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Posted July 26, 2010

Book: Homilies to Transform Hearts and Minds
Author: Andre Papineau, SDS
Resource Publications, San Jose, CA. 2010. Pp. 103

An Excerpt from the Jacket:

Everyone has undergone various life transitions — things like graduating, marrying, having children, moving to a new city, fighting a serious illness, losing a job. How can you inspire members of your assembly to re-imagine difficult transitions as conversion experiences?

This book gives you twenty-five ways that a respected homilist approached the problem. Use these samples to generate your own homilies that move people to a deeper understanding of themselves, their world, and God.

An Excerpt from the Book:

Eighteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time (Year C)
Ecclesiastes 1:2; 2:21-23

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is Vanity! (Eccl 1:2)

The Teacher reflected and said, “So I turned and gave my heart up to despair concerning all the toil of my labors under the sun, because sometimes one who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skills must leave all to be enjoyed by another who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil. What do mortals get from all the toil and strain with which they toil under the sun? For all their days are full of pain, and their work is a vexation; even at night their minds do not rest. This also is vanity. (Eccl 2:20-21)

I think of certain biblical passages as mood passages; for example, the stories of Jesus’ birth and Resurrection are stories of joy, while the stories of his Passion and death are stories of sadness. To appreciate them fully, it helps to be in the appropriate mood. The reading from Ecclesiastes is one such mood passage that requires the right atmosphere to be appreciated.

I don’t know if the Teacher penned this on a rainy day or a day with an overcast sky, but my feeling is that he was in some kind of a funk. And if I were asked the predominant color to describe his frame of mind, I would venture gray. It’s important to get a feel for the tone in this passage because mood passages can be helpful in valuing our own moods in which we discover something about ourselves.

“Vanities of vanities! All things are vanity!” That is the opening line and the most quoted one from the passage. I will explain its meaning shortly. However, this much can be said now: it has nothing to do with being vain, conceited, or pompous. For us to get a feel for the passage, consider the following questions:

Have you ever had the feeling that whatever you were doing in life was pointless?

Have you ever felt like you were on some kind of a treadmill — expending all your energies on some project or relationship and going nowhere?

Have you ever felt passionately about something or someone you wanted, and once you had it, felt disappointed or empty?

Have you ever felt like there was nothing on the horizon that would ever interest you again?

After years of placing your trust in elected officials or public servants, have you become cynical and think that they are all corrupt?

And have you ever felt your daily routine to be tedious, oppressive, boring? Getting up, eating, going to work, going to bed, getting up, eating, and so on?

Does what I am saying ring a bell? If you were home, would this lead you to pull down the shades and mope? Would you feel blah?

“Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!” The word vanity comes from the Latin vanitas, which means “empty.” A rough translation might be “Emptiness of emptiness, and all is emptiness.” And what was the Teacher talking about?

Most of us have goals, ambitions, hopes, dreams, and passions in our lives. Initially, we are very enthusiastic about them. We are single-minded and dedicated in our efforts to pursue our goals and realize our ambitions. We might even be preoccupied with getting a degree from high school or college, with finding a good job, promotion, or a raise in salary, with discovering the right person to marry, with becoming respected in the community.

And maybe for a while, after we achieved our goals, we feel a sense of accomplishment. Gradually, however, we may begin to feel empty. Everything we strove for seems empty, insubstantial, and hollow. Living in an age in which people expect fulfillment, feeling so empty is quite a shock. All this talk about being fulfilled, finding our niche, getting self-actualized seems like a lot of nonsense to people who are in the mood I just described.

It’s remarkable how much the Teacher sounds like the French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, who described the human person as a useless passion. He meant that a person is like a vast emptiness that can never be filled or satisfied — a useless passion or struggle. Desiring to be fulfilled, our destiny is never to achieve that fulfillment. The Teacher also sounds a little like Martin Heidegger, the German philosopher who described the person as the “being-toward-death.” Our destiny is to end up in nothingness. Scary, isn’t it?

Having described the mood in which so many of us find ourselves — sometimes for years — can we conclude that this mood is unhealthy, that we are sick and ought to feel ashamed of ourselves for not feeling upbeat? Should we go to a psychiatrist for help? No, not necessarily. Yes, the mood is gray and can be very painful, but it communicates its own truth to those who are willing to learn. And what is that turth?

We can’t expect anything to be everything for us. No person, place, or event can be it! The mood communicates this truth in a strange way. It communicates by devaluing; this is, we are made to feel that nothing is worth anything. And the reason we are made to feel this way is because we previously overestimated or overvalued people and things. The mood introduces a note of sobriety into our lives.

Catch that note in what the Teacher says in the rest of the passage: Someone can work his fingers to the bone, and whatever he or she achieves goes to some good-for-nothing relative who did nothing to deserve it. You work and work and work and end up — with what? A backache, restless nights? Some song lyrics summarize the attitude of the Teacher: “Is that all there is.” or “What’s it all about Alfie?” And I think the Teacher must have been Rodney Dangerfield’s great, great, great grandfather: We get no respect!

Yet, for all his pessimism, The Teacher was no atheist. Nor was he in the same camp as the existentialists, Sartre and Heidegger. He didn’t say life is meaningless. As I indicated earlier, he spoke while in a mood; he is in a funk. And in that mood, he makes a profound point — namely, no thing can be God or ought to be made God. Every thing and every person to which we attach too much importance or that we idolize is really empty of the value we give to them. In these moods, we are reminded of our restlessness — of the emptiness in our souls that yearn for fulfillment and never find it in things or people but only in God.

So, as painful as this mood is, it can be instructive and enriching in discovering something about ourselves if we are willing to be patient and learn. Vanity of vanities! All things are vanity!

Identity: Who Am I?

What makes me special?


For display purposes only

The Good Samaritan

Finding the Body of Christ

Setups and Letdowns

The just man

Lost and found

I’d like you to feel at home

Free rides

Miracles: Then and Now

Myron and his mat

The journey of Bartimaeus

Persistent lady



Hidden Gifts

Mustard seed faith


Snap decisions

Nothing going on

Supports: Those who care

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Welcome mat

Love one another

Isn’t that a shame?

What Does Jesus Look Like?

Who am I for you?

The empty tomb


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