Some seven summers ago, I was taking coffee or ice-cream with a worthy Polish lady outside an Italian café, when we discovered that we were both readers of the Remnant. Placid by temperament, she became animated on learning this. ‘I love the Remnant’, she said, ‘it’s so – depressing!’

I feel rather the same about the Book of Ecclesiastes. Reading it is like being shown round some peaceful English cemetery outside a country church, and finding that all the paths meet at one’s own open grave, complete with a head-stone that awaits only the inscription of a date.

Maritain says somewhere that Ecclesiastes is the most perfect existentialist work ever written: haunted, I suppose he meant, by a twin sense of the countless possibilities open to human freedom, and the inevitability that all our actions, humanly speaking, come in the end to nothing.

St Jerome also seems to have been drawn to the book; at least, he chose to comment on it first, before any other work of Holy Writ. At one point, he asks what King Solomon meant by saying, A living dog is better than a dead lion: because the living know that they shall die, but the dead know nothing more, neither have they a reward any more: for the memory of them is forgotten; their love also, and their hatred, and their zeal are all perished, neither have they any part in this world. The Jew who taught him Hebrew, Jerome remarks, said that his people understood this to mean that someone still alive and teaching, however ignorant, is better than a perfect teacher now dead; so a village rabbi might be the dog, and Moses or some one of the prophets, the lion.

But our saint is dissatisfied with this:

Let us aim at higher things. With the gospel, let us say that the Canaanite woman who was told, ‘Thy faith has saved thee’ is the dog, and that the people of the circumcision is the dead lion, of whom the prophet Balaam said, ‘Behold the people! It will rise up like a lion cub, and like a rampant lion.’ Thus, it is we from the nations who are the live dog, and the people of the Jews, abandoned by our Lord, who are the dead lion. To Him, this living dog is better than that dead lion. We are alive, and know the Father, Son and Holy Ghost; they are dead and know nothing. They have neither promise nor reward to look forward to; their memory is finished […]

The love with which they once loved God has perished, and so has the hatred of which they boldly used to say: ‘Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord, and did I not waste away over thy enemies?’ Their zeal, too, which was shown by Phineas, and which made Mattathias’s knees shake, has perished. It is evident, too, that ‘neither have they any part in this world’; they cannot say, ‘My portion is our Lord’ (PL 23:1137-38).