Like everyone else I make New Year\’s resolutions every year. Some years are better than others, but I have yet to complete a year with a resolution accomplished with year long discipline. I am 27. That is sad. I have made resolutions for working out, spiritual improvement, discipline in studying, and the rest. So, being a historian, I looked back to find some thread of why this has occurred, and if there was anything missing from my attempts.
Some years I was good for about three months with discipline. I found these resolutions were usually much more accommodating for my schedule. I could adapt and shift them around as needed, such as running. Other years, I would pick up the resolution randomly throughout the year. These included praying and reading more, altering my thought and behavior processes, and the like. These were resolutions which, whatever their difficulties, didn\’t require me to set aside a time and place. I could simply decide to begin on the spur of a moment.
With every resolution, I was missing two important attributes. First, I never sought outside help to achieve the goal. I took advice and suggestions at the start, but no one walked with me after January. Second, I made overarching plans, such as running three times a week, but I never made a detailed schedule with intention.
A New Path
While visiting my brother, I was given a free copy of Matthew Kelly\’s The Four Signs of a Dynamic Catholic: How Engaging 1% of Catholics Could Change the World. I am only half way through, but I already recommend it. This is my first experience with Kelly, and he offers insightful yet simple thoughts on improving how we live out our faith. Kelly\’s research gives the sobering fact that the Church\’s services of all kinds (parish, city, and national) is supported, both in money and volunteer hours, by only 7% of Catholics. So, Kelly began to search what made the 7%, as he calls them, different from the 93%.
The author picked out four overarching signs common to the engaged 7%: Prayer, Study, Generosity, and Evangelization. To begin, he asks you to rate yourself on the four signs to see where you land based on the criteria for each sign. I confess this had a similar, if less intense, affect as St. Theresa of Avila\’s Interior Castle. I am not where I thought I was. But, what Kelly gave me was a way to formulate a plan for improvement and, also like St. Theresa, gave encouragement for the future.
Consultants and coaches will be familiar with some of Kelly\’s approach of \”intentionality.\” Like me, you may not realize how much time slips away from you when you are not living with intention until someone points it out. Intending to do something is not the same as acting with intention. Without intention the years slip by. Kelly argues that intentionality drives all four of the signs. Without it, excuses and busy lives take over and drive off good intentions for spiritual growth.
I picked out two of the signs I thought I needed the most improvement, and began to formulate a plan. I will focus on one, prayer. Kelly does not pick out any specific type of prayer over any other. He simply offers his Prayer Process to begin. I found this elementary in some ways, but his routine and schedule ideas work with any type of prayer. Kelly advises to pick a spot and time for prayer you can consistently pray in. Then, have a \”routine within the routine\”. All of the 7% shares these traits in their prayer life no matter how they pray.
For example, I will be sitting in either my rocking chair or my comfy living room chair, until I finish my prayer corner at 8:30 every morning. My routine within this routine is as follows. I begin with thanking God for granting me another day and the blessings of my life, and I ask for His grace to live well. I ask Him to bless and keep those I hold most dear and bring any concerns, troubles, and temptations I am confronting. Then I read a daily meditation with the Church Fathers from a book by Mike Aquilina. Once I have read, I sit in silent prayer. Most of us are so bombarded with noise silence seems abnormal. Mother Theresa said, \”Before you speak, it is necessary to listen, for God speaks in the silence of the heart.\” Sometimes I think we struggle so much to hear God, because the noise around us is deafening. Or, if you’re like me, you might be afraid of what God will say. However, if we are always speaking how can we hear God? How many good conversations occurred where you did all of the talking?
The second half of this plan is \”incremental\” growth. God will meet us where we are, but we must keep moving forward. St. Bonaventure wrote, \”In the way of virtue, there is no standing still; anyone who does not daily advance, loses ground. If one does not conquer, one will be conquered.\” Kelly asks for as little as one minute of prayer a day to begin, and then add on each week. Find where you are and begin walking. A friend recently reminded me of C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity,
I think that many of us, when Christ has enabled us to overcome one or two sins that were an obvious nuisance, are inclined to feel (though we do not out it into words) that we are now good enough. He has done all we wanted Him to do, and we should be obliged if He would now leave us alone. As we say \”I never expected to be a saint, I only wanted to be a decent ordinary chap.\” And we imagine when we say this that we are being humble…. We may be content to remain what we call \”ordinary people\”: but He is determined to carry out a quite different plan. To shrink back from that plan is not humility; it is laziness and cowardice. To submit to it is not conceit or megalomania; it is obedience.
One aspect Kelly does not stress, thus far, or mention much, is the help we can give one another in spiritual improvement. A central argument of this book is improving an individual will help improve the parish, and thus the rest of the Church and the world. This is solid logic. But, Kelly drops this communal aspect as the books goes on. Yes, generosity towards others is included in much the same way an individual might resolve to volunteer more to help the sick and needy. Yes, prayer for the world and evangelization will spread the Gospel. But, if the individual is supposed to be improved for the benefit of the whole than the whole, or portions of it, should be helping the individual to improve.
This led me to realize that most New Year’s resolutions are me-centric. How do I want to do to improve myself? Not simply the obvious aspect that they are resolutions to improve upon yourself from the previous year, but that we rarely look outside ourselves to give and receive assistance. A person who pays for a trainer is much more likely to succeed in their resolutions, because they have someone to guide them. Part of Kelly’s approach is that it allows individuals to self-start, which is good, but there is no guidance after the beginning. As Kelly states, most people not only do not know how to pray they do not know where to begin.
This month, I will hopefully find someone who is sharing a similar resolution. Encouragement alone is great, but having someone who can relate to the struggles you are encountering while encouraging you to persevere helps even more. I also hope to find my first spiritual director. A spiritual director helps the individual on their journey by helping them develop their prayer life and assisting them in any struggles they encounter. Today, spiritual directors can be laity, deacons, religious, or priests. I, personally, prefer a priest so I can take advantage of the Sacrament of Confession. There is some amount of accountability here as well, but the point here is not simply to check in, but to help push forward and grow.
In my opinion, our nation is individualistic to point of lowering those who achieved by virtue of help from others simply because they did not go it alone. I believe we achieve more together than separate because it brings our individual strengths and talents together to compensate for our individual weaknesses. Whatever your resolution is try to find others to walk with, especially those who resolved for spiritual improvement, and greater devotion to Christ. Or, as St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote to his friend St. Polycarp at Smyrna,
Labor together with one another; strive in company together; run together; suffer together; sleep together; and awake together, as the stewards, and associates, and servants of God. Please Him under whom you fight … Let none of you be found a deserter. Be long-suffering with one another, in meekness, as God is towards you.
© 2014 Michael Lane. All rights reserved.