We associate the New Year with new beginnings, and so we often enter it with particular resolutions to amend our lives by setting goals for personal achievement or self-improvement.
Yet it’s easier to make resolutions than keep them. Most require interior strengths such as temperance, prudence, or patience — in other words, virtues. We need virtues to overcome vices: self-control to trump gluttony, fortitude to combat laziness, and perseverance to succeed at practically anything.
“Habit is overcome by habit,” states Thomas à Kempis in the 15thcentury spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ. He knew how difficult that can be.
“If we were to uproot only one vice each year, we should soon become perfect,” writes à Kempis. Instead, we often grow lax in practice over time, whereas “our fervor and progress ought to increase day by day.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us that virtues “govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life” (1804). Resolutions are largely about self-mastery — and therefore virtues
Here are a few bits of wisdom that might assist us in our New Year’s resolve this year
1) Make just one resolution
Perhaps taking a cue from à Kempis, Dominick Albano, a speaker for Dynamic Catholic, suggests keeping things simple by focusing on making a single resolution.
“Because you have chosen just one effective, efficient habit you can adhere to, you are much more likely to be successful,” Albano writes. “And success builds on success. Before you know it, you will begin to see results, which will propel you to further success.”
2) …and make that prayer
David Torkington, a British spiritual theologian, echoes the one-resolution idea but goes a step further: “[W]hy not just make one that will eventually enable us to keep them all,” he writes on the Catholic Stand website.
We have limited energy to expend and must manage it well. So give up some of the bandwidth you use for less vital pursuits and create quality space and time for regular prayer, Torkington suggests.
Sister Mary Columbiere, a Carmelite sister of the Most Sacred Heart of Los Angeles, cautions realism in that prayer goal.
“Perhaps you’ve resolved to pray more this year, to set aside a block of time for regular prayer,” she writes on her community’s website. “That’s a good thing. But if you want to succeed, don’t bite off more than you can chew – at least not right away. The time we spend in prayer is not about our success at it; it is rather about our relationship with Him who loves us.”
4) Seek holiness
Setting a reasonable, achievable length of time for prayer will help us persevere. “It may be less than what we had hoped to do,” she advises, “but as time goes on and we find ourselves looking forward to those moments, we can always increase the length of time that we spend in prayer.”
As Christians we are called to pursue holiness, which constitutes a fine resolution. But “however determined you are to be a saint, you will not become one if you rely on your own strength of mind,” writes Dom Hubert van Zeller in his 1963 book Sanctity in Other Words. “The only thing that can get you to sanctity is God’s grace.” We must cooperate with grace, but “if you imagine that making good strong resolutions will carry you the whole way, you are wrong.”
We must have sufficient humility to recognize our need of divine assistance.
5) Tolerate those who irritate
Returning to The Imitation of Christ, à Kempis urges that we get along with those who annoy us. If we want people to put up with us, after all, we need to bear with them too.
“It is no great thing to associate with the good and gentle, for such association is naturally pleasing,” he writes. But “to be able to live at peace with harsh and perverse men, or with the undisciplined and those who irritate us, is a great grace, a praiseworthy and manly thing.” (Womanly, too.) Toleration has its limits, but exasperating companions provide opportunities to practice patience, fortitude, and charity.
6) Curb the tongue
Pope Francis frequently notes the evils that result from engaging in gossip, which he likens to terrorism: the gossiper throws a bomb and destroys reputations. It’s the devil’s way of creating divisions, he adds.
“Every time your mouth is about to say something that sows discord and divisiveness and to speak ill of another person, [just] bite your tongue!” Pope Francis said in a 2015 homily. You may wind up with a swollen tongue, he noted, but exercising prudence beats doing the devil’s work.
7) Fast as you can
For Catholics in the United States every Friday is a penitential day. According to norms set by the U.S. bishops, abstinence from meat is the preferred Friday observance, but outside Lent we may substitute other “works of voluntary self-denial and personal penance” in remembrance of Christ’s Passion.
Catholic blogger Gretchen Filz suggests we recommit to Friday penance in some form. “Maybe it is tried-and-true abstinence from meat, or perhaps another penitential practice such as praying the Stations of the Cross, or even acts of service for the less fortunate,” she writes. “Remember that penances aren’t meant to be pleasant at first, but the graces that come from them grow sweeter with time.”
8) Practice gratitude
Gratitude and compassion can motivate us toward greater self-discipline and perseverance in our resolutions, writes David DeSteno, psychology professor at Northeastern University, in a New York Times commentary. That’s because these “social emotions” redirect our focus away from ourselves, inspire us to short-term sacrifices for others, and “push us to behave in ways that show self-control.”
Studies have tied the cultivation of these virtues to better academic performance, increased willingness to exercise and eat healthily, and reductions in consumerism, impulsivity, and tobacco and alcohol use.
9) Forgive someone
We all suffer hurts, and we might hold grudges toward someone who has wounded us. Yet our faith calls us to “forgive those who trespass against us.”
“Make a resolution to forgive somebody for whom you’ve been harboring resentment, then do something tangible like offering every Friday Mass” or pray daily for the grace to forgive that person, recommends Catholic blogger Meg Hunter-Kilmer. “For most of us, a year of such actions will move the forgiveness from our will to our hearts. For the rest, it’s still a good start.”
10) Ask for help from Mother
January 1 is also the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, and as such “is a fitting time to entrust our resolutions, and indeed our very lives, to her care,” writes Gretchen Crowe, editor of Our Sunday Visitor. We should pray for her assistance “for a fresh start with a deeper resolve to be people of joy, prayer and gratitude.”
Thomas à Kempis wrote: “There is one thing that keeps many from zealously improving their lives, that is, dread of the difficulty, the toil of battle.” Resolutions are never easy. But with a focus on growth in virtue and a faith perspective, they might just be possible.
GERALD KORSON is a Legatus magazine staff writer.