The days leading up to January 1st are filled with resolution-making for the new year ahead – eat healthier, exercise more, spend more time with our family, make more money, be more organized, think more positively. We look at our lives, find an area in which we desire improvement, and make a generalized decision to “Do Better.” We charge into the new year full of hope and optimism, convinced that we are going to vastly improve our lives, be happier and more fulfilled.
But statistics show that most New Year’s resolutions fail by February 1. Two of the biggest deterrents from achievement of our goals – vague and unrealistic expectations, and making too many resolutions. A person who makes ONE focused, measurable goal is much more likely to succeed (“I will exercise 4 times a week for 20 minutes” is much more specific and achievable than “Exercise more!!!!!!!!”)
Spiritual resolutions are much the same way. We resolve to pray more, go to Mass more, become more patient, do more works of mercy – but those aren’t really resolutions; rather, they are vague wishes that we have no actual plans to implement. We say to ourselves, “I need to pray more,” toss up a few hurried prayers throughout the day, and then look up months or years later and wonder why we are no closer to God than before.
We sometimes read the lives of the saints and become discouraged when we see their dedication and love of virtue, and their complete abhorrence of sin. We intellectually know that they are right and praiseworthy, but we sometimes think, “I could never be quite that detached from the world.” We read quotes from great saints, such as this one from St. Philip Neri: “He who desires anything but God deceives himself, and he who loves anything but God errs miserably,” and become disheartened. We feel as though we are too complacent in our sins, and don’t possess the fortitude to overcome them. How can we become a saint, when we have so many faults?
Remember that even the greatest saints did not become saints without effort. With the exception of Mary, all saints suffered from original sin, and overcoming their sinful inclinations did not come naturally or easily. It did not happen overnight. It took a lifetime of prayer and self-denial.
We know that sin separates us from God, so we must make a concerted effort to avoid sin. We know that prayer is essential, so we must pray. (“It is certain that he who prays is saved; he who prays not is damned.” – St. Alphonsus Liguori) But if our resolutions are “avoid sin” and “pray more”, we are going to make no more progress than when we try to “lose weight” and “think more positively.”
To make progress in the spiritual life, we need a plan. To overcome a vice or grow closer to God, we cannot simply have a vague idea in the back of our mind. We must make a firm resolution and implement it. We must write down our resolution, think of it throughout our day, have a way to measure our success, and pick ourselves back up when we fall.
The spiritual writer Thomas a Kempis said, “We would be well on the way to perfection if we could weed out one vice from ourselves each year.” May I issue a challenge to all of us as we head into this new liturgical year?
Let us choose one vice we struggle with, and strive to eradicate that vice from our souls and to grow in the corresponding virtue. What sin do I find myself confessing over and over again? What sin most robs me of peace? What sin is most responsible for discord in my family? Spend a few minutes sincerely examining your conscience. Be completely honest with yourself. Pick ONE thing. Try to choose the thing that is truly most damaging to your soul, but it also should be something that is a bad habit, something you do frequently. If you find yourself participating in petty gossip once or twice a month, yet you find yourself having outbursts of anger several times a day, work on the anger. Be very specific, don’t overthink it, and don’t waffle on your decision – pick one and stick to it.
1. Offer a short prayer each morning – “Jesus, today help me to not lose my temper with my children.” “Lord, please help me to overcome the habit of taking your name in vain.” We must show God that you are serious about this by asking for His help! We can’t do it by ourselves. “Those who imagine they can attain to holiness by any wisdom or strength of their own will find themselves after many labors, and struggles, and weary efforts, only the farther from possessing it.” – St. John of Avila
2. When we find ourselves in a situation where we are tempted towards our particular sin, we should say a short silent prayer asking for help. “Lord, help me remain patient.” If we can walk away from the situation to rid ourselves of the temptation, we should do it.
3. If we successfully overcome the temptation, we should say a prayer of thanks for God’s grace. If we succumb, (and we often will), we should say a prayer of contrition. To take this exercise a step further, we can assign ourselves a little penance for every time we fail. If we are striving to speak kindly about others, and found ourselves making 3 rude remarks about someone today, we could say an extra 3 Hail Marys before bed in reparation for our sin.
4. We should have recourse to the sacrament of Confession frequently. There is a unique grace attached to this sacrament that will aid us in overcoming our sins. We should tell our confessor that we are working on this particular fault – he may have advice or words of wisdom for us. When we receive Communion, we should again renew our dedication to overcoming this fault, and ask Christ, Who is present within us, for strength.
A word of warning – We are going to fall, especially if a bad habit is deeply ingrained in us. We should NOT be discouraged. Proverbs 24:16 tells us that even the just man falls seven times – but he rises again. We are sinners in need of God’s mercy. Our failings will keep us humble; we must get back up and keep trying. If we exercise every day for a week and don’t lose a pound, we may be tempted to quit exercising. However, we know that if we persevere, we will eventually shed the extra weight. The same principle applies here. Perseverance is key. Continue to pray for God’s grace. “Pray with great confidence, with confidence based upon the goodness and infinite generosity of God and upon the promises of Jesus Christ. God is a spring of living water which flows unceasingly into the hearts of those who pray.” – St. Louis de Montfort
St. John of the Cross said, “He who loses an opportunity is like the man who lets a bird fly from his hand, for he will never recover it.” Let us not let the opportunity of our LIFE pass us by. We are created to know, love, and serve God in this life and to be happy with Him in the next. If we do not do these things, then nothing else matters. We frequently hear that this world needs more technology, money, environmental protections, education, good politicians… No, what this world really needs is more SAINTS. We can have none of the other things if we are not striving to be the people God calls us to be.
It is not easy or fun to work on our sins. Sin is comfortable. Practicing virtue is uncomfortable. It is much easier to indulge than to deny ourselves a bodily pleasure. When we are tempted to give up because it’s hard, we should remember that, “Apart from the cross, there is no other ladder by which we may get to heaven.” (St. Rose of Lima)
As St. Therese said, “You cannot be half a saint; you must be a whole saint or no saint at all.” As we enter into the new liturgical year, let us make up our mind to become saints. Let us begin our work to overcome one sin. We have a specific plan, let’s put it into action. Let us build up the Body of Christ and encourage each other on the path of holiness. With God’s grace, let’s see how much spiritual progress we can make in a year.
“Let us go forward in peace, our eyes upon heaven, the only one goal of our labors.” -St. Therese of Lisieux
Colleen is wife to her wonderful husband and mama to three boys and three girls. She spends her days reading stories, practicing skip counting, and sweeping Cheerios with a baby in her arms. She enjoys sharing her Catholic Faith with others, and trying her best to live out her vocation generously, graciously, fully. She loves the Traditional Mass. She also appreciates anything crafty or chocolatey, and is blessed to reside in the great state of Kansas, which actually is not all black-and-white – she has the red shoes to prove it.