Naked Questions/7 - the Consoler comes in the heart of the night of suffering
by Luigino Bruni
published in Avvenire on 20/12/2015
"The security of faith is not accessible and cannot be made accessible to people today. If one takes it seriously he knows this, and should not at all be deceived. But the ability to open himself up to faith is not denied to him. He can accept it, embrace it with all his might and wait for what will happen to him, see if a new sincerity sprouts in him."
Martin Buber, Hebrew Humanism
The Book of Ecclesiastes is not a novel or a theological treatise. It is more like a spiritual and ethical diary. Its various chapters record and narrate thoughts, emotions and experiences of a traveller under the sun. Its boundless interest and strength depend on the wisdom, theological freedom and moral courage of its author who has been speaking to us for at least twenty-three centuries.
Only the greatest of books are capable of doing so. So as we are travelling through life with Qoheleth, we meet some 'diary pages' where we are totally immersed in the smoke of vanitas, as well as some others where the joy of the 'song of the times' delights and enchants us, to return immediately to meditate sadly on death and the transience of life. Like us, who today contemplate a child that's born and tomorrow accompany a friend in his last agony. The feelings are different, the tears are different, but it's the same life that flows. The pace of the times is also the rhythm of the pages of Ecclesiastes.
“Moreover, I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, even there was wickedness, and in the place of righteousness, even there was wickedness.” (Ecclesiastes 3,16) Faced with the spectacle of injustice on earth, where evil lurks in the courts that should ensure fairness, Qoheleth tells us that “God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for there is a time for every matter and for every work" (3,17). And so he adds God's 'time' to our times that are way too unbalanced and distorted. He feels pain over an unjust world, about the infinite number of Abel-like victims who inhabit the earth. But waiting for the last judgment at the end of times is not the answer Qoheleth gives to inequity, because the world 'above the sun' is too far away and inaccessible for him to offer a convincing answer to the injustice of the one under the sun. The judgment of God has to take place here, on earth. If the time of Elohim's justice really exists, it must fit within our mortal time. Because if it is not in our time, it will be just out of time and therefore not useful for improving the conditions and the justice of our lives. Qoheleth is not interested in non-human times, because if they are not human they can only be inhuman and anti-human.
Qoheleth's discourse is, therefore, a type of humanism: he asks God to be the God of the living, not the God of the dead. The God under the sun, not the God in the highest. If we do not want to turn Elohim into a useless god, we must ask him to give us answers here and now, and especially to the victims. Like Job, the greatest friend of Qoheleth. Like us, his friends today, increasing the number of the many friends he has always had for centuries (although perhaps only our time can start to really understand him).
Qoheleth, surprising us again, tells us that a first justice under the sun is found in death: “I said in my heart with regard to the children of man that God is testing them that they may see that they themselves are but beasts. For what happens to the children of man and what happens to the beasts is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath [ruah], and man has no advantage over the beasts, for all is vanity [hebel]. All go to one place” (3,18-20). We all die just like all the beasts die. We are brothers and sisters in a common and universal mortality. Sister death, brother wolf, sister dove, brother worm. In this dust of everyone and everything there is a wisdom, the infinite one of Solomon: “All [animals and human beings] are from the dust, and to dust all return” (3,20).
As children we learn about death as we see animals die. In that age of life we can still sense the same breath in animals as the one that inhabits us, our parents and our friends. Those desperate cries over the death of a cat or a little bird reveal a deeper access to life that we lose as adults. Only children are able to truly love animals and suffer for their pain - and perhaps only the elderly who have the grace to become children again can get close to that first love. The Book of Ecclesiastes helps us to recover the look of childhood, to recognize our own pain in the pain of the earth. It makes us feel the first breath of creation again.
