IS LIFE WORTH LIVING?

Wisdom - the Real Path to Life

{What follows is an updated version edited by The Most Rev. +Joseph Thaddeus, OSB, SSJt., Ph.D. – for the American Orthodox Church and the North American Orthodox Church – A meditation on Life’s Complexities}

The voice of wisdom of the past many times is more profound than the voice of knowledge of today. The search around the world to find solutions to satisfy the quest of knowledge and to quench the fires of constant contradictions of ideals is both the failure of one and the progress of another. The concept of the whole spectrum of knowledge will always remain a mystery and a challenge to man. This mystery and challenge is a metamorphosis in the realm of wis­dom. Wisdom is a product of personal experience when the channel of communication between man and his Creator is the accomplishment of the highest expectation of man. Wisdom is a three-dimensional attri­bute of mankind to which it arrives and in which it dwells with a satis­faction of man's endeavor. The complexity of knowledge becomes simplicity of wisdom when the discipline and renewal of knowledge is the possession of wisdom. Man is challenged to compete with the world from within and from without; he is born with the capacity to create critical dialogue within himself; this excellence of man makes him more valuable than the universe; the cause of this is to be found not only in the act of his Creator as being the "crowning" of all creation (the whole universe), but also because man himself is the realm in which the divine meets with the human. It is this place, the realm of man, where the holiness encounters repentance; where experience and knowledge is measured by ideals and hopes; where the divine promise finds it fulfillment; where love awaits to change rebellion and where the divine and human takes place.

Wisdom deals with many facets of human problems; wisdom harkens to complaints, pessimism, rejections, lustful desires and all the encroachments of human nature up to the time man attains coura­geous prudence to return to The Love from which he receives life again. This wisdom in relation to mankind is the observations and reflections on an Ancient Voice to be heard even by our contemporary society for an uplifting of the human spirit. This Voice personifies many attitudes of people who live in despair, in vanity, in fear. This Ancient Voice of Wisdom state: rather than solves the difficulties of life, and while living amid confusing civil and social conditions, the Voice seems to have tried to discover the true value of life. What benefit or gain is expected from life? What happiness is man's in life? The question is then: Is life worth living? The answer is found in the sovereign-God Whom everyone is urged to remember — es­pecially in his youth, commending all men to fear God and keep His Commandments. This Ancient Voice cried out for the preparation of the way for Christianity by showing man's need for it.

Ancient Voice of Wisdom cries out the pessimism of life and finds that life is empty and without profit or reward — apart from God:

"Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of varieties! All is vanity. What does man gain by all the toil at which he toils under the sun? A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth re­mains for ever. The sun rises and the sun goes down, and hastens to the place -where it rises. The -wind blows to the south, and goes round to the north; round and round goes the wind, and on its circuits the wind returns. All streams run to the sea, but the sea is not full; to the place where the streams flow, there they flow again. All things are full of weariness; a man cannot utter it; the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, 'See, this is new?' It has been already, in the ages before us. There is no remembrance of former things nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to happen among those who come after ..."

The Ancient Voice seeks to find the highest happiness on earth through practical wisdom, especially God's plan for each individual on earth:

"And I applied my mind to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven; it is an unhappy business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with. I have seen everything that is done under the sun; and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. What is crooked cannot be made straight, and what is lacking cannot be numbered. I said to myself, 'I have acquired great wisdom . . . and my mind has had great experience of wisdom and knowledge1 . . . I perceived that this also is but a striving after wind. For in much wisdom there is much grief, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow."

The Ancient Voice then turns from wisdom to pleasure as a possible source of happiness. He seeks to find pleasure in wine, beautiful palaces with servants and concubines, but his satisfaction was only superficial. He found that all was emptiness and so pleasure failed completely to satisfy — apart from God:

"I said to myself, 'Come now, I will make a test of pleasure; enjoy yourself. But behold, this also was vanity. I said of laughter, 'It is mad', and of pleasure, 'What use is it?'  I searched with my mind and how to cheer my body -with -wine ... I made great works; I built houses and planted vineyards for myself ... I bought male and female slaves ... I also gathered for myself silver and gold ... I got singers . . . and many concubines, man's delight. So 1 became great and sin-passed all . . . also my wisdom remained with me. And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them . . . for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. Then I con­sidered all that my hands had done . . . and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun," (apart from God).

