What the Book of Ecclesiastes has to Say About the Foolishness of our Times

022714We are currently reading through some wonderful “Wisdom Sayings” in the Office of Readings of the Liturgy of the Hours. Several of the sayings speak to the relationship between suffering and wisdom. And in this way the foolishness of our age, which is so hyper-focused on avoiding suffering at all costs, is exposed. Perhaps the link of suffering to wisdom is not the most pleasant of associations, but it is no less true for its difficulty. Let’s consider a few of the sayings.

The tone was set in the psalm of the day which says,

Make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart.  (Ps 89:3)

In the last portion of my sermon at every funeral, I say to the faithful very plain terms, “You are going to die, and you don’t get to choose when.”  I then ask them what are they doing to get ready to meet God.

For indeed in our culture, with all of our medicines and with the fact that many of the elderly die in nursing homes out of our sight,  we have tended to ignore the reality of death. And this creates the illusion that death is remote, that we can somehow stave it off indefinitely. To many people, death seems almost theoretical. And in our fallen state, of course we entertain willingly the illusion that death is remote.

And yet in our almost unprecedented ability to maintain this illusion, it is also evident how foolish our collective behavior has become.   Many people live with almost no thought that they will one day die and appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and will have to render an account for what they have done. Too many of us have wrongful priorities and spend most of our time and energy in passing, unimportant things. And we spend little or no time on eternal and certain things like death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell. Too many go on living in unrepentant mortal sin. All of this is foolishness on an almost colossal scale.

When I preach at funerals and say to people “You are going to die,” there is a visible reaction throughout the congregation. Some look anxiously amused; some look annoyed; and a few look knowingly and nod. But almost all are surprised, even shocked to hear something they almost never hear anymore.

As the Psalm verse implies by its logic, this silence about death is at the root of a great deal of the foolishness of our modern age.  Many surveys indicate that 75-80% of people are not living in any discernible way that acknowledges that they will die and must prepare for it. Most are not praying; they are not reading Scripture; they are not going to Mass or to any church; they are not receiving Communion; and many are in serious and unrepentant mortal sin. All of this  foolish neglect given the judgment that is coming upon them.

Sadly, when they do confront death and find themselves in a church for the funeral of a friend or relative, they are more likely to hear a “sermon” about what a great guy Joe was,  but little to nothing of their need to pray for him and to prepare for death themselves.

And thus the verse from the Psalm is indeed poignant, beautiful, and necessary: Make us know the shortness of our life, that we may gain wisdom of heart.

There then come a number of wise sayings in the book of Ecclesiastes that also speak to this theme.

It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to the house of feasting, for that is the end of every man, and the living should take it to heart.

To be sure, there is a time to celebrate and feast. We ought to rejoice with those who rejoice; we ought to celebrate the goodness of God. But as the saying from the Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us, there is also a place for mourning and suffering, and in some sense that is better for us.

The text goes on to explain why.

Sorrow is better than laughter, because when the face is sad the heart grows wiser.

Yes, mirth and celebration bring joy, but  sorrow and suffering bring wisdom. And though joy is wonderful, it passes in this world. But wisdom perdures and draws us to God. Wisdom is of God, and the things waiting for us in Heaven draw us to that place where true joys—joys that never end—are.

 And then text drives the point further home.

The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth…For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the fool’s laughter.

Yes, jokes and laughter have their moments and they have their place. But too much draws us into foolishness. For the need to laugh, if we are not careful, comes to take on an almost addictive quality.

Any look at the “Comedy Channel” will confirm this. Most of the humor there is becoming edgier and edgier, more and more bawdy, filled with sexual content and the demeaning of many values such as family life, sexuality, and any number of human virtues. Comedians stand before large crowds in theaters and have the audience laughing about such foolish things as drunkenness, adultery, lust, greed, and pornography.  Comedians also spent a great deal of time demeaning well-known figures as well as many important human institutions and activities. At most comedy clubs almost nothing is sacred, and people will laugh at some of the most hurtful and hateful things.

