When the purport of the images — what they say to our fear and hope and will and affections — seems to conflict with the theological abstractions, trust the purport of the images every time.
C. S. Lewis, Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer 52 (1963).
A man wakes up on a misty morning. He looks out his window and likes what he sees. So he dresses and walks out his door to enjoy what has been given him.
The mist doesn’t last long. But while it lasts it softens the edges of the world, brings out its colors, and dances with the shafts of light from the rising sun.
And then it vanishes. The man emits a satisfied sigh. God makes everything beautiful in its time.(1)
I can imagine another man — say, a photographer (2) — waking up the same morning, somewhere in the same vale, seeing the same mist, the same light, the same landscape. Recognizing the aesthetic value of what he sees, he runs to find his camera. He then rushes out his door, and searches frantically for just the right place to best capture the dance of mist and light and landscape — to find the vantage point from which mist and light and landscape appear to greatest advantage. He snaps a few pictures to preserve their beauty for posterity, to preserve the past for the future.
But it isn’t preserved. A window on it is preserved. If the photographer has done his work well, it may be a clear window. But still it’s a window only; the misty morning itself isn’t preserved. And the sigh the photographer emits when the greedy fingers of the rising sun have stolen the last lingering mists will likely be of a much different kind than our first man’s sigh of satisfaction.
God has set eternity in the man’s heart, but in such a way that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end.(3)
We cannot capture vapor. We can enjoy its flirting and flitting through our fingers, but fixity is not one of its virtues. Likewise we cannot shepherd the wind. For starters, we do not know where it comes from or where it goes. Even if we did, we still couldn’t pick up stray wind, lay it across our shoulders, and carry it back to the fold.
Welcome to life under the sun.
For many years I could not begin to understand what Koholeth — i.e. Solomon, the author of Ecclesiastes — was teaching. His book seemed to oscillate between pounding home the vanity of life, and then exhorting us to enjoy life — food, drink, company, and toil. Enjoy your vain life.
I can take instruction from paradox, but not schizophrenia.
But Koholeth was not schizophrenic. His translators, unjustly, made him seem so. And they made him seem so by doing precisely the opposite of what C. S. Lewis said to do: they trusted abstractions like “vanity” and “meaninglessness,” rather than trusting images, like “vapor.” Koholeth was on about hebel, vapor — a rich word because it’s a picture, the kind that’s worth at least a thousand pictureless words.
The vaporousness of life under the sun may very often vex us. It may turn much of our toil to vanity — especially if we labor under the delusion that our lives are going to turn a profit under the sun. But vapor is too reliably elusive a thing to be reduced to an abstraction, like vanity. And if God gives us the ability to do so (4), we will recognize life under the sun, in all its vaporousness, for what it is — and we will enjoy it.
(1) Ecclesiastes 3:11.
(2) I use the photographer as an example, not out of any disrespect for his vocation. This man could just as well be a painter or poet.
(3) Ecclesiastes 3:12.
(4) Ecclesiastes 2:24-25.