A new experiment is made by the Ancient Voice to compare wis­dom and pleasure. He realizes that wisdom excels pleasure as far as light excels the darkness, that wisdom is of small value, and that work is robbed of its joy, and strips riches of its power, for the same end comes to all — death. Therefore, wisdom and pleasure are equally a disappointment — apart from God:

"So I turned to consider wisdom and madness and folly . . . Then I saw that wisdom excels folly as light excels darkness. The wise man has eyes in his head, but the fool walks in darkness; and yet 1 per­ceived that one fate comes to all of them. Then I said to myself, 'What befalls the fool will befall me also; why then have I been so very wise? And I said to myself that this also is vanity. For of the wise man as of the fool there is enduring remembrance, seeing that in the days to come all will have been long forgotten. How the wise man dies just like the fool! So 1 hated life, because what is done under the sun was grievous to me; for all is vanity and a striving after wind", (apart from God).

The Ancient Voice finds out to his dismay that even labor and riches fail to bring him genuine happiness, for various reasons. One of the most troubling thoughts of the Voice was that he would not have a wise and worthy successor, one who had not worked for it, and who might even be a fool. Because of this troubling thought, a sober enjoyment of life while it lasts is recommended. Although material and physical enjoyment might be brief, they are real, for they are gifts of God. This, man cannot enjoy himself — apart from God:

"I hated all my toil in which I had toiled under the sun, seeing that 1 must leave it to the man who will come after me; and who knows whether he will be a wise man or a fool? Yet he will be master of all from which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity. So I turned about and gave my heart up to despair over all the toil of my labors tinder the sun, because sometimes a man who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave all to be enjoyed by a man who did not toil for it. This also is vanity. What has a man from all the toil and strain with which he toils beneath the sun? For all his days are full of pain, and his work is a grief; even in the night his mind does not rest. This also is vanity. There rs nothing better for a man than that he should eat and drink, and find enjoyment in his toil. This also, I saw, is from the hand of God; for apart from Him (God) who can eat or who can have enjoy­ment? For the man who pleases him God gives wisdom and knowledge and joy; but to the sinner he gives work of gathering and heaping, only to give to one who pleases God. This also is vanity and a striv­ing after wind."

The Voice of Wisdom, in striving for happiness through labor and making money, comes to the realization that all things are in the hands of God. For what is the use of all his work since everything that happens is bound to happen anyway, and to take place at the time that is determined for it. The Voice observes that everything is temporary and transient; therefore, what gain is there in laboring, for God has even placed the world in man's heart without man being able to find out the works that God has done from the beginning of the world to the end. However, the idea of food and drink as gifts from God is not an end to morality; doing good is to be understood as enjoying life. The Ancient Voice then, being reverent, found in God's unchanging purpose sufficient reason to trust Him:

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck, up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn and a time to dance; a time to em­brace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.  What gain has the worker from his toil? (apart from God) - I have seen the business that God has given to the sons of men to be busy with.  He has made everything beautiful in its time; also he has put eternity into man's mind, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.  I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; also that it is God's gift to man that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil.   I know that whatever God does endures for ever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything

The Ancient Voice witnesses the next obstacle in seeking happiness and satisfaction in the injustices of civil law, for wickedness was found in the place of judgment, probably in both state and church, and that wickedness was enthroned on the earth. The Voice seems to say that God disciplines man to test him, but softens this reference to wickedness by stating that God will judge the righteous and wicked accordingly. The Voice at times seems to doubt immortality, but realizes that this hope cannot be attained — apart from God:

"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. I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every -matter, and for every work. I said in my heart with regard to the sons of men that God is testing them to show them where they are but beasts . . . as one dies, so dies, the other . . . All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again ... So / saw that there is nothing better than a -man should enjoy his work, for there is his lot; who can bring him to see what will be after him?"  (apart from God).

