Monday, August 1, 2016

Everything is Meaningless! Praying with the 'vanity of vanities'

Readings for Sunday, July 31/ 18th Sunday of Ordinary Time:
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23
Psalm 90
Colossians 3:1-5, 9-11
Luke 12:13-21

This week the Holy Father has been in Poland for the celebration of World Youth Day. 2 Million youth and young adults from around the world have gathered for Mass, prayer, catechesis, and to share in the joy of being a universal Church. What intrigued me in watching the various celebrations was the face of Pope Francis. In the majority of the encounters with people he was his usual jovial self - smiles illuminating his eyes and the joy of the Gospel written on his face. When he went to the concentration camp at Auschwitz it was different though. His face as he walked around the grounds and prayed at the various sites was one of a solemn and somber nature. You could see in his face and body posture the weight of a profound mystery, the great sufferings endured by so many people.

Some of the survivors of the Holocaust have written and spoken of the horrors that took place within those gates. Many recall how some of the most faithful people among them lost all faith as they endured and witnessed the suffering and death of their friends, families, neighbors, and their own selves. Many, it is said, were the ones who cried out in search of the meaning of it all – What is the point of this?! Why is this happening?! What is the meaning of it all?!

Viktor Frankl was a man who himself endured great suffering in Auschwitz. He lost most of his family there and was subjected to the inhumane conditions that claimed the lives of so many. But as he endured it all, he also reflected on it. Victor Frankl was a psychologist and he continued his labor as such even in the camp. He tells of how the Nazi guards would intentionally starve the prisoners for long periods of time and then throw a small bit of bread into the middle of the yard so they could watch the prisoners tear at each other in hopes of getting a few scraps. Many did so, seeking to feed themselves before others who were more in need. But Frankl also noticed that in the face of these attempts at dehumanization, there were many who kept their dignity and some who were able to attain a piece of bread that immediately brought it to others more in need of it than themselves. This made him think about the differences between people in the camp, particularly in how they viewed their future. He came to realize that if one had lost hope and had nothing to look forward to, they often died in the camp. On the opposite end, many who were subjected to great trials endured them on account of their desire to fulfill some hope they still clung to. Ultimately Frankl survived his time in Auschwitz and was freed, after which he wrote a book called “Man’s Search for Meaning” in which he provided an axiom that described his experience: if we have a why to live, we can endure almost any how. Or in Christian terms, if we have hope, we can carry any cross.

The readings this weekend help us to grapple with this mystery a bit too, particularly in regards to the reading from Ecclesiastes, which is rather jolting. This is the one and only time we hear from Ecclesiastes in the three-year Sunday readings, so I encourage you to go read through it yourself. What you will likely experience as you start to read through it is a sense that it is quite different than the rest of the books of the Bible. While many have historical or a more positive theological tone, Ecclesiastes is the gut-wrenching cry of an anguished heart: Vanity of vanities! Everything is vanity! The Hebrew word for ‘vanity’ is ‘hevel’ and is also translated as a waste, a breath, vapor, useless, meaningless, and the like. Qoheleth cried out in frustration as he sees that he works and labors with skill and all he works to attain will be left behind to another person who has done nothing to deserve it. He goes through an contemplates how he can have all wealth, power, honor, health, and worldly wisdom, and in the end he will die the same as someone who has none of it. What is the point of this life? he challenges the invisible God. Vanity of vanities! Like chasing after the wind. This litany of frustrations is not the end of the book, however. In response to all of these things and the vanity of being consumed with the things of the world, the writer concludes that we ought simply to enjoy the things that come our way and to follow the way of the Lord. So if you have wealth, health, wisdom, power, honor, and the like, enjoy it and use it well. But don’t make that your goal. These are not what matters to God and this is what he New Testament passages clearly remind us.

St. Paul tells the Colossians to set their eyes on the things that are above, not the things that are on earth, and the same applies to use. Do you not know, brothers and sisters, that you have died in Christ? Then think of heavenly things – the Blessed Trinity, the glory of the saints, the joy of the angels, the beauty of heaven. Set your hearts there and store up those riches. The earthly riches are nothing in comparison. The wealthy man in the Gospel who stores up great quantities to permit himself years of rest and relaxation is met with the voice of the Lord telling him he won’t even survive the night. Be rich, then, in the things that actually matter to God. And what is it that matters to God? What’s most important to God? You might rephrase it with that of another Gospel narrative: What is the greatest commandment? You know the answer. Love God, love neighbor. So what is it that matters to God? Love God, love neighbor.

St. Maximilian Kolbe was a Franciscan priest who himself endured suffering and death within the gates of Auschwitz. One of the norms at the camp was that if someone tried to escape or actually escaped, 10 or so men would be killed as a sort of penalty. The purpose was to dissuade trying to get out of the camp, using the possible death of family and friends as a deterrent. One day someone did escape and so a group of men were chosen to be killed. One of them began to weep and cry ‘My wife! My children!’ He had a ‘why’ to endure the ‘how’ of life there. Hearing this plea, Maximilian stepped forward and volunteered himself to take that man’s place. The guards, unconcerned about who was killed, agreed and Maximilian went to his death and the martyrs crown. Love God, love neighbor. The man survived and was later reunited with his family because St. Maximilian had a purpose and it ended in a heavenly union.

Viktor Frankl himself chose on many occasions to love God and love neighbor instead of caving to his own desires and giving up hope. When he could have tried to rest and care for himself, he instead spent many nights talking to the men who surrounded him in the bunks. As they would begin to despair he would simply begin asking questions to them one by one. Do you have an family left? And if they said yes, he would encourage them to think about being reunited. Do you have friends somewhere? Again, wouldn’t it be great to be reunited. Is there some place you’d love to travel to or some activity you’d love to do? What joy to be able to do so! Over and over and over again, by loving God and his neighbor Frankl gave hope to countless men in the camp and encouraged them to find meaning in the life they lived. As those men began to love God and love neighbor – whether outside or inside the camp – they grew in the health, wealth and wisdom that matters to God: love.

All of those is simply a shadow and reminder of the great love shown to humanity in the person of Jesus Christ, who loved God and neighbor even unto His death on the Cross.

So the end point is this: if you have worldly riches and blessings, enjoy them. But remember that out goal is not earthly pleasure but heavenly joy. Every human heart must face that reality at some point. Whether in the past, present, or future. Whether it is us personally or someone we know or even someone we don’t know. All of us are faced with those questions at times that make us want to cry out Vanity of Vanities! What is the meaning of all of this?! In those moments, when hope seems to be waning and despair increasing, when confusion seems to triumph over reason, remember your purpose. Remember the ‘why’ of life that can help you get through any ‘how’. Love God, love neighbor.