Resolutions for a New Year
The new year got off to an auspicious start for me. My short list of resolutions had included promptness at prayer, and there I was, walking into the Abbey church at 7 am, just as the bell tolled. But the world was not ready for this, and neither were my confreres. The church was dark and the choir stalls were empty, because morning prayer was scheduled to begin at 8:30 am. I know that now because at 7:02 I read it on the bulletin board. I realized only then that I should have added “awareness of the schedule” to my list of resolutions.
New Year’s is the one time when we permit ourselves to act utterly ridiculous for a little bit, and it’s also the time when we indulge in those resolutions that we forget about in a day or two. This is all rather sad, because some of those resolutions can be really useful. If, for example, I had added “remember all my passwords” to my list a year ago, I would not have had such a bad day last Thursday. That was the day my cell phone emailed me with the cheery reminder that my data plan was set to expire. But all would be well if I just keyed in my password and filled in the required information. How simple is that?
As generally crafted, New Year’s resolutions are a bit of a Trojan horse. In theory, good things should always happen, if we follow through on them. But since we generally ignore them, the one really consistent reward we get is guilt. And so it might be wiser to make resolutions that take into account the likelihood of failure. Why not capitalize on that tendency and create a win-win scenario? How about a resolve that reads: “Gain a few pounds”? If you do gain weight over the next twelve months, at least you can take satisfaction from your successful follow-through. And if you fail miserably and even lose weight, well, at least you tried. In that spirit lots of good resolutions come to mind, like “Procrastinate more” or “Be a little less reliable.”
Of course one drawback is that such resolutions don’t fit into a corporate mentality that insists we adopt goals that are measurable. So perhaps we can go a step in that direction with a commitment to eat fast food at least six times a week. Or not eat brussels sprouts — not one, ever. The latter would set me up for sure-fire failure, since they are my favorite vegetable.
But while we’re at it, might it be even better to formulate these in the language of corporate goals? How about if I were to adopt sloth as a core value this year? What harm would that do, especially if you fell far short of success? Or what about poor hygene as a core value? Have you ever wondered why corporations and institutions deliberately exclude cleanliness from their core values? Is it because of its long association with Godliness? Do they fear offending the agnostics in their ranks? This year why not adopt personal sloppiness as a core value, just to please the company. And if you fail, well you can just resign yourself to a life of cleanliness and be a religious martyr at the same time.
New Year’s resolutions are an alien concept to Saint Benedict, I suppose, because his new year began with the First Sunday of Advent. The liturgical calendar was far more important, but even then the time for introspection was Lent. Life was to be a Lenten observance, and the central goal was an intense self-awareness. In the 14th century Thomas a Kempis in his Imitation of Christ proposed a daily examination of conscience, again for the purpose of sharpening one’s sense of progress in the spiritual life. His was among the first of the self-help manuals in western culture, and like Benedict the goal was not to load people down with guilt because of failure. Rather, they both sought a vitality that led to greater union with God and love of neighbor.
It’s rather odd that people today will haul all kinds of self-help tomes home from the bookstore but hesitate to engage in regular self-inventory. Maybe that’s why we are so reluctant to follow through on the resolutions we make. And it’s ironic, becuase when it comes to an investment portfolio people will glue themselves to the daily financial reports. And corporations will keep daily if not hourly tabs on their sales. And so at the end of the day Target can tell you how many tubes of Crest with Extra Whitener they sold that day. Meanwhile we are too tired or don’t care to see the point of reflecting on our own life that day. But to paraphrase the gospels, is not your life worth more than one tube of toothpaste?
On January 1st we celebrated the feast of Mary Mother of God — Theotokos in the Greek tradition. The members of the community were delighted to see the enthronement of a new icon, painted by our confrere Fr. Nathanael Hauser. It was carefully placed on a stand at the foot of the abbot’s throne, and even from the back of the church one’s eyes easily caught the figure of Madonna and Child, outlined in gold. Known as Our Lady of Tenderness, the icon adds a fine touch of solemnity to our path through the Christmas season.
Last summer’s storms sent one large sugar maple crashing to the ground near the monastery. That was a not so subtle hint that we should never take the health of our trees for granted, because they can do great damage when ignored. In the ensuing weeks the arborists began a careful examination of the trees in the monastic garden. This last week several trees got severe prunings, but one old maple was deemed too far gone to save. It had stood with its twin, framing our view of the lake, since they were planted around 1895. Both were majestic, but one had to go after losing a giant limb last summer. Sadly, a number of squirrels have lost a good home and an ample source of food. But we have plenty of other trees for them, and for at least a little while the trunk, measuring four and a half feet in diameter, will provide a great perch from which to view the lake.
In November we observed the fifth anniversary of the dedication of the Abbey guesthouse. By any measure it has been a great success, exceeding our fondest hopes. Since its opening over 19,000 guests have spent the night there, while others have come for quiet days of reflection, for spiritual direction, or simply to enjoy the serene beauty of the surroundings.