And thus the text from Ecclesiastes warns that the heart of fools is in the house of mirth, as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the fool’s laughter. Though mirth has its place, it must be balanced with sobriety and respect—respect for what is holy, decent, admirable, and pure. This is seldom the case with comedy today.

Is this too harsh an indictment? The text from Ecclesiastes goes on to say,

It is better to hearken to the wise man’s rebuke than to hearken to the song of fools;

Yes, some who read this reflection may consider this biblical wisdom to be too “negative,” too judgmental, too rebuking.

Before rushing to judgment, though, one ought to consider that many of us have had a steady diet of “the song of fools.” Whether it is the filthy comedy just described, or the music, movies, and other media of pop-culture, which celebrate things like fornication, rebellion, and gratuitous violence; a steady diet of this sort of stuff is bound to make God’s word seem too severe.

Is the problem God’s Word, which summons us to sobriety, or is it sin, which makes us foolish and hypersensitive to any correction? Light is only abhorrent to those who are accustomed to darkness.

Is God’s word unbalanced, or are we? You decide for yourself. As for me, I will strive to listen to the Lord and seek balance on His terms, not the world’s terms, which are already the outer extreme. God’s Word is the reference, not the world’s excesses.

We must look at more Wisdom sayings next week! Our Lady Seat of Wisdom, pray for us!

Here’s a song about meditating on what is good, true, and beautiful—things which, having been discarded, are not sought as pearls of great value:

27 Replies to “What the Book of Ecclesiastes has to Say About the Foolishness of our Times”

  1. “And in this way the foolishness of our age is disclosed which is so hyper-focused on avoiding suffering at all costs. ” We had seen a commercial earlier tonight that had as its tag-line something like this: all the satisfaction without the sacrifice”. I thought right away ‘how typical of the modern world’. I don’t recall what the product was but in trying to find it online I came across a similar commercial: http://www.ispot.tv/ad/7oil/light-and-fit-sacrifices

  2. I always enjoy your commentary! I agree completely that listening to music that glamorous the world can lead us towards sin. I have a hard time balancing my children’s desire to be normal with my desire to protect them. Some lines are easy. Just say no to grand theft auto. But popular music and movies are more difficult. While I want to protect them, I also do not want to drive them to rebellion by restricting everything.

  3. Guilty, guilty, guilty. I am so aware of the graces bestowed upon me during suffering, yet, it is very, very hard to be in that state for more than a few days. But it is true that suffering has brought me closer to God, and for that I am grateful. I suppose all of life is really about getting to know God and preparing for a holy death. Because to know Him is to want Him and the only way to possess Him is to die in His grace.

    Thank you for this wonderful reminder.

  4. Your comment tonight about the “Comedy Channel” really hits home. I enjoyed listening to Jay Leno often, and I was very sorry to see him replaced. I often mentioned to my wife that I would be embarrassed to watch some of the dialogue in front of my grandkids. I think for Lent, I will spend the time with God and not watching The Tonight Show or other shows along that line. Thank you Msgr.

  5. Thank you, Monsignor. This is a necessary reminder. I have only grown closer to Christ because of my suffering.

  6. I have come to realize this over the years. This is one of the best articles I’ve read in a long time. It is great to see this being talked about….again. Our society is a polluted pool.

  7. I have been reminded recently of the importance of praying to the Holy Spirit first thing in the morning: for His guidance throughout the day; that He will be in my heart and on my lips. I know how weak and frail I am no matter how often I go to Mass and receive Holy Communion during the week and on Sundays. I pray that I will respond to His grace and do His will. On this First Saturday I ask Our Lady’s intercession for all of us. God Bless.

  8. Very good article. It’s amazing how powerful truth is when coming from a Priest! Thank you, we need to hear the truth.

    The false values of the world are always telling us to buy our happiness, living in comfort is peace, enticing us to eat, drink and be merry and don’t think about tomorrow–if there even is a tomorrow. If, or, when that time comes, God is so merciful, he never sends anyone to hell, death is pleasant and everyone goes to heaven. Many parishioners only want to hear about the warm and fuzzy from the pulpit.