The Ancient Voice of Wisdom feels for the oppressed people who had no comforter. He shows such great feelings of compassion for the oppressed that it was better that they had never been. The Voice also felt that envy was a kind of oppression and that the merchant should avoid the rivalries and jealousies of the struggling business world:

"Again I saw all the oppressions that are practiced 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. Then I saw that all toil and all skill in work come from, a man's envy of his neighbor. This also is vanity and a striving after wind . . . Better is a handful of quietness than two hands full of toil and a striving after wind.

The Ancient Voice here stresses that in the search for happiness riches do not satisfy, especially not the miser:

"Again, I saw vanity under the sun; a person who has no one, either son or brother, yet there is no end to all his toil, and his eyes are never satisfied with riches, so that he never asks, 'For whom am I toiling and depriving myself of pleasure?' This also is vanity and an unhappy business", (apart from God).

The Voice of Wisdom most eloquently speaks of the need to fear God. He condemns the pretenders of religion and those who take rash vows; they cannot bribe God, for He is out of their reach in heaven. The Voice urges that religion be practiced with true rever­ence and sincerity. He then condemns the government officials who accept bribes and are also guilty of oppression. Despite these acts and bribes, the Ancient Voice urges everyone to trust in Providence:

"Guard your steps -when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools; for they do not know that they are doing evil. Be not rash -with your mouth, nor let your heart be hasty to utter a word before God, for God is in heaven, and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few . . . When you vow a vow to God, do not delay paying it; for he has no pleasure in fools. Pay what you vow. It is better that you should not vow than that you should vow and not pay. Let not your mouth lead you into sin . . . For when dreams increase, empty words grow many; but do you fear God. If you see in a province the poor oppressed and justice and right violently taken away, do not be amazed at the matter; for the high official is watched by a higher, and there are yet higher ones over them."

The Voice of Wisdom points out another obstacle in the search for happiness — that of the desire to acquire great wealth. Foolish investments and speculations often are the causes of bitter regrets. The wisdom given is that it is better to be less ambitious and to enjoy what one already has, for this is the gift of God. The Voice points out also that the rich man in his search for happiness in labor and wealth is sometimes denied by Providence the power to enjoy his riches:

"There is a grievous evil which I have seen under the sun; riches were kept by their owner to his hurt, and those riches were lost in a bad venture; and he is father of a son, but he has nothing in his hand. As he came from his mother's womb he shall go again, naked as he came, and shall take nothing for his toil, which he may carry away in his hand. This also is a grievous evil; just as he came, so shall he go; and what gain has he that he toiled for the wind, and spent all his days in darkness and grief, in much grief and sickness and resent­ment? Behold, what I have seen to be good and to be fitting is to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of his life which God has given him, for this is his lot. Every man also to whom God has given wealth and possessions and power to enjoy them, and to accept his lot and find enjoyment in his toil — this is the gift of God . . . There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy upon men: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of what he desires, yet God does not give him power to en­joy them, but a stranger enjoys them-; this is vanity; it is a sore afflic­tion . . . All the toil of man is for his mouth, yet his appetite is not satisfied. For what advantage has the wise man over the fool'? . . . Whatever has come to be has already been named, and it is known what man is, and that he is not able to dispute with one stronger than he . . . For who can tell man what will be after him under the sun'?" (apart from God).

The Ancient Voice now asserts that happiness is found through fame and a good name; and that birth should be bewailed because of sorrows encountered in life, while death should be followed by joy and gladness, for it sets man free from evil. The Voice stresses also that to suffer is to learn. The Voice then discourages the question why the former days were better than these, and appeals to con­science when he affirms what the heart knows:

