"Vanity of vanities! Vanity of vanities," cries the writer of Ecclesiasties. Life is nothing but a vapor, a puff of air floating through the cosmos for a few seconds before it vanishes, hardly noticed, definitely unremembered. And Time continues it's relentless march forward, rolling over everything and everyone in its path. In the words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, "Generations have trod, have trod, have trod/ And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil/ And bears man's smudge, and shares man's smell; the soil/ Is bare now, nor can foot feel being shod."
Annie Dillard puts it this way: "'Your fathers did eat manna and are dead,'" Jesus told people . . . . Trafficking directly with the divine, as the manna-eating wilderness generation did, and as Jesus did, confers no immunity to death or hazard. You can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials with God, or you can live as a particle crashing about and colliding in a welter of materials without God. But you cannot live outside the welter of colliding materials."
Today is a somber day, a day to remember events that still seem so fresh in our memories, to remember lives that still seem to beat with vibrancy in the retelling of their stories. And yet every day, thousands of people die around the world, remembered by friends and family perhaps, but forgotten by their city, their state, their country. It takes a cataclysmic event like tsunami or a terrorist attack to turn the collective eye on a few select individuals for a time to remember their stories as emblematic of so many others we never hear.
How many more perished on September 11, 2001 from starvation, genocide, war, disease, old age, drug abuse or domestic violence? Lives lost in tragic ways, without recognition, without remembrance. Certainly there is not time or energy to remember them all, to tell all of their stories. The generations toil on, trampling over those that came before. Some day, September 11 will fade into history too. And with the writer of Ecclesiasties we will continue to cry, vanity of vanities!
And yet, as hearts are overwhelmed by the rushing waves of humanity and time that will someday subsume our collective tragedy, we are confronted with the final words of the book of wisdom: "Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man." And with humility we find we have nothing to do but surrender ourselves to the master of the waves, believing that in the end we can trust him to finally stop the relentless cycles, to lovingly recount each one's story, and to calm the unbridled sea to peace.