WHEN I STILL TAUGHT AN OLD TESTAMENT CLASS SEVERAL YEARS AGO, we had a unit on Wisdom Literature—Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs—that lasted a few weeks. At the beginning of the unit I would prominently place a large vase full of freshly cut flowers on the front edge of my desk, without offering any explanation or calling any attention to them. I tended the flowers carefully to preserve their freshness as long as possible but, as cut flowers always do, they eventually withered and drooped. By the end of the section on Proverbs the flowers were beyond wilted and heading toward desiccated. Still, they remained on my desk as before.
OUR LESSONS IN THE BOOK OF ECCLESIASTES began with an explanation and discussion of the first word of the second verse: “vanity” in the King James and similar translations; “meaningless” in more contemporary versions. Neither English word conveys fully the subtlety or nuance of meaning carried by the original Hebrew term, hebel. The word literally denotes “breath” or “vapor”, but rich connotations flow from metaphorical associations and changing contexts. Uniformly translating it throughout Ecclesiastes with a single word, as virtually all English versions do, impoverishes our understanding of the text. Hebel can mean “meaningless”, but it can also mean absurd, pointless, futile, and fleeting or ephemeral. I would often read Ecclesiastes 1:2 to the class with those richer associations in mind: “ ‘Absurd! Pointless!’, says the Teacher. ‘Utterly futile! Everything is fleeting and ephemeral!’. ” When students would ask what “ephemeral” meant, I would point to the flowers, long since faded and shriveled, and say that their beauty was ephemeral; it passed quickly and then was no more.
I would wrap up my class explanation of “ephemeral” with the old Latin proverb, Sic Transit Gloria Mundi—“Thus passes the glory of the world.” The origin of this epigram is obscure. A particularly poignant rendering of it from about 1400 is found in The Imitation of Christ, attributed to Thomas à Kempis: “Oh, how swiftly the glory of the world passes away!” Thomas à Kempis’ version reflects his verdict on the vanity of all earthly ambitions, fame, and “empty learning”. Even from a not-nearly-so-negative perspective as à Kempis’, the truth and force of ephemerality is undeniable. It’s not even that all things must pass away. They just do. With a bang or a whimper, or in silence, fading into the past.
TWO THIRDS OF MY LIFE AGO, on one October day, I swam alone just off the South beach of the barrier island I thought of as my own when I was growing up. The Gulf Stream had moved towards shore and so the warmth of summer lingered in the waves. Because the current was on the surface and the unusual autumn heat had diminished the phytoplankton which darkens the ocean with life, the sea had passed from deep green into clear turquoise. Sparkling whitecaps topped curling waves almost to the horizon. Body surfing ideal shore break in eight feet of water, I could see my own shadow and refracted light playing on the sandy bottom below me, very unusual in this place so far from the tropics. It was the first time I had seen so far down. The sky was as clear as the sea and the sand as warm as the surf. There was a light, fresh breeze. It was the most singularly perfect day I ever had at the beach, and for years I told anyone who would listen, just as I am telling you now. How I have wished to God some times to have that day back and share the joy of it extravagantly. But that day is gone, and what I have left is a memory.
ALMOST HALF MY LIFE AGO, on another October day, my daughter was born precisely on her due date because my wife endured a painful 24-hour labor. Even after all that, our unborn child would not be, refused to be, born naturally and the obstetrician had to perform a caesarean section. I was seated, and stroked my wife’s face, while a surgical drape shielded the actual surgery. Our daughter was born whole and perfect. As much as I cherish the memory, and all of the memories of her growing up, with each passing, ephemeral day, the experiences are left farther and farther behind. My daughter is married now and expecting her own child in June, and I will cherish all the experiences of this as they come too, and as they pass away. And so it goes. As James tells us, we are but a “vapor that appears for awhile and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). We are breath on a cold morning; by evening we are no more.
LAST OCTOBER, I watched the leaves turn one more season. Then a harsh winter came and lingered too long, and I wished it to be over. Now spring has arrived, and summer will soon follow. I love summer because it is warm and open and full of promises and dreams. Days linger in the long twilight. It seems the passing of time can be held at bay. But of course, it can’t.
I would be lying if I said I was always serene, accepting, and philosophical about all this. I will not, as Dylan Thomas urged, “rage against the dying of the light”, but there are things I must still do, dreams I want to come to pass before all the days pass away. I would like to think I am gaining a heart of wisdom as I number my days rightly, but what I often feel is I’m running out of time: “The length of our days is seventy years—or eighty if we have the strength; yet their span is but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away” (Psalm 90:10).
MUCH OF WHAT WE DO IN OUR SHORT LIVES are passionate, sometimes even desperate attempts to deny ephemerality and stop the rush of time. But moments and days can’t really be seized; the story moves on. And that seems to me the most important thing to learn: At the last, all you really have that is your own to keep is the story of your life. From which Author we get the theme and plot of the story we want to live is supremely important. And how we write our own part, with the days we have been given, is how the ephemeral marks the eternal.