Qoheleth the preacher, the author of Ecclesiastes, is famously blunt. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity.” It is a rather pessimistic view of the world, but he does have a point. Rather a lot of the things we spend our days doing are not, if we are honest, all that important in the great scheme of things. We are all aware of the distinction between urgent and important. There are many tasks that occupy us that someone says needs to be done now, or even yesterday, which are not, in fact, important. Reports that no one will really read, repairs made to something that will break again, consultation for decisions that have already been made.
Even those things which are important are only our concern for a limited time. As he says, and as Our Lord points out with equal bluntness in the Gospel our lives are finite. And prospect of death “concentrates the mind wonderfully” as Dr Samuel Johnson famously said. Most of the things we spend so much effort on are not going to be any concern of ours, or benefit, at our death. Which of us would not have a change in priorities if a doctor were to tell us tomorrow that we only had a short time to live. Those concerns which have dominated our lives, be they writing reports or building barns, would no longer matter all that much.
But, in a sense, we have already been told that. We are mortal, and though most of us have no idea of the day of our death, it is coming. That fact isn’t something, however, that should cause us fear. Our death is not, after all, the end of our life. As we say in the requiem mass, for the Lord’s faithful people life is changed, not ended. But it should cause us to reflect on what really matters, what really lasts.
Because we are eternal, truly immortal, the things that should matter to us are not things that have only an earthly existence. When we consider matters properly we realise that the only things we encounter and deal with in our lives that are eternal are human souls, our own and those of the people we meet. Our effect on them is the only thing we achieve which has any truly lasting value. And it is on those effects that we will be judged.
Qoheleth may be blunt, but his message is worth considering well. Much of what we spend our time on is, sooner or later, not going to matter to us at all. But Our Lord makes clear that some things always will. And, as his disciples, those should always be our chief concern. So I need to ask how different would my life be if my first concern was not, “how will this report be received?” or “what return will this investment produce?” but “what have I done today that is eternal?”
Fr Chris Denham