    That kind of candy makes it all the harder for Priests and parents and even some spouses, to teach about the truths of the Church that life is precious, death is certain and eternity is for keeps. Jesus in his Mercy, continues to show us the right way. Deep down inside of us, we fear that hell is real. So we find any way we can not to believe it, to ward it off by not talking about it, not hearing about it, or to refashion the truth by whitewashing it and never wanting to look deeper so that nothing can bring a cloud across our blue skies. Catholics were always the ones who could handle death and dying well, because we had a healthy teaching about how to live and prepare for a good death—it’s a part of life. You can’t be taken by surprise if you know what’s coming. Death where is your sting? It is the joy of living forever with Jesus in eternity that helps us endure with His Grace hardships, trials, sickness, sacrifices and burdens so much easier when they come our way.

  9. Thank you so much Monsignor for your wise words. You are right that it is evident in our society that death is something remote and not tangible. In this month of March dedicated to St. Joseph may we be more aware of our true human frailty. Remember man that thou art dust and to dust thou shall return. May our deaths be ever before us, not in a morbid sense but as a reminder that this is only our temporary home and not our true home. God bless and keep up the good work!

  10. Beautiful. One point you made in particular, regarding foolishness. One of the holiest priests I know spoke of the importance of mortification to dispose us against both a depressed or a giddy demeanor. We see depression (rightly) denounced much in Catholic circles, but we hear nothing about giddiness being denounced (or whatever other word it goes by; flippancy, silliness, foolishness, etc.). However both giddiness and depression are vices opposed to the Christian virtue of joy; the former being the excess and the latter being the defect. We must succumb to neither.

    Consider all things under the aspect of eternity. Especially that aspect of it most relevant to us here: Judgment Day.

  11. Decades ago a Dominican priest gave a talk which would be considered very stern by today’s standards, but he hit the nail on the head: WE ARE BEING ENTERTAINTED TO DEATH! I believe his name was Fr. O’Connor.

    1. I remember that well. the phrase stuck with me to this day. And it’s even truer now than in the 1980’s

  12. Thank you for this beautiful article. I do not watch much television these days for the very reasons you describe and I am dismayed at the value system by which I am ranked here on this earth.

    Love the music.

  13. When I was 16 years old my 20 year old brother died of leukemia that had only been diagnosed one week before his death. I was in the hospital room when he died. Death is not a hypothetical to me, not an “optional.” I saw something that shook me to the core; a vibrant, healthy strong young man who had played football the prior fall, dead in a matter of months. Perhaps I am morbid, but I have always been a little morose because of this event. I am always a little more serious than others, a little less carefree. And God figures mightily in my life, because I know the end will come, and it may come sooner than I think.
    No one, least of all my brother, thought he was going to die. He received the Last Rites (now Sacrament of the Sick) and I believe he made a confession. Then he was gone. Hopefully into the arms of our Savior.
    I am now 59 years old. He has been dead 43 years. I still miss him. But I believe I will see him again, in the Land of the Living, at the Resurrection of the Dead, and THAT will be quite a wonderful day!

  14. Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J. used to say, if I recall correctly, that the only way to obtain the grace of final perseverance is to pray for it.

    Fr. Hardon prayed a prayer called “the acceptance of death” twice a day, in the morning and again in the evening. I have tried to memorize it.
    Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I accept from your hands whatever sort of death it may please you to send me today (or tonight, whichever applies), in reparation for my sins, for the souls in purgatory, for the conversion of sinners, for all who will die today/tonight and for your greater glory. Amen. Although we only die once, the Sacred Heart may send us many little deaths, deaths to self-will, during the day or night.

    1. My apologies. The prayer should read:

      Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, I accept from your hands whatever sort of death it may please you to send me today/tonight with all its pains, penalties, and sufferings, in reparation for my sins, for the souls in purgatory, for the conversion of sinners, for all who will die today/tonight and for your greater glory. Amen.

