I find the pressure to make New Year’s resolutions a bit oppressive. It’s not that I don’t find it valuable to make a list of things to achieve or conquer, or to hold myself accountable to grow in virtues or abandon vices. These are noble aspirations and an essential part of any serious plan for human and spiritual formation.
The resolutions aren’t the issue. It’s the time frame that I find too difficult to manage. As I get older and experience more of life’s unpredictability, I find it impossible to know what any given year will bring: What occasions will I have to rise to? Who will be brought into my life? Will my health or security change or that of my loved ones? What will I be asked to leave behind or embrace?
By mid-to-late January, many people admit to having blown the promises they made to themselves just a few weeks before. It’s easy to become discouraged while staring down the remaining 11 months of the calendar year.
In my estimation, it is much more practical to make daily resolutions. Twenty-four hours is the scale that I find manageable for just about anything.
Many saints and spiritual writers share the impulse to keep the scope for measuring one’s progress from sunrise to sunset. After all, it was the Lord who cautioned, “Sufficient for a day is its own evil” (Mt 6:34).
One person that I’ve found to be a good guide for this practice is the 19th-century Italian priest, Father Bruno Lanteri, founder of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary. Father Lanteri lived during the time of the Jansenist controversy, in which it was proposed that a person’s free will has nothing to do with his salvation; a predestined man was said to be saved by grace alone, which he could not refuse.
Father Lanteri was formed by the Jesuits when they were tackling this heresy head-on. They proposed that while grace is necessary, it works in accord with our resolution to accept or reject it.
Father Lanteri was greatly influenced by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. One of the key elements of the exercises is the examen, a daily practice in which one commits to making a thorough review of the day at its close. A person notes where God was present, identifies ways to better cooperate with his grace and leaves every shortcoming to his mercy.
Today, the order of priests that Father Lanteri established continues to make spiritual direction and the Spiritual Exercises widely available to the faithful, as well Father Lanteri’s writings on what I characterize as a “spirituality of starting again.” The approach is best summed up in his motto, “Nunc coepi,” meaning, “Now I begin.”
Father Lanteri counsels:
“Say then with boldness, ‘Now I begin,’ and go forward constantly in God’s service. Do not look back so often, because one who looks back cannot run. And do not be content to begin only for this year. Begin every day, because it is for every day, even for every hour of the day, that the Lord taught us to say in the Our Father, forgive us our trespasses, and give us this day our daily bread.”
A “spirituality of starting again” can be embraced by anyone. Catholics have the added bonus of experiencing it most tangibly in the sacrament of confession, in which with a sincere heart and a resolution to not fall again, we receive God’s grace in absolution. How sweet is that prayer from the priest that begins, “God, the Father of mercies …”
This has been the refrain of Pope Francis during his pontificate — that God never tires of forgiving us; it is we who tire of going to him. We need only to approach God for help in whatever area we resolve to grow in.
This new year, let’s take it one day at a time and say with Father Bruno Lanteri, “If I should fall a thousand times a day, a thousand times a day I will begin again.”
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Elise Italiano Ureneck, associate director of the Center for the Church in the 21st Century at Boston College, writes the “Finding God in All Things” column for Catholic News Service.