Prologue to a New Year

New Year’s resolutions go back at least to the Romans, who began each year making promises to Janus, the god of transitions, for whom January is named. In these more secular times, the gods displaced, oracles such as the New York Times advise devotees to make resolutions that are “specific” and “measurable”: exactly how many pounds you want to lose, how much more money you want to make, etc. For my own part, while I’ve certainly resolved many times over to be a better person in various ways, whatever successes I’ve enjoyed can rarely be traced to January 1. Nonetheless I find the dawn of a new year an apt time to step back, take a breath, and assess where I’ve been and where I’d like to go—similar somewhat to what I do each birthday, without the psychological comorbidities that can attend meditation on one’s lengthening chronology.

As a lens for my reflection this year I decided to use The Rule, since it represents the biggest resolution I’ve ever made, and specifically St. Benedict’s prologue to it, which, even after many, many readings, never fails to challenge, encourage, and inspire me. As I read through it this time, I was reminded that, typical of The Rule, every single sentence, applied earnestly, could be a life-changer. So my first resolution will be a promise to the reader that I’ll limit myself to three areas of immediate personal and spiritual concern.

The very first line of the Prologue gives me my first resolution: to listen more with the ear of my heart. So much of The Rule is tied into listening: it’s intrinsic to obedience, humility, even to stability. But I can often forget that the real listening needs to take place in the heart, someplace deep inside me where only God can talk and only I can hear him. A while back, toward the beginning of Advent, as a penance in Reconciliation my confessor told me to ask God to open my heart. There are some graces we don’t even know to ask for. Or maybe we just don’t know how to articulate them. Or maybe we’re afraid to ask. But we can ask for receptivity to them. We can ask for openness. And God, in my experience, responds to the request with delight. I want to keep asking for it.

Inspired by Sentence 9, I resolve to keep opening my eyes to the light that comes from God. A week or so into Advent I had a very interesting, very powerful experience: one morning the alarm went off. I grabbed the clock and fumbled for the switch, couldn’t find it. The alarm kept ringing, louder it seemed. I found the switch, turned it off, but the bell kept ringing. I thought I’d done something wrong, tried the switch again, flipped it up, flipped it down. Still it keep ringing. Suddenly I realized I wasn’t even awake. I was dreaming. The alarm was indeed going off, but the clock I was trying to turn off wasn’t real. In short: I thought I was awake, but I wasn’t. I got up and began Vigils—one of the most connected prayer experiences I’ve ever had. And one of the most grateful. I thought I had already opened my eyes to the light that comes from God, but God loved me enough to show me that I was, in fact, still asleep; that the real light was something else entirely—something quite alarming.

And my third resolution is a greater commitment to delight, prompted by Sentence 19: “What, dear brothers, is more delightful than this voice of the Lord calling to us?” At my Advent Reconciliation, for which I used Chapter 4 of The Rule (The Tools for Good Works) as my examination of conscience, as my penance my confessor told me to thank God for my Benedictine vocation. This is certainly one of the easiest penances I’ve ever been given—and also one of the most significant. It brought me back to an existential awareness of what I’ve committed myself to as well as to the fruit of that commitment. The discipline of monasticism—the prayer life, the focus on simplicity, the stability-based decision-making process—had, as St. Benedict promises and monastic commentators on The Rule confirm, to some degree become second nature to me. But I had also become disciplined at the expense of delight: the simple yet profound delight of trying each day to live the life God called me to.

The delight we’re all called to, all promised. For in the penultimate sentence of the Prologue, St. Benedict reassures us that “as we progress in this way of life and in faith, we shall run on the paths of God’s commandments, our hearts overflowing with the inexpressible delight of love.” This way of life, this faith—that’s probably the only resolution we need.

A delightful new year to all!

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