John 4). She continued to go back for more, but as always thirsty for more until Christ offered her water that would leave her finally satisfied.
Likewise, Christ reveals that the water that will satisfy us is Himself, and nothing else. Therefore, when we enter into heaven we are told that we will see God face-to-face (1 Cor 13:12). In that vision of God, He will impress His own divine Substance (infinite beauty, Love, and goodness) upon our own soul, and we will become One-with-Him. This is a type of marriage (Revelation 19:6-9), where the true spouse of our soul will be known intimately, and we will be better for it – and become Him, insofar as we are impressed, within our soul with Him.
St John Damascene writes,
‘Since the Creator bestowed on us His own image and Spirit, and we did not keep them secure, He Himself took a share of our poor and weak nature so that He might cleanse us, and make us incorruptible, while reinstating us as participants in His Divinity.’
St Maximos the Confessor says,
‘A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to the Deification of human nature is provided by the Incarnation of God, which makes man God, to the same degree as God Himself became man. For it is clear that He who became without sin will make human nature divine, and will raise it up for His own sake, and to the same degree as He lowered Himself for man’s sake.’”
Imagine, therefore, for a moment that we are infused with the infinite beauty and goodness of a God who never dies, never “pops,” like the vain things within our world. Is this not worthy of leaving all things behind?
Therefore let us critically examine what St. Thomas Aquinas referred to as the four idols that we could possibly worship above God: Honour, Power, Pleasure, and Wealth.
At the end of the day, these are the four idols that we can be ensnared and enslaved in. There are people who are spiritually unaware that they are motivated by these four idols, and while they might condemn them visibly they are entirely blind to how they bring incredible misery to themselves and others.
What is required is to be “awoken” by divine light to these four weeds that grow strong in every human heart? We must learn to identify them concretely, not generally and with the safety of ambiguity and vagueness. Awaken soul!
What is the remedy to these four idols, with which we must learn detachment. First we must realize that they are not of themselves evil, but become evil when they are placed at the centre of our lives. We mustn’t have a repressed view of these four things, but rather place them where they belong: second to God. The ultimate remedy however is the Crucified Christ who by His crucifixion was willing to be concretely detached from all four in order to conform Himself to God’s will.
The Crucifixion reveals the ultimate detachment of worldly goods, when He is dishonoured, abandoned, dejected and accused of blasphemy. Christ is tortured both physically and emotionally to the point where in his affect and intellect He can no longer sense or understand how the Father remains present to Him (Matt 27:46). Although Christ “felt” such abandonment, He did not cooperate with such darkness of mind and heart, but rather abided in His Father by virtue of His human will. Apart from this unpleasant experience, He too forsake all worldly possessions as even His garments were taken away and He was humiliated in His nakedness upon the Cross. He came into the world, and He leaves the world poor. Finally, as His hands and feet are nailed to the cross, in His human nature he becomes subject to the futility of suffering, powerless and entirely passive to such cruelty. It isn’t the type of passivity where Christ becomes agreeable to the wicked insults and demands of His persecutors, but rather he simply allows such evil and malice to come crashing down upon Him. Why? Because happiness is not found in Power, Pleasure, Honour or Wealth – Christ reveals it is found in doing God’s will, and being willingly to leave all things to enter Heaven. Therefore, Christ teaches us that if we long and love God, we can be happy or joyful even on the Cross. Perhaps not the type of happiness that is felt in an emotional manner, but the peace that transcends understanding (Phillipians 4:7).
Applying these Teachings
Jesus gives us the image that the Road to Heaven is narrow (Matt 7:14). Thinking critically this means that we enter heaven with literally nothing. You cannot fit through a narrow door when you are carrying a great deal of baggage. This is why St. John of the Cross teaches that the true path into heaven is “Nada” (nothing).
The object of our desire is God Himself – He is the prize we are zealously looking for. God wants to give us the best, and it just so happens that God is the best. And so in order for us to receive Him, we need to be willing to leave all things behind, so that in transition between this life and the next we can pass through that narrow gate.
Whenever we celebrate mass, we note that the procession of gifts takes place prior to the consecration. Our gifts should be looked at as giving away these four idols – the honour, pleasure, wealth and power that we cling to. We are saying to God, I’m willing to put all of these aside out of love for you and in searching for you. What God does through the priest is He takes these four things which we offer, symbolized by Bread and Wine, and he changes them into Himself. Therefore, what we have longed for, and been working towards through detachment becomes available to us at every mass. Therefore, look at all the work you do throughout the week as a sacrifice “acceptable” to God, a sacrifice that Christ will take, carried spiritually by your guardian angel to the foot of the Altar. It is amazing how our sacrifice of all the world actually is changed into that which we desire most: the Body, Soul and Divinity of Christ.
In this year of mercy, I might suggest you examine those Spiritual and Corporeal acts of mercy that involve detachment from your comfort zone in these four areas. What will bring you dishonour, what might cause you to spend some money, what might detach you from pleasure and personal comfort, and finally what power do you need to give up in order to be merciful to others. Do these things and God will bless you with a fruitful reception of Holy Communion, where your heart and soul are truly open to and longing for God.