The Book of Ecclesiastes has something in common with Eastern spiritual traditions

A Reflection for Saturday of the Twenty-fifth Week in Ordinary Time

Rejoice, O young man, while you are young
and let your heart be glad in the days of your youth.
Follow the ways of your heart,
the vision of your eyes;
Yet understand that as regards all this
God will bring you to judgment.
Ward off grief from your heart
and put away trouble from your presence,
although the dawn of youth is fleeting. (Ecclesiastes 11:9-10)

In my first semester of college as a classics major, I translated from Latin the opening passage of the ancient book of Ecclesiastes. This wasn’t ever a book I came across in parochial school or church. Pretty quickly, I understood why. Ecclesiastes begins by telling us that everything in the natural world will outlast our brief and repetitive lives. We’re born, we work and we die, while the sun apathetically continues to rise and set. Any attempt to create something new in this cyclical cosmos is ultimately futile. Yikes.

Today’s first reading from Ecclesiastes is no less bleak. And, a 22-year-old who just graduated college in May, am instructed to enjoy my youth because bad years are coming. I should be grateful I’m in good health. I try not to think of how everything will end before too long. It ends with this same mantra that opens Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities, and all things are vanity!”

Wait long enough, and all that remains are the timeless things that cannot be quantified. Those are the things we ought to focus on.

But I actually love this passage, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in this mantra. I’ve gotten used to measuring my life in numbers, from class grades to income. I’m always doing math in my head about the value of the things in my life. Ecclesiastes reminds me that none of that matters. It all fades. It’s all an illusion. Wait long enough, and all that remains are the timeless things that cannot be quantified. Those are the things we ought to focus on.

If this idea doesn’t sound particularly Judeo-Christian, you’re right. These are core tenets of Hinduism and Buddhism, spiritual traditions that urge us to recognize our surroundings for what they are—fleeting. The Samkhya school of Indian philosophy refers to all the impermanent stimuli in our world—our physical surroundings, but also our thoughts and feelings—as prakṛti, and it’s these stimuli that we latch onto and use to define ourselves. In reality, we are puruṣathe timeless and desireless spirit.

That’s a huge simplification, and that’s about the end of the Samkhyakarika‘s common ground with Ecclesiastes. Still, I think it’s fascinating that two different worldviews came to the same conclusion. We can only find happiness if we step outside our vain attempts to leave our marks on the unimaginably vast universe. People across the world believe, and have believed, in something more than matter. These intangibles draw our spirits together like iron filings to a magnet.

So, in an age where everything seems to be falling apart, it might be a good time to consider some ancient wisdom: “The dust returns to the earth as it once was, and the life breath returns to God who gave it.”

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