  15. Does someone know what is the sculpture (Mary and Jesus) is in this blog, artist, place, etc ? Thanks

  16. Kohelet (the author of Ecclesiastes) has a wonderful dry sense of humour. Later in his writings he continues his thoughts on death with this section:

    “Indeed, the most distressing aspect of life under the sun is that every one of us will eventually die. That knowledge fills our hearts with sadness and our minds with worry while we live, and then we die anyway. At least while we are alive we have hope, for as they say, “A live dog is better off than a dead lion.” We, the living, know that one day we must die, but the dead know nothing; they have no further influence, and no one remembers them for long. Their love, hate and envy have long since vanished; never again will they have a part in anything that happens under the sun.”

    It fits so well with the words of Jesus when he asked us why we bother worrying since we cannot change the future anyway. Kohelet asks why we worry our lives away when it does no good for we die anyway. Why not just enjoy our lives, even if its a dog’s life. Following right on the heals of this statement on the certainly of our death he gives one of his most quoted conclusions.

    “Go then, eat your bread with gladness and drink your wine with a joyful heart, for today your work is blessed by God. Put on your best clothes, use your finest perfume, and enjoy each futile day of your fleeting life with the people you love, for these pleasures are God’s gift to you in your toilsome labor under the sun.”

    We must not loose sight of the fact that the purpose of going to a funeral, considering our impending death and living wisely is not to be depressed and sombre but rather to go away from the funeral intent on accepting our daily bread from the hand of God and living each day in community with God and others.

    (translation is from http://www.artofwork.ca)

  17. As i have mentioned before in your blog Msgr. Pope, i have suffered all my life. Some people look at me in horror, when they see me filled with joy, thinking me, i suppose, quite mad. What they will not see is that suffering can birth wisdom, compassion and great empathy in the one who suffers, bringing the soul in close union with God.

    When we offer up all we suffer, past, present and future to Christ in union with His tremendous suffering for us, many blessings and gifts of the Holy Spirit pour down. Lately God gifted me with a new challenge: the doctors told me there was nothing more that can be done for me to stop this spinal cord and column pain-nothing. i had a clear choice it seemed to me, face it accept it or die. i chose to suffer and live in Christ Jesus.

    This world has turned into an abyss of spiritual and physical cowardice. We do not want any sort of physical discomfort. Our lives must be cushioned so nothing disturbs our egocentric lives. We cannot even tolerate signs of aging and fill our lines, stretching our faces til we look like the walking dead. None of which will gain us a toehold in Heaven.

  18. This is a wonderful meditation. With the start of Lent, I think we should turn off the TV more and then pray and meditate more. We are all too apprehensive about everything but what we really need more of is trust in God, the message of Divine Mercy Sunday coming up soon. My Secular Carmelite vocation has been a God -Sent gift. Read the works of St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross and gain greater spiritual insight into what is truly important in life. God bless you all.

  19. Dear Sirs,
    Last night I came across of this beautiful article (What the Book of Ecclesiastes has to Say About the Foolishness of our Times by Msgr. Charles Pope. I would kindly ask for the permission to translate it into Croatian language and publish it on our website: stellamaris-naklada.com

    We have a small publishing company and run this web-site.

    There two of us working on it – Mrs. Brigita Pecek and me, Mrs. Ruzica Silic. Both of us were the editors-in-chief of the bi-monthly Catholic magazine in Croatia.

    Looking forward to hearing from you,
    God bless you,
    Ruzica Silic

  20. Some G. K. Chesterton quotes:

    “There are an infinite number of ways to fall, but there is only one way to stand.”

    “Is one religion as good as another? Is one horse in the Derby as good as another?”

    “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.”

    “Once abolish the God, and the government becomes the God.”

    “I believe in getting into hot water; it keeps you clean.”

    “Fallacies do not cease to be fallacies because they become fashions.”

    “Psychoanalysis is confession without absolution.”

    Be careful not to be so open-minded that your brains fall out.”

    “I want a church that moves the world not one that moves with it”

    “Take away the supernatural and what remains is the unnatural”

    “Moral issues are always terribly complex for someone without principles.”

    “Only a live fish can swim against the current, the dead go with it.”

    “When men cease to believe in God they do not thereafter believe in nothing; they believe in anything!”

    1. Expiation for my sins and reparation for the sins of others as mentioned in Suffering – Venerable Fulton J Sheen on YouTube.

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