Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
Ecclesiastes begins with these famous words about vanity. Most English Bibles translate the Hebrew word “hebel” as vanity. Vanity is also used as the translation of several other Hebrew words into English, so can another English word be substituted which fits the intended meaning as well as vanity? Hebel can be read as a breath, vapour,or emptiness. Consider what is left when a bubble bursts. A bubble is emphemeral and filled with emptiness, yet amuses and distracts till it’s inevitable end. All vanity shall vanish. So albeit that traduttore, traditore, a bubble is an ideal vessel for the concept of vanity.
Bubble of bubbles, says the Preacher,
bubble of bubbles! All is bubbles.
Does it work if we reverse the process? Using the word bubble in phrases in place of the word vanity demonstrates a good linguistic fit. The South Sea Bubble, a house price bubble, or any other market bubble, is a pursuit of vanity. The Westminster Bubble; well, it is appropriate that today Ecclesiastes is the first reading in church as we discover the likely recipients of David Cameron’s resignation honours.
The author of Ecclesiastes seems dismissive of the value of striving and achieving. Hebel, bubble, for all your toil and trouble? Nothing but froth. Is this an old man who has become disheartened? Are all achievements small and fleeting? Is the author’s problem one of too much perspective, that he sees the scale of our achievements minuscule compared to God?
Thomas Aquinas lived a life steeped in thought, knowledge and wisdom. His output was enormous. Requiring four scribes to keep up with his dictation. Probably the most learned man in Christendom in his day. He had written in detail of the meaning of the Eucharist. Towards the end of his life, Domenic of Caserta observed Aquinas alone, praying before an icon of Christ crucified. Dominic heard a voice from the icon saying, “You have written well of me, Thomas. What reward would you have for your labour?” Aquinas replied, “Nothing but you Lord.” After that, whatever it was he then experienced, Aquinas considered all he had written to be no better than straw.
The best we can do. The best that even the best of us like Aquinas can do, is, with that perspective, less than the clumsy daubings of a toddlers painting. And yet, if it is intended well, offered with a good heart, it is received gladly by our loving Father. Nothing can compare to God, but God changes everything.
I was going to write this piece earlier today. I was stopped as soon as I began. My daughter who had no idea what I was thinking about, asked me to come into the garden and play with her and blow bubbles.