Summary: The active atheist's life is not only meaningless,. . . but tragic in the worst sense, because, absent a miracle, he turned his back on a free offer of eternal joy.
Seventh Sunday in Course 2019
For the Catholic Students Group
Today our Office readings begin a series from the book of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, which means “the Teacher.” It is one of the best-known of the Wisdom books of the OT, purportedly written by King Solomon, who, at least in his youth, was known for his wisdom, his good advice. We also have to remember about Solomon that when he turned old, he forgot most of his wisdom, took foreign wives–lots of them–and lived for glory and the satisfaction of his appetites, which led to the downfall of his kingdom.
Today Qoheleth takes up his theme: “vanity of vanities! All things are vanity! What profit have we from all the toil which we toil at under the sun? . . . .What has been, that will be; what has been done, that will be done. Nothing is new under the sun! Even the thing of which we say, ‘See, this is new!’ has already existed in the ages that preceded us. There is no remembrance of past generations; nor will future generations be remembered by those who come after them.”
Wow! But Q has it right for anyone who has not embraced the Gospel, the good news that there not only is a God, but that He has taken on human nature, lived like us, taught us, died and rose for us so that we could be in him. When I read Ecclesiastes I think of the famous atheist Christopher Hitchens, a Brit just two years younger than me who died at M.D. Anderson Center in Houston back in 2011. He spent his adult life railing against religion, using arguments that were raised and answered by St. Thomas Aquinas almost a millennium ago.
So I ask, between Thomas and Richard, what is the difference? Both are dead. Now let’s imagine for a moment that Thomas is wrong and Richard is right, that God is a myth invented to control idiots, the gullible. At the moment of death, both men just went out of existence and Richard didn’t even get a millisecond to brag that he was right all along. Both lives, ultimately, were meaningless for their ultimate destiny, but during their lives, Thomas had written words that gave millions hope, that nurtured their faith, that inspired them to do good. Richard had written words that just inspired conflict and despair.
But suppose, as we who have faith do, that Thomas is right and Richard is wrong, that God is a being far beyond our ability to understand, that He is not only creator and sustainer, but a personal being whose Son, God Himself, became human. That this Son, Jesus Christ, is the redeemer who loves us so much He died and rose for us and gives us a Holy Spirit who is changing us into images of Himself. That this Son, Jesus, founded a Church, our Church, that ministers sacraments of healing and comfort and revitalization and forgiveness, means of grace that empower our lives. Then the life of St. Thomas had the highest meaning, which is why he is called a saint, the Angelic Doctor. And the life of Richard is not only meaningless, as we saw before, but tragic in the worst sense, because, absent a miracle, he turned his back on a free offer of eternal joy.
In your discussion the other day, you raised the question of what to do now that you have accepted that grace, and have understood that God challenges you to live your life for and in Himself. Saint Maximus today gives us some advice: “Charity is a right attitude of mind which prefers nothing to the knowledge of God. If a [person] possesses any strong attachment to the things of this earth, he cannot possess true charity. For anyone who really loves God prefers to know and experience God rather than his creatures. The whole set and longing of his mind is ever directed toward him” St. Augustine said something similar, and better-known in his Confessions, written toward the end of his life: “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in Thee.”
Not everyone is called to give it all up, move into the desert like the Desert Fathers, and spend our days praying for the world to embrace Christ. Those few who do that, or like the local Carmelite nuns, stay in a cloister to do that, find peace and joy in serving God that way. But there are other paths to sainthood. What I have found, and you will if you want, is that if you pray for God’s guidance, and listen to Him in silence, and listen to Him when you are with wise and holy people, and follow that guidance, you can be happy and at peace in your heart. If you do not, you will be a heart not at rest until at last you rest in God.