Thursday, October 20, 2005

Joy Will Find a Way: Ecclesiastes & Irish Setter Breath

Last night Krista and I started reading Ecclesiastes. This is one of my favourite books, mainly because its tone is so different from a lot of other Biblical writers. And perhaps because my Mum would sometimes mix in it with Proverbs around the breakfast table when we were kids. Qoholeth, “the Preacher,” writes in a sort of sardonic way that can sometimes be a sort of tonic for the soul. And one particular passage made us laugh because it reminded Krista of a story I’d told her about Red, the Browers’ much beloved Irish Setter:

“I said in my heart with regard to human beings that God is testing them to show that they are but animals. For the fate of humans and the fate of animals is the same; as one dies, so dies the other. They all have the same breath, and humans have no advantage over the animals; for all is vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 3.18-19)

A little background. When I was studying in Manchester, Dr. and Mrs. Brower would often invite me to house-sit for them when they went away, primarily to take care of Red. By this time Red was entering the twilight of his earthly life. He was pretty frail, had trouble getting up and down, and I used to have to soften his crunchy food with hot water because he also was having some dental problems. But he did like to get out in the fresh air, and I loved to take him for his walks in the morning and at night in Fog Lane Park. Jamie and Julie Ann have some nice pictures of Fog Lane Park posted under "Autumn" over here.

And Red was nothing if not affectionate. Whenever, for instance, I’d settle in with the Guardian on the couch, listening to Dr. Brower’s old Gordon Lightfoot LPs (Summertime Dream was the soundtrack of my Summer 2001), Red would want to come over and visit, and share his very unique breath with me. So on this one, I’d have to say that Qoholeth was wrong. We do not all share “the same breath.” Red’s was special. I don’t even think it would be in the same category with other Irish Setter’s or animal or human. While Red himself was a blessing, his breath was downright ‘demonic.’ May he rest in peace. (I should mention the Irish Setter above isn't Red, but rather a model representing the Platonic Ideal of Irish Setter-ness).

And then another passage struck me:

“This is what I have seen to be good: it is fitting to eat and drink and find enjoyment in all the toil with which one toils under the sun the few days of the life God gives us; for this is our lot. Likewise all to whom God gives wealth and possessions and whom he enables to enjoy them, and to accept their lot and find enjoyment in their toil--this is the gift of God. For they will scarcely brood over the days of their lives, because God keeps them occupied with the joy of their hearts.” (Ecclesiastes 5.18-20)

The notes in my Oxford Annotated NRSV Bible (3rd Edition) mentioned something about joy being “the antidote to our obsessions.” I wholeheartedly believe this. It is often said that joy is not mere happiness, but something more akin to a capacity for thankfulness that somehow transcends circumstance. This also is true, if not easy. Things I've read about Fr. Alexander Schmemann always remember him being permeated with a sort of eternal and unshakeable joy. But that is totally different from a banal "happy-go-lucky" quality. Qoholeth here puts joy in the context of being able to enjoy whatever material goods we our entrusted with. We may have them, we may not. Poverty is only glorified or romanticized by those who have not really experienced it. And wealth is not ideal in and of itself, either. Whatever our circumstance, many if not most of us do the opposite and search out various things to brood about. Or we are just sort of swamped and overwhelmed by the immensity of suffering. Qoholeth took that route for a while, too, and then changed his mind. According to Ecclesiastes none of that really matters anyway… the point is that we cultivate some sort of way of being present to life - with all its dismaying complexity - that allows us to discover joy. And the best way I know how to do this is to be thankful. I have a lot to be thankful for. In Greek, the word is eucharisteo - “I give thanks.”

So for starters: Thanks Qoholeth, and thanks Red!


Blogger kimberley said...

hah. thats a bit to think on. i like when pam's kids would be over visiting and in the morning if i was sleeping up in the loft, the first words of the day i'd usually hear would be mom's. she'd say: "alright boys, lets get a little widsom into us along with our cornflakes, shall we," and she'd read them some proverbs.

todd liked it too, because on every occassion that mom would head out to feed horses and leave them sleeping, he'd fill in and say with a grin to his brother: "alright brody, let's get a little wisdom into you this morning, i think you could certainly use some." i love those guys. ;)

i love those two. we should invite them to check out your CRFQ, I'd love to hear todd's insights.

3:14 PM  
Blogger Matthew Francis said...

What's his email? That'd be so great!

3:27 PM  
Blogger kimberley said...

i'll check with pam. ;)

8:49 AM  
Blogger Tamara said...

That is such great dog.... i want him.

5:58 PM  
Blogger Browler said...

Just read this post, Matt. Thanks. I, too, have much to be thankful for. Perhaps at our next zakuski session, we'll raise a toast to Red and to joy.

7:11 AM  
Blogger Browler said...

Matt -- what a dog he was, eh? And what a book. Great post.

1:48 AM  

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