Professor Fredal was talking about Ecclesiastes. Wealth, reputation, accomplishment, none of these things matter, he said. The ultimate and only reality is death. Everything else is vanity and the chasing after winds. The wise and the foolish both die. It doesn’t matter how you live your life.
In the third row, a girl with blonde hair raised her hand. “Why is this book even in the Bible?” she asked.
I had an answer. I often worry about raising my hand in class. It’s a Bible survey class, and I have a distinctly unfair advantage. I’m learning amazing things every day, but maybe I can listen for them easier because I understand the material that they emerge from. The literary structure of the psalms is instantly interesting to me, because I hold some of the psalms in my mind, and can begin examining that structure right away. But the undergraduates in the class are being assailed with fact after fact, ideas and thoughts that they’ve never encountered before. It must be bewildering. And if they enrolled for reasons of faith, it must be deeply confusing to find that the Bible argues with itself, that it’s multi-voiced, that Ecclesiastes disagrees with Proverbs.
“Ecclesiastes is a corrective,” I said. Proverbs assumes that rich people are rich, and healthy people are healthy, and successful people are successful, because they’re virtuous. There’s a nasty tendency in Proverbs to blame all suffering on foolishness. If we could only be wise enough, we’d never know pain or loss. But Ecclesiastes doesn’t allow for that kind of thinking. Everyone experiences pain and loss, it says. It doesn’t matter if you’re wise or foolish.
Yes, Professor Fredal said, that is a corrective. But there’s more to Ecclesiastes than that. If we can’t rely on our own wisdom, or prominence, or reputation, what can we rely on? If our actions in the world will ultimately be forgotten, if one generation ignores the generations that proceeded it, if every thing we do has been done before and originality is a vacant category, what is the purpose of being alive? Grace, Professor Fredal said. We cannot rely on ourselves. We can only rely on, fall back on, rest in, God’s grace.
I’m learning, slowly, to do this. My work is tenuous and rootless at best, and I find myself drifting through my days without a large sense of where my actions are leading. My priesthood has become a work of art, and I’m following my instincts, and sometimes going far astray, producing bad art with my life and with my vocation. I often long for familiar settings and roles. What I really want is to have a list of actions and ways of being that I could strive to fulfill, and by fulfilling them be assured that I am good and wise. I’m living within Ecclesiastes, and I long for Proverbs.
But I’m learning to rely on God’s grace. At a retreat several weeks ago, a woman who has been battling cancer read this poem by Denise Levertov:
As swimmers dare
to lie face to the sky
and water bears them,
as hawks rest upon air
and air sustains them,
so would I learn to attain
freefall, and float
into Creator Spirit’s deep embrace,
knowing no effort earns
that all-surrounding grace.
Living within Ecclesiastes means learning to attain free fall. It means learning to accept all-surrounding grace.