Vanity of Vanities

Vanity of vanities, says Qoheleth, vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! (Ecc 1)

I used to think these words were Shakespeare’s, and even then, their truth rattled my ears.  Now knowing that these words are from the book of Ecclesiastes, they are even more sobering.  Indicating perhaps meaningless time and effort we waste in our lives on that which has no eternal value, vanity as spoken of here, helps me to understand the mystery of Sunday’s gospel from Luke.

The Beatitudes (literally meaning blessed or happy) point us toward that which is a path to holiness and the things that really matter, as well as reminding us of God’s great justice.  It seems to me that the “woeful” statements that follow these “blessed” conditions seem to ask the question “who are you serving with your life?”   Therein lies the danger of vanity.

I wasn’t able to join the group this week for prayer, so I reflect on what questions it seems to be asking of me

Gospel LK 6:17, 20-26

Jesus came down with the twelve
and stood on a stretch of level ground
with a great crowd of his disciples
and a large number of the people
from all Judea and Jerusalem
and the coastal region of Tyre and Sidon.
And raising his eyes toward his disciples he said:
“Blessed are you who are poor,
for the kingdom of God is yours.
Blessed are you who are now hungry,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who are now weeping,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you,
and when they exclude and insult you,
and denounce your name as evil
on account of the Son of Man.
Rejoice and leap for joy on that day!
Behold, your reward will be great in heaven.
For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way.
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are filled now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will grieve and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you,
for their ancestors treated the false
prophets in this way.”
Hunger, Poverty, and Suffering…
Why do you suppose beatification should lie in these circumstances?  Where do you feel God shows up in His greatest glory in your life? In comfort, smooth and ease, or where we seek Him the most?
When do you invite God into the deep of your soul?
What am doing for those around me who are suffering?
Woe to you who laugh now…
What are we laughing at? It sounds like a silly question, but much of the laughter in our culture today is at someone else’s expense, hence the moniker “the culture of mean“, as one journalist put it.  Laughter rooted in contempt, criticism–or worse–malice, can often lead us down the road to our own derision and those around us astray to more strife and division; the arena of the enemy. (Jer 20:7, Ben Sira 27:13, Ben Sira 21:20, Ecc 7:6)
(I found this interesting article on effects of different kinds of laughter on the brain in my research.)
Conversely, scripture celebrates laughter that has been poured into our hearts by God, or laughter that is from joy and praising the Lord. (Job 8:21, Psalm 126:2) Laughter is certainly a blessing when its good-natured, and a joyful heart will find it in many things.  A good laugh is certainly one of God’s great gifts to us as human beings.


For their ancestors treated the prophets in the same way…
I enjoy biographies, and often I notice that people who have risen to the top of the world’s popularity, can lose everything at the turn of a mistake.  However, if someone famous dies “early”  then they often seem to be immortalized in tragedy that is romanticized, even if their demise was because of their own mistakes.  Whatever the case, there seems to be little room for redemption within the fickleness of human nature for the those who are seemingly adored by the masses, at least while still on the earth.
Fame usually seems to end quickly or in defeat on earth, but with God this is not the case.  We are beloved children, despite what we do.  Whereas we should be quick to repent when we mess up, God remembers us as His precious creation and is constantly showing us His mercy.  He isn’t keeping score and He isn’t shocked when we trip and fall.  All He desires is for us to return to Him, and do our best to keep trying.
When I made the biggest mistakes in my life, who was I trying to please?  God, myself or someone else?
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy. (Matthew 5:7)
Although this beatitude is from Matthew’s gospel, its meaning is far-reaching.  In addition to the lack of mercy we may see in our world publicly, I know many people who have been mad at someone for years and they never even told the person how they became offended.
How can we reconcile that which has not been revealed to us?  If we desire a sincere apology or reconciliation, surely we must know that a heart can’t repent if it doesn’t understand the offence.  And if we are not seeking reconciliation, I venture to ask the difficult question “how is being angry at this person serving me?”
Are you holding something inside against someone who has no idea that you are upset about it?  Don’t get caught in this great injustice for which we may deflect God’s mercy for our own sins as this line from scripture suggests. 
Conversely, the people I know who are in a deep relationship with God are difficult to offend.  They are less affected by the offenses of their brothers and sisters in the world.  Understanding human nature and the Divine, they are humble enough to know that holiness is about what happens in one’s own heart.  Likewise quick to distribute mercy, these are the children of God.  If we desire to be such as these souls, we can ask God for that grace.
When it comes down to it, this week of praying with the beatitudes leads me to check myself in purity of intention.  While those around me mourn, suffer, are persecuted, or lack some basic need, what am I doing? Am I making efforts to comfort them or myself? Am I trying to please God or others? Am I slow to offend and quick to forgive?   Vanity hides itself well at times; the best thing we can do is ask God to help us with seeking after what pleases Him the most.
Lord, I know I am weak.  I often serve myself unknowingly, and neglect to see those suffering around me.  If you renew my heart with your pure love, I can be healed of my own maligned intentions.  Guide me in having pure intention and serving You well in my life, and to put into perspective human nature with your Divinity.  You alone are perfect.  
An example I often use to illustrate the reality of vanity, is this: look at the peacock; it’s beautiful if you look at it from the front. But if you look at it from behind, you discover the truth… Whoever gives in to such self-absorbed vanity has huge misery hiding inside them. –Pope Francis

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