"A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death, than the day of birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting; for his is the end of all men, and the living will lay it to heart. Sorrow is better than laughter . . . It is better for a man to hear the rebuke of the wise man than to hear the song of fools . . . this also is vanity . . . Better is the end of a thing than its beginning; and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit . . . Say not, 'Why were the former days better than these?' For it is not from wisdom that you ask this . . . the advantage of knowledge is that wisdom preserves life of him who has it. Consider the work of God . . . In the day of prosperity be joyful, and in the day of adversity consider: God has made the one as well as the other, so that man may not find out anything that will be after him. In my vain life I have seen everything; there is a righteous man who perishes in his righteousness, and there is a wicked man who prolongs his life in his evil-doing . . . Be not righteous overmuch . . . Be not wicked overmuch, neither be a fool . . . It is good that you should take hold of this . . . for he who fears God shall come forth from them all. Wisdom gives strength to the wise man more than ten rulers that are in a city . . . All this I have tested by wisdom; I said, 'I will be wise'; but it was far from me. That which is, is far off, and deep; who can find it out? . . . Behold this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many devices."

The Ancient Voice of Wisdom observes that obedience to rulers and the inequalities of life prevails. The Voice emphasizes that one should have fear of God. He points out that the wicked many times are buried with great pomp, while the good are excluded from the holy city and many times fully forgotten:

"Who is like the wise man? ... A man's wisdom makes his face shine . . . Keep the king's command . . . For he does whatever he pleases . . . For every matter has its time and way, although man's trouble lies heavy upon him . . . No man has the power to retain the spirit, or authority over the day of death; there is no discharge from war, nor will wicked­ness deliver those who are given to it. All this I observed while apply­ing my -mind to all that is done under the sun . . . Then I saw the wicked buried; they used to go in and out of the holy places, and were praised in the city where they had done such things. This also is vanity. Because sentence against an evil deed is not executed speedily. Though a sinner does evil a hundred times and prolongs his life, yet I know that it will be well with those who fear God, because they fear before him; but it will not be well with the wicked, neither will he prolong his days like a shadow, because he does not fear before God. There is a vanity which takes place on earth, that there are righteous men to whom it happens according to the deeds of the righteous. And 1 commend judgment, for man has no good thing under the sun but to eat, and drink, and enjoy himself, for this will go with him in his toil through the days of life which God gives him under the sun . . . then 1 saw all the work of God, that man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun. However much man may toil in seeking, he will not find it out; even though a wise man claims to know, he cannot find it out."

The Voice of Wisdom turns to the mystery of God's acts and to the uncertainties of life and death, and the superiority of wisdom. The Voice then returns to the thought of death and that all things come alike to all, such as earthquakes, disease and the like. The Voice then makes a profound observation that death comes to all and all are forgotten in time; this is the tragedy of life. And that the three greatest passions of man — love, hatred and envy — are destined to be silenced in the grave:

"But all this 1 laid to heart, examining it all, how the righteous and the wise and their deeds are in the hand of God; whether it is love or hate man does not know . . . since one fate comes to all, to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil . . . As is the good man, so is the sinner . . . This is an evil in all that is done under the sun, that one fate comes to all . . . For the living know that they will die, but the dead know nothing, and they have no reward; but the memory of them is lost. Their love and their hatred and their envy have already perished, and they have no more any share in that which is done under the sun."

The Ancient Voice still emphasis’s that death of man is the only certainty, and; therefore, man should enjoy sunshine and sensation while they last:

"Go, eat your bread -with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; God has already approved that you do.    Let your gar­ments be always white; let not oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life which he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun . . . 1 say that wis­dom is better than might, though the poor man's wisdom is despised, and his words are not heeded. The words of the wise heart in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools. Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good."

The Voice refers now to wisdom, charity and industry. He refers to the behavior of the wise man and the fool. The Voice points out that the fool fights with all he meets, who are fools, too. The advice is that anyone who has been offended by his superior not retaliate, but only differ with him, for the least said is soonest corrected. The Ancient Voice declares that wisdom is profitable to guide the poor, and that wisdom offers foresight. Whereas the fool multiplies words. Also that feasting and wine bring revelry; money squandered is the result of both; one should not curse even a bad ruler, for walls have ears:

"A wise man's heart inclines him toward the right, but a fool's heart toward the left. Even when the fool walks on the road, he lacks sense, and he says to everyone that he is a fool. If the anger of the ruler rises against you, do not leave your place, for deference will make amends for great offenses . . . I have seen fools on horses, and princes walking on foot like slaves. He who digs a pit will fall into it ... If the serpent bites before it is charmed, there is no advantage in a charmer. The words of a wise man wins him favor, but the lips of a fool consume him ... A fool multiples words . . . Woe to you, O land, when your king is a child, and your princes feast in the morning! . . . Even in your thought, do not curse the king, nor in your bed­chamber curse the rich; for a bird of the air will carry your voice, or some winged creature tell the master."

