I hate New Year resolutions. I nearly always make one, usually break it and even not infrequently forget what it was. From my discussions with others I don’t think I am alone in this. So…. what is it about the turn of the year that brings to the surface this pressure , perhaps the need, to bring about a renewal, maybe not of ourselves utterly , but of one small part of our life? Moreover, are we or should we be satisfied with that on an annual basis, assuming we are not all the broken reeds I seem to be? In the background do we hope this one small step will itself facilitate a more generous, possibly a complete, renewal of our being and doing in the world? A significant quandary indeed – and where to turn for an answer? For the purpose of this paper I want to see what our Holy Father Benedict has to say to help us work towards some sort of resolution; to carry us onwards …… even if just to the next New Year resolution?
I think it’s fair to say that a New Year resolution is intended to be beneficial – perhaps making us more efficient in what we do or improving our relationships, maybe even actually becoming a better person? Whatever area of our lives we scrutinise in this way, what it amounts to is a desire for renewal and this in itself requires a true conversion of all or part of ourselves. In this context we need not see a conversion as necessarily a religious process. By definition any form of renewal in any person at all, religious or not, requires turning from what was found to be unsatisfactory in their life towards what they perceive to be desirable and better.
It is beyond the scope of this paper to debate the possibility that what one individual perceives as being desirable and better is, in the judgement of “the man on the Clapham omnibus” a more perfect degree of evil. We will here assume that what most people perceive as desirable and good would be seen as such by God and the Church – granted, a big assumption these days but let’s give the traveller in Clapham the benefit of the doubt!
So, apart from a general desire for conversion, what are we Christians to make of a New Year resolution which we break or even forget? Well, I want to put forward the notion that it is a step …. one tiny but indispensable step, in the journey towards improvement by renewal. In reality, for most of us, this is how we move, crawl, forward towards the goal of perfection, one tiny and often painful step at a time. It is hard to abandon old familiar ways that in fact block our progress. Benedict tells us to remain open, spiritually and intellectually, to the manner in which God may lead us on our route in order to live the Benedictine Way. He sees this need for time, earnest desire and hard work to discern the route God sets before us towards that renewal.
For us, to be rooted in the Benedictine approach is to balance our life (sometimes in itself a hard thing to do) and to open ourselves to prayer, work, study and hospitality. Above all it is in obedience (itself perhaps the hardest of all the qualities we must find) to those Benedictine ideals that we will find both the strength and humility to accept the abandonment of those things which inhibit our progress towards renewal and conversion.
Saint Benedict, in his Rule, shows us that conversion for the majority at least is a work in progress. It takes place continually in us over time. If that were not so he could have written some spell by which our conversion could be a flash-bang sort of affair in an instant. Very few the people granted that experience….and at what cost? If that were the norm, no need for a Rule at all, we would have outgrown it in a trice.
So, I must be content with any slow, halting progress I might make. The best I can do, after prayer and lectio divina, is to not sit back on 1 January and tell myself I have done my bit for now, but to seek to use the tools Saint Benedict has given us to progress a tiny bit all the time , not to be too discouraged when I fail – or forget – and to remember that it is only by taking the fist tiny step that we can set off on our journey towards our heavenly goal.
© Carol F. Lewis MA