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Since the New Year is a fresh start that comes only once a year, we should take advantage of the occasion and make a resolution about something really important. I think we can agree that someone, say, whose New Year's resolution was to be sure not to miss his favorite TV show, would be a fool. What, then, is the most important resolution you could make?
It can be refreshing to ask not simply what people do make resolutions about, but also what they should make them about. Imagine a man who resolved to spend the year improving his golf game when he was overweight, in massive debt, and addicted to cigarettes and alcohol. He definitely would have missed the mark.
But don't we all do the same if our resolution concerns solely the body and not the soul?
I am impressed by the "how much more so" arguments of Christ. He praises us for the attention we give to some less important domain and then chides us for not giving even more attention to a more important domain. If we labor to acquire earthly things, "how much more so" ought we strive for heavenly things. If it is important to be reconciled to our accuser en route to court, "how much more so" to God as death approaches. "What does it profit a man to gain the whole world but lose his very soul?"
By this logic, if we have made a resolution to get out of debt, how much more so should we resolve to go to confession for sin. If we have resolved to lose weight, how much more so should we resolve to overcome those bad habits that make us spiritually unhealthy and unattractive. A resolution to exercise every day would not be anywhere near as important as one to pray each day.
Of course losing weight and getting out of debt are good and tremendously important. But precisely because they are so, these other things are more important and demand a prior, although not exclusive, attention.
We have therefore identified the area, or subject matter, of the most important resolution you could make: the good of the soul; heavenly things; our relationship to God. But we additionally need to consider, so to speak, the quality of such a resolution.
After all, resolutions are practical things. If they are not successful, there was no point in making them in the first place. Thus, it is essential that a resolution be crafted in such a way that we are more likely to carry it out.
In this spirit, a resolution simply to go to confession once, this week, is better than a vague resolve "to be reconciled with God" throughout the year. Such a resolution is very easy to keep: put down this article, get on the phone right now, and call a priest to make an appointment. Then go, and you have kept your resolution.
A resolution to do only a single thing is not easier or "cheaper" than one involving a constant struggle. If you could get out of debt with a single payment, wouldn't you do so? If that single thing is the one thing you need to do -- then resolve to do that, and be done with it.
Other concrete, and therefore achievable resolutions, would be: read the New Testament for five minutes before breakfast; get up 10 minutes earlier and pray while the house is quiet; stop in a church for five minutes during lunch to "make a visit to the Blessed Sacrament."
We can be sure that at some point we will fail to keep any resolution that involves regular action over time, because of our weakness. Experts on time management say that you need to schedule in extra time for unforeseen complications. No schedule which assumes perfect compliance is a good schedule. In the same way, you must plan on the eventuality that you will not keep your resolution. No resolution is practical unless it provides for its own lack of success.
Hence, effective resolutions are typically complex. They are resolutions for "this with that," of an action along with some method of accountability. "I will run two miles every day"-- the action -- "with a friend" -- the accountability. "I will lose one pound a week"-- the action -- ''by counting my calories and joining a weight loss group"-- the accountability.
In the spiritual realm likewise: "I will pray 10 minutes each day and confer about this with a spiritual director." "I will strive to overcome unpleasantness at home and go to weekly confession for the needed grace." "I will schedule a Lenten retreat now, so that I can re-examine my spiritual progress a few months into the New Year."
By accountability I do not mean scrutiny and "judgmentalism" based on fear, but friendly help based on love. The purpose of accountability is to create a space in which we are free constantly to make fresh starts and begin again. "How many times if my brother offends me should I forgive him -- seven times?" No, 70 times seven, says Our Lord. He was a great fan of fresh starts.
Curiously, then, the most important New Year's resolution that anyone could make would apparently be one which created such a space. Find a spiritual director. Practice frequent confession. Go on retreat. Seek definite Christian fellowship, perhaps in one of those new "movements" and associations in the Church.
Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Philosophy at Ave Maria University. His latest book, "The Appalling Strangeness of the Mercy of God," about his late wife Ruth, is forthcoming in March from Ignatius Press.