The Voice of Wisdom then turns to the application of benevolence to others by sowing seeds upon the waters of irrigation, not restricting benevolence to a few relatives and friends. As the laws of nature help the farmer, so encouragement should be made for faith in the deeper things of God:

"Cast your bread upon the waters, for you will find it after many days, Give a portion to seven, or even eight, for you know not what evil may happen on earth. If the clouds are full of rain, they empty them­selves on the earth . . . He who observes the wind will not sow . . . As you do not know how the spirit comes to the bones in the womb of a woman with child, so you do not know the work of God who makes everything . . . For if man lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity."

The Ancient Voice concludes with the same question he began with: what profit is there in life? He answers that one should rejoice and remember. In the former, the Voice advises youth to make the most of it through a joyful youth, but to be conscious of a final judgment; in the latter, to remember also the Creator in youth before the storms of life overtake all thoughts of God, which might vanish because of the infirmities of old age:

"Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth; walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment. Remove grief from your mind, and put away pain from your body; for youth and the dawn of life are vanity. Remember also your Creator in the days of your youth, before the evil days come, and the years draw nigh, when you will say, 'I have no pleasure in them' ".

The Ancient Voice poetically describes old age, the physical breakdown of the body, and finally death. The conclusion of the Voice, that the body returns to the earth, is not new. What is new is that the spirit returns to God Who gave it. The Voice at last has discovered immortality in God, and that, after a long life of struggle and doubt, he has been given a new revelation. Still, the Voice of Wisdom cries "Vanity of vanities, all is vanity", but in a new light that the only earthly profit and achievement are empty and disappointing — apart from God:

"Before the sun and the light and the stars are darkened and the clouds return after the rain; in the day when the keepers of the house tremble, and the strong men are bent, and the grinders cease because they are few, and those that look through the windows are dimmed . . . man goes to his eternal home, and the mourners go about the streets . . . and the dust returns to the earth as it was, and the spirit returns to God who gave it. Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher; all is vanity", (apart from God) .

The Ancient Voice ends his great wisdom with the belief in God:

 "The end of the matter; all has been heard,   fear God, and keep his commandments; for this is the whole duty of man.  For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every  secret  thing, whether good or evil".

LIFE IS WORTH LIVING

The Ancient Voice of Wisdom is found in the book Ecclesiastes of the Old Testament (Koheleth). The unknown author impersonates King Solomon and describes a bitter lament of pain from which there is no escape from misery — apart from God, His purpose is to discover the true value of life; man's highest happiness is an in­tense search for the real reward in life, and he concludes with the question, "Is life worth living?" The wisdom of Ecclesiastes brings forth many observances and reflections with deep insight of keen personal experience of the author together with common sense. The profound observance of the author is that all things revolve in a circle, one generation comes and goes, the sun rises and sets only to rise and set again, the rivers run only to return again, portraying the ceaseless toil and pain of man, which remain forever the same. The author's wisdom seeks to find the meaning of this never-ending circle of things in man's life, his dreams and hopes, his toils and pains.

The wisdom found in this observation is that life has no goal and no meaning for man apart from God. The Ancient Voice struggles to solve the problems of life, being driven by an intense impulse which God Himself has implanted in his heart. God has implanted in every man the desire to know, but it only worries and wearies him. The author concludes that the more he learned, the sadder he became; he not only experienced all the pleasures and happiness in life, but he undertook great works, all of which were in vain. All these experiences are of little value in the face of death. But in the final analysis, the author's wisdom responds to the question, "Is life worth living", in the belief in God, for apart from God life has no meaning or purpose. This belief in God is embodied, in all its meaning and splendor, in Christianity with its spiritual awakening and renewal of man, truly making life worth living.


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