The world today consists of eight billion people. Among them are thousands of cultures and ethnicities, each providing a unique beauty to the richness of humanity. The seven continents on this planet comprise over 57 million square miles of land, with wonders of nature that include enormous mountain ranges, tropical rainforests, deserts, and so much more. The five oceans that exist comprise 139 million miles, most of which have not been explored yet, and contain 230,00 different species living in those oceans. This earth that we inhabit is truly a marvelous place.
Considering then the vastness and immensity of this world, one would think that this world would be enough for us, that here among so much beauty and diversity we could find what we are looking for and experience the peace that all of us so desperately desire. One would think that among all the remarkable features of life on this planet, the human heart could find rest and satisfaction. Yet humanity remains restless, she is continually searching not only in this world but now, even beyond it. Why then does humanity keep searching in this world for its ultimate meaning and never seemingly able to find one? Why is this world not enough for us? Many people have proposed various answers to these questions, but none provide an answer as fascinating as the Bible. According to the Bible, the reason the world is never enough for us is, ironically, because it is too small.
In the book of Ecclesiastes, we read these famous words: “Vanity of vanities, all things are vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). The book of Ecclesiastes is probably the least popular book in the entire Bible. I have heard many of my own brother priests lament this book when it appears in the lectionary either for Mass or in the Divine Office because, according to them, the ramblings of Qoheleth appear to have no coherent theme or structure to them. I have heard some people admit that they cannot read this book because the author, they believe, is depressed, and they cannot understand or even tolerate his dark and negative outlook on life. On the surface, these complaints about the Book of Ecclesiastes can appear valid and sensible. However, if we listen more deeply to these words, the author is not intending to communicate to us a dark and negative view of human existence. Nor does he want us to believe that life in this world is miserable and that there is never anything to look forward to. Rather, he is telling us that life, just by itself, even amidst so much beauty and wonder, is not enough. It’s not enough for the human heart, because the human heart can only find its completion and rest in the Infinite, in the One whose vastness and immensity knows no limits, and who has no beginning or end.
Several years ago, I was sitting in an airport awaiting a connecting flight when a middle-aged man approached me and asked if he could speak with me. I smiled at him, put away the book I was reading, and told him to sit down next to me. Immediately he began telling me about his life. He was a travel writer who spent most of the year traveling all over the world and writing about his many experiences with all the people and places he was privileged to visit. Towards the end of our conversation, he looked at me with a tear in his eye and said to me, “Father, I have been almost everywhere in this world and seen almost everything, and I am not happy, I am always restless.” A deep sadness filled my own heart when he said this as we both looked out the window of the airport. A few seconds later I asked him, “Have you ever thought about the One who created all this beauty and wonder that you are blessed to see.” His response to me was shocking. He looked at me, both annoyed and frustrated, and said to me, “I just want this to be enough. I just want this world, my travels, and my career to be enough.” I smiled at him and said as compassionately as I could, “This world is never enough, and it never will be.”
In the parable of the rich fool (Luke 12:13-21) a man from the crowd approaches Jesus and says to him: “Teacher, bid my brother divide the inheritance with me” (Luke 12:13). After Jesus refuses to head this man’s request, he then proceeds to tell the crowd a parable about a man who had acquired a great deal of wealth and who decides that to store the surplus of his crops, he will tear down his barns to build larger ones. Once the larger barns are built and his crops are safely stored, the rich fool says to himself “you have ample goods laid up for many years; take your ease, eat, drink, be merry” (Lk 12:19). The world, it appears, seems to be enough for this man and now he can sit back, relax, and enjoy life. However, this man’s peace is short-lived, because as Jesus recounts in the parable, that night he will die. Jesus concludes the parable with a striking condemnation for those who not only believe but seek to find their peace in this world alone: “the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So is he who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Lk 12:20-21).
Are the things of this world important? Yes, they are, and Jesus never refutes that. However, they are not as important as eternity. To live only for this world or to hope that this world will be enough, is to set oneself up for frustration and disappointment. Jesus is not denying or being insensitive to this man’s earthly and material needs. However, he does not want him or us to simply remain here on this earth with only our earthly needs and desires. St. Paul, in writing to the Colossians says “Seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:1-2). It is only by looking beyond this world that we can live this life correctly which, according to Jesus, means being rich in the things of God.
How then practically do we live like this? First, we cannot ignore this world. As mentioned in the beginning, this world is truly a marvelous place. However, this world is not all there is. All the beauty and immensity of this world is meant to point to the immensity and beauty of God. The Psalmist understands this very well when he writes “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars which you have established; what is man that you are mindful of him” (Psalm 8:3-4)? To ignore this world then would be to ignore God. Second, we cannot ignore our life. All of us have material, psychical, and earthly needs that are simply a part of life in this world. However, we must not think that the purpose in life, or that our peace comes from the fulfillment of those needs. Rather, all these human needs, just like creation itself, are meant to be a sign pointing us both beyond this world and even our own life. Whether it be in the beauty of creation or in the mystery of our own life, we can never stop and say, “This is it, this is what I’ve been looking for, this is what will fulfill me.” Whatever “this” is can’t be it, for the simple reason is that it is too small.
There is nothing in this world then that can be pursued as an end. This includes our relationships, jobs, vocations, talents, friendships, and even our own life. So many of our frustrations and problems occur in life when we seek our fulfillment or end in the things of this world. I have witnessed so many friendships, marriages, and even vocations ending in heartache, anger, and deep emotional and psychological hurt, simply because either one person or several were hoping the other person would be someone they were not. In contrast to this, so much joy occurs and is available to us when we allow ourselves to be taken beyond this world to God, the true end for which we were created. A truly holy person witnesses to this joy in the depths of their being, because they are not attached or grasping at anything in this world. Rather, they are attached to and desire only God.
St. Basil writes, “What, I ask, is more wonderful than the beauty of God? What is more pleasing and satisfying than God’s mercy…The radiance of the divine beauty is altogether beyond the power of words to describe.” The answer of course is nothing, nothing is more beautiful and satisfying than God. May we truly live then in this world as pilgrims and follow both this world and our own life, in all its immensity and beauty, to the One who is even greater, to the One whose beauty and greatness knows no limits.
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