By Father John Bayer
Special to The Texas Catholic
Lent is almost over, and many of us are already evaluating our Lenten resolutions. How did you do? Did you keep your resolutions? Let me suggest a few things to keep in mind as we reflect on our resolutions.
First, did we even make resolutions? If not, why not? They give us a way to live a very personal spirituality, so why pass them up? As Catholics, we have a rich moral tradition and so a great idea about what we all should and should not do collectively. But we each also have been given a “new name” at our baptism, that is, a personal call from God to live according to the special desire he has for each of us. This call identifies us – it is a name – and it is something “no one knows but he who receives it” (Revelation 2:17; cf. Isaiah 62:2). To receive it, we must listen for it through prayer and self-examination. And we must respond to it with personal resolution. We all know what we all should and should not do by reading the Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes. But I will never learn all that I am called to do until I learn to discern the concrete will of God for me. Spiritual resolutions, like those we make in Lent, are an opportunity to listen to God speaking to us personally and to respond to him. Did I examine myself before God this Lent and strain my ears to hear him speak my name? What did he ask of me?
If we did make resolutions, were they the genuine fruits of our interior lives? There is a danger, I think, in making resolutions that simply copy those made by others. For lack of self-knowledge and creativity, sometimes we make only very common resolutions, like giving up sweets or exercising. We are all different and our Lenten resolutions should target our particular strengths and weaknesses. Certainly, it is appropriate to do something familiar like giving up sweets for Lent, but I suspect that we sometimes resort to such things too quickly. If what we resolve is always common, our observance risks becoming just another set of rules that we impose on ourselves, rather than an occasion for self-reflection and true prayer.
St. Benedict says that Lent is a time for each of us to “wash away” our “negligences” from the year. At its core, Lent is not about adding a new discipline. It is about overcoming negligence and thus about becoming more attentive and intentional in our spiritual lives. Resolutions should be tailored, and new disciplines should be chosen as specific remedies to the particular ways in which each of us has been negligent in his or her spiritual life. St. Benedict suggests heartfelt prayer, reading and self-denial during Lent, but he leaves it to his monks and their abbots to discern what each person should specifically pray, read and deny himself. This discernment aims at something beyond what is common, so that “each of us will have something above the assigned measure to offer God of his own will with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (RB 49:6).
Before settling on a resolution, we should look at ourselves – that is, overcome our negligence. Where am I blind? What are my compulsive thoughts and behaviors? Where am I going in life? What do I truly want? Good resolutions will be challenging, because they will emerge from such challenging questions and they will target us in areas where we are still growing. In short, good resolutions are interesting, because they occasion humble self-discovery, genuine growth and a personal encounter with God. If we kept all our resolutions this Lent perfectly, they may have been off target or too boring for us. Am I challenging myself, or am I ‘playing to my strengths’ and thus negligently ignoring my weaknesses?
If you are like me and so have a few regrets about your resolutions, do not worry! We are in a prefect position to learn something about ourselves and thus discover our paths forward. Besides, St. Benedict also says the monk’s life should be a “continuous Lent” (RB 49:1), and so it is never too late to make a resolution!
Father John Bayer, O.