Can’t decide what your New Year resolution should be? Hazel Sillver looks to the Bible, the poets and the saints for some suggestions.
As we put last year’s calendar in the recycling bin and hang a new one on the wall, we are gripped with possibility. Here is our chance for a fresh start… There is a mood of hope for good things to come and old ills to fade. It is traditional to make a resolution as we step into January and it is also traditional not to keep it for very long! Some of us vow to go to the gym, others decide to give up cigarettes or learn a new skill. But a resolution could also be spiritual. We might want to pray more or be kinder in our dealings with others. Whatever it is, we have God with us to give us a helping hand if we ask for help. For we are told: ‘For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened,’ (Matthew 7:8).
Should you be unsure what your resolution ought to be, here are some suggestions:
SPEND TIME IN NATURE
We are told that Christ sought out hills and olive groves to pray. If you rarely spend time in the natural world, make a vow to seek its nourishment regularly, perhaps by gardening or walking in the countryside. Nature has a lot to teach us about being with God, who is here in the present: ‘(Roses) exist with God today,’ wrote the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. ‘There is no time to them… But man postpones or remembers; he does not live in the present, but with reverted eye laments the past, or, heedless of the riches that surround him, stands on tiptoe to foresee the future. He cannot be happy and strong until he too lives with nature in the present, above time.’
Many of us live with a constant anxiety that we refer to as ‘stress’. Of course there are the ups and downs of life that cause us worry, but there is also a type of deep unease that relates to feeling separated from God and in turn from nature and other people. Make a choice to rest in the infinite peace of God and trust in Him, rather than letting stress build. ‘Anxiety is one of the greatest traitors that real virtue and solid devotion can have,’ said the Italian stigmatic Padre Pio. ‘Humbly and tranquilly keep your heart turned to Heaven and wait from there the heavenly dew… The Spirit of God is a spirit of peace. Even in the most serious matters he creates for us a mood that is tranquil, humble and confident.’
CHANGE YOUR SPENDING HABITS
Our new Pope’s key message is to live a frugal life. Instead of the luxurious surrounds of the papal palace, he has chosen a humble abode and has said that he wants to preside over ‘a poor church for the poor’ and move away from that global ‘idol called money.’ He is also said to be very keen to deliver a strong message of environmentalism. Consider a resolution therefore of altering your spending habits, choosing to spend more for locally-produced or fairly-traded eco-sound organic goods and not overspending on things you don’t need. As the Bible says, our relationship with money reflects and determines our spiritual life: ‘No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money,’ (Matthew 6:24).
‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (Mark 12:31) is the second greatest commandment and, for many people, one of the hardest. In a society that teaches us to vehemently compare ourselves to others, it is very hard not to judge others and to generate affection for all. Making a resolution to do this is to participate in the beating heart of Christian devotion and, according to the mystic writer Evelyn Underhill, it is the source of happiness: ‘Real love always heals fear and neutralizes egotism,’ she writes. ‘So, as love grows up in us, we shall worry about ourselves less and admire and delight in God and His other children more and more, and this is the secret of joy. We shall no longer strive for our own way, but commit ourselves easily and simply to God’s way, acquiesce in His will and in so doing find our peace.’ God’s way is to love all, without condition.
Saints and mystics reassure us that God cannot be found in books, but is to be found in the silent mysteries of contemplative practice. We are told that Jesus had a daily practice of rising before dawn and going out to pray alone. If your aim is to forge a strong and intimate bond with God, consider making a contemplative practice your resolution. No-one writes more passionately about contemplation than the late Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who said: ‘God cannot be found by weighing the present against the future or the past, but only by sinking into the heart of the present as it is… Here is liberty, all I have to do is to be quiet, sit still.’ Contemplation is just that: a still mind and heart within which the Holy Spirit can stir. Terrifyingly beautiful in its simplicity, it can be deeply calming once you are accustomed to it, but perhaps disturbing at first, for a busy mind.
LOOK AFTER YOUR BODY
Last but not least, the most common New Year resolutions: to get fit or give up smoking, are definitely holy! Jesus tells us ‘The kingdom of God is within you’ (Luke 17:21) and in Corinthians (6:19) it is written: ‘Your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit.’ Making a promise to look after your health is not un-Godly by any means – just the opposite. When we feel groggy and edgy with too much sugar, wheat and caffeine, or from lack of exercise, prayer and contemplation are much harder. Modern-day science shows us that regular aerobic exercise, such as running, boosts mood and confidence in the long and short-term, making us happier, kinder and nicer to be around.