Even as a religious order priest, I live in the world. But the world I find myself in currently focuses a great deal on the celebration of the New Year. In preparation for this day as a secular celebration, many people have approached me seeking guidance for setting their New Year’s resolutions. In this article I will supply a framework to aid people discerning possible resolutions for the New Year.
An Insight from Nothing
Frames offer the mind a means for not merely containing information but also a way of seeing the picture within. A good framework based on personal values offers the mind a keen insight for one’s current life and path, thus giving the necessary foresight for shaping one’s resolutions. Regarding this tasking of framing one’s mind, I find myself always turning to St. John of the Cross. His corpus of work is not merely limited to poems and books, but he also enjoyed the art of drawing.
Reflecting on Mount Carmel, he drew an image that the Order calls The Graph of the Mount of Perfection. In this image he uses words to draw a mountain with a path that leads to a peak labeled, “Only the Honor and Glory of God Remains.” At the bottom of this picture, he inscribes the following message: “In order to enjoy, know, posses, and be everything, [you must] desire to enjoy, know, posses, and be nothing. You must continue on the way without enjoying, without knowing, without possessing, you must follow the path on which you are nothing.”
I believe his usage of “enjoying, knowing, and possessing” makes a great frame for shaping one’s New Year’s resolution.
The Good: “To enjoy … nothing?”
As those created in the image and likeness of God, we are called to a life that participates in the good. But, therein lies the problem: whose good? One would be quick to respond with the good of God. I agree with that insight, but it is easier said than done. It is in the context of man’s fallen nature that we gain clarity of understanding the wisdom of St. John of the Cross. We are created as beings who can enjoy the good, yet our eyes are clouded over, so, according to St. John, we must begin with the reality that we can enjoy nothing. Our only way to fully approach the good and thus enjoy it is by first acknowledging that we are not entitled to it, that we can enjoy nothing.
Many sins of the flesh have a way of setting their roots deep into the human heart by enticing the heart into hollowed out enjoyments under the mirage of goodness. If we try to set resolutions for ourselves while in that mirage, they will simply be blown away by the winds of our passions. What are we to do? Begin by placing your resolutions against the call of St. John that is to enjoy nothing (or sometimes translated as “no thing”). Ask yourself what are the enjoyments I hope to experience from my resolution(s)? Why do I want these enjoyments? Where might these enjoyments lead based on previous failings? In these questions, the flames of the Holy Spirit may begin to purify your resolutions from the hunger of your passions.
The True: “To know … nothing?”
Like the previous corner of our frame of reference, we must begin with the reality that we are sinners in need of a Savior and Healer. Christ refers to Himself as the Truth in speaking to His apostles (John 14). Yet, the problem arises that we, as a fallen people, can project our desired “truths” onto Christ as a means of self-justification. If a person falls into this trap, it is no longer the truth of Christ that animates the life of their hearts but their own ego. It is an ego that has been self-divinized as a way of honoring one’s desired “truths” based upon one’s lifestyle.
The gifts of the Holy Spirit can never be fully separated from each other. Knowing is always linked to understanding, which is why the foundation of all the gifts is the Fear of the Lord: a necessary gift found in the wisdom of St. John of the Cross. In order to grow in knowledge, we must first admit and accept that we journey down a path in which we know nothing. Fear of the Lord is a gift that helps us to articulate that reality. Our New Year’s resolution(s) can easily turn into acts that feed our pride and vanity further limiting our minds. This limiting leads to a cultivation of arrogance that makes us blind to our own ignorance.
Again, what are we to do? We begin by asking ourselves a few of the possible questions: Who is being revealed through this resolution? How does this resolution relate to my pride or ego? What knowledge is made visible through this resolution? Who is that knowledge for and why? In these kinds of questions, the gifts of the Holy Spirit are not only embraced but opened, freeing the soul from the prison of its own pride.
The Beautiful: “To possess … nothing?”
Beauty seems to be such a fickle thing these days. It is summed up in that horrid expression, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”. Why am I being rough on such a culturally utilized expression? Because again the expression was birthed from our fallen understanding. We have eyes that only see dimly as St. Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 13:12). Our twisted sense of beauty gives rise to a covetous heart, which is why St. John of the Cross reminds us we are called to possess nothing (or no-thing).
All true beauty must be in reference to God, thus making it something always beyond our control. We can’t control God, yet our desire to possess that which He Himself has made and shared His beauty with, is a desire to contain the God who is limitless. Because He has bound Himself with and revealed Himself in creation (ultimately through Jesus), our desire to be like God, in control, is inflamed through the possession of beauty. Thus, covetousness is always a desire for power over and against another through possession.
True beauty is always lost on a heart that seeks to possess it. The desire to possess always blinds the eyes of the heart. How are we to understand our relationship with beauty? We see this revealed through the parable of the Pearl of Great Price (Matthew 13:45-46). The person must first become possessed by the beauty of what he desires. He must realize that all means of power in relationship to it are meaningless, thus freeing the heart to be able to have it. “Nothing” leads to the way of possession because that is the divine perspective, because it was out of nothing that God created everything.
Finally, what are we to do in relation to our resolutions? Here are some questions to help you: What are things of beauty in my life? Why are they beautiful to me? How do I define beauty? What does my resolution have to do with my issues of control in my life? How might I root my resolution in a sense of beauty via the perspective of God’s act of creation? These are a few questions that may help you uncover some of the animus that has shaped or is shaping your New Year’s resolution(s).
From Nothing to Charity
As St. John of the Cross reminds us at the peak of his drawing: “Only the honor and glory of God remains”. At the end of the day, we either grow closer to God, making it possible to love our neighbors and ourselves, or we settle for the pseudo-satisfaction of our own desires, leaving us alone and isolated from others. Again, a frame is meant to bring the eye to focus on and accentuate what it contains. For us that is always Him who dwells at the center of our hearts. Our resolutions are a way of bringing a necessary focus on that Person at the center of our hearts, Jesus.
St. John of the Cross offers us a framework for identifying and understanding distractions that pull our gaze away from the holy face of salvation, Jesus Christ. Distractions always bring our eyes toward the mire of our delights. It is in the way of nothing (no thing) that the freedom of the Spirit is realized. It is in that freedom that we begin to rejoice in the wisdom of God made known through Jeremiah: “I brought you into the land of Carmel to eat the fruit thereof and the best things thereof” (Jeremiah 2:7). It is that passage that encircles the peak of St. John’s mountain. The honor and glory of God is always made known through His merciful charity, so our resolutions must always be shaped by that charity which comes through the freedom found in nothing or no-thing as St. John of the Cross showed us through his work.
Abide in peace, banish cares, take no account of all that happens, and you will serve God according to his good pleasure and rest in him. ~ St. John of the Cross