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Posts Tagged ‘Victoria: A Life’

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Be It Resolved:  No Resolutions This Year

“Do monks make New Year’s resolutions?  Do Monks keep their New Year’s resolutions?”  Those were two questions a friend put to me this week, and the answers are short and sweet:  “Yes,” and “About as well as everybody else.”

The more nuanced response is that monks are pretty much like everyone else when it comes to resolutions.  The fact is, deliberate and major changes in the course of our lives don’t come easily, and wishing they were so generally doesn’t make them so.  Like most people, then, monks have aspirations that are ambitious, but it’s in the follow-through where we all show our common humanity.

imageClose to the monastic home, you don’t have to be a great scholar to realize that the Rule of Saint Benedict yields not a clue about how monks in the 6th century celebrated the new year.  And it’s not that Benedict’s monks were oblivous to the passage of time.  They knew their Roman numerals as well as any of their neighbors, and they had at their fingertips an array of dates to match with events.  Whether it was the exact year after the founding of Rome or the regnal year of an emperor, they had more than enough numbers to mark the passage of time and events.  But I don’t think it occurred to them to peg the quality of their own lives to a numeric grid.

Tympanum, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Tympanum, Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Nor do I know whether monks back then packaged their lives in segments of years.  But if they did, the divisions of the Church calendar mattered more to them.  Advent initiated the liturgical cycle.  Then came Christmas, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.  Then came the long stretch of Ordinary Time.  And when it was all over, they went back to Advent and did it all over again.  That rhythm hasn’t changed in centuries, and it was bolstered by its links to the seasons of the year. The parallel between the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the four natural seasons worked brilliantly for centuries, at least in the northern hemisphere.  I suppose it was nobody’s fault in 6th-century Italy that they had no idea there even was a southern hemisphere.  But I suspect the general lack of curiosity about the other hemisphere was mutual.

Nativity.  Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

Nativity. Cathedral of Notre Dame, Paris.

If the liturgical calendar and the seasons of nature shaped the lives of Benedict’s monks, I would contend that of even greater import was the festal calendar of the Church.  The ordo of feasts and seasons read much like an opera score, and the cycle of special and non-special (ferial) days created something of an emotional joy ride for the monks who lived by it.  No two days were ever alike, despite outward appearances.  And so the days did not blend seamlessly into one long stream of boredom, contrary to popular assumptions.

So where is it that monks concentrate their minds and energy when the need arises to make decisions about their lives?  It occurs to me that this takes place in the liturgy of the hours.  Here we find the kind of deliberate analysis that many people prefer to relegate to New Year’s Day and its resolutions.  In the morning we begin with “Lord, open our lips,” and with that the day is off and running.  In the course of morning prayer there are petitions that spell out our hopes for the day, and we repeat this practice in the other moments of community prayer.  And then at compline there is the “post game-day analysis” — the examination of conscience.  At that hour, monks who are still awake take time to inventory their lives during the past day.  They then express their regret and sorrow for any missteps, and look forward to the chance to try it all over again the next day.  Perhaps the next day will go better, or even repeat what went well the day before.

Presentation in the Temple.  Notre Dame, Paris.

Presentation in the Temple. Notre Dame, Paris.

That, it seems to me, is why monks don’t get terribly worked-up about New Year’s resolutions.  The time-frame is way too long for us.  We much prefer to have a focus that is pegged to a one-day-at-a-time framework.  We live for the moment, just as Saint Benedict advised when he told his monks to “keep death daily before their eyes.”  From that perspective, any program that delays analysis until next December 31st serves no useful purpose.  The press of daily business will leave those resolutions on the shelf, collecting dust.  And soon enough we’ll forget all about those life-changing resolves.

There you have the reasons why my New Year’s resolution will be quite simple this year:  “I will make no New Year’s resolution.”  For one thing, success is guaranteed, instantly, and I can move on to other things.  For another, living for the day is tough enough, and I don’t want to have to think about the entire year.  That’s way too ambitious.

Besides all that, I believe with all my heart that Christ will come again, and perhaps even on the last day of 2015.  But of greater urgency is today: “This is the day the Lord has made.”  Today is the day when I’ll most likely encounter Christ in my brother, in the guest, and in those suffering around me (to say nothing of those who are suffering from me.)  The truth is, today is about all I can handle.

The Holy Innocents.  Notre Dame, Paris.

The Holy Innocents. Notre Dame, Paris.

So at the end of this day I don’t want to look back and wonder where it went.  Nor do I want to console myself with the thought that I’ll do a state-of-the-person analysis next December 31st.  That kind of procrastination is way too tempting.

And if it sounds self-indulgent to live for the day, then you’ve got it all wrong.  Today is a gift from the Lord.  Looking ahead 365 days may just cause us to miss the more regular appearances of the Lord.  But live for the day, and come December 31st you may very well be stunned at what you have accumulated in the course of a year: an abundance of truly great days.

Notes

+Among the various items on my plate is membership on the Board of Trustees of Saint John’s University.  Our regular meetings are not all work, and in fact we regularly schedule some opportunity to learn about various student activities.  So it was at our last meeting in December, when we sat in on a rehearsal of several choirs preparing for Christmas concerts at Saint John’s and elsewhere.  Excerpts from that rehearsal provided the material for University President Michael Hemesath’s Christmas and New Year’s greeting, which follows.

+Years ago someone gifted me with a copy of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth.  It was so fascinating that it gobbled up all of my free-time over that Christmas break.  This year a good friend gave me A. N. Wilson’s recent book, Victoria: A Life (Penguin Press, 2014.)  This book in turn has chewed up prodigious amounts of this year’s Christmas holiday.  But there are worse ways to spend a Christmas break.  So if you are even remotely interested in 19th-century English history, or Queen Victoria herself, I highly recommend this book to you.

Flight to Egypt.  Notre Dame, Paris.

Flight to Egypt. Notre Dame, Paris.

+The photos in today’s post come from various sources.  At top is a clock on the façade of an office building in Paris.  I knew immediately that someday it would come in handy, and so it helps to inaugurate this blog into 2015.  The second photo, of the Holy Family, fabricated in Alsace around the year 1500, is housed at the Cluny Museum in Paris.  It’s the only piece of art that I’ve ever seen that depicts Jesus and Joseph having a good time, while Mary serenely looks on approvingly.

As anyone who’s been to Paris knows, it is a trove of all sorts of art.  From various pieces of medieval art in The Louvre Museum I’ve assembled a sampling to create a Christmas Gallery that spans many centuries and several media.

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