The horizon within which Qoheleth places his speech is that of the early chapters of Genesis. He knows Elohim's breath-spirit that he had injected into the nostrils of Adam the terrestrial, making him a living being (Genesis 2,7). ‘For you are dust, and to dust you shall return’ (Genesis 3,19) resonates in his verses. But that of Qoheleth is a different kind of Genesis. The earthiness of Adam does not make him the ruler of the animals and all living species: the Adam of Ecclesiastes is first of all a creature like all the others. He knew that man was and is continually re-created 'in the image and likeness of God', as something very beautiful and ‘very good’(1,26; 31). He does not deny it, cannot deny it, but he wants to tell us something else: before being different from the rest of creation we are equal to all the living, because, just like them, we are mortal and live as long as the gift of breath is alive. Only God does not die. Man is not God because he dies, and his original and perennial rebellion is denying his own mortality - this is also Genesis (ch. 3). Nature is not God because it dies. Every snake, every idol promises us and enchants us by promising to eliminate death.
Qoheleth not only reaffirms this deeply and genuinely biblical message, but he also finds an answer to his and our question about justice. The justice inscribed in the death of all the animals becomes universal. The vanitas of the great, the rich and the dishonest is not only in their death like the way victims and the poor die (he told this to us in chapter 2). There is an even more radical and profound instance of vanitas: they, too, die - just like dogs, insects and birds do. The most powerful pharaoh dies like a hedgehog or a fly. The diversity in the luxury of the tombs and pyramids is only vanity, it is ephemeral, it counts for nothing (2,16). Universal death is the first universal justice.
Faced with this cosmic destiny we understand again why the only possible and true happiness is the one we can find in life as long as that unique breath-spirit given to us is alive in us: “So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot.” (3,22). Discovering the justice of death that awaits all the living and all the same way brings Qoheleth to praise the joy of human work and the happiness of work for the second time. We grow and age well when the company of pain and death increases the joy of health and happiness to return to the ordinary business of life in us.
Therefore, Qoheleth's song is harsh and true to life, even when he despises it because he is disappointed by the evil works of people under the sun: “Again I saw all the oppressions that are done under the sun. And behold, the tears of the oppressed, and they had no one to comfort them! On the side of their oppressors there was power, and there was no one to comfort them. And I thought the dead who are already dead more fortunate than the living who are still alive. But better than both is he who has not yet been and has not seen the evil deeds that are done under the sun.” (4,1-3).
It is the absence of consolation of the oppressed that raises doubts in Qoheleth about the superiority of being compared to not being in this world. We must not lose even an ounce of strength and beauty of this verse from Ecclesiastes: a life lived in oppression without comforters is worse than death. His is a condemnation of the too many oppressors present and an appeal to the absent comforters.
Those who mourn may be called 'blessed' only if they are comforted. Hell is the place of the 'half-beatitudes': the poor without the Kingdom, the pure of heart who do not see God, the meek who are landless and the afflicted who are disconsolate.
And standing on the side of the oppressed made such by the oppressors (oppression is a thoroughly human construction), Qoheleth finds the strength to call out for a comforter, a 'Paraclete'. Even if he does not see it – nor does he want to invent it – there is no worse deception of an invented comforter to answer our real question about comforters. Perhaps the advent of non-artificial comforters can be called for and awaited only by putting our heart in landfills where children search for the leftovers of our opulence, in the wars of child soldiers, alongside the girls sold to the merchants of sex because of desperate poverty.
It is only from there that we can wish for it, perhaps get a glimpse of it, too. Qoheleth did not believe that the redemption of these inconsolable victims was supposed to happen in paradise. He kept the pain of the earth due to the absence of comforters here and now alive, and so he made the expectation of his advent something non-vain. If he had yielded to the temptation of apocalyptic and idolatrous consolations, the Bible would have lost all its ability of becoming what it has become. But he continued to ask questions, resisting in the absence of answers. The goodness of existential questions is measured by their resilience in times of famine of true answers and opulence of false answers.
Without renewing this resistance and this waiting, even Christmas ends up evaporating in the vanitas of the shopping malls and the sentimentality of artificial atmospheres created for profit. To see the star of Christmas in our polluted sky again we have to wait for it, by staying close to the oppressed victims of the world, and keep looking eastward in the long night with them. The most beautiful Christmas is the one expected together with Qoheleth.
Merry Christmas to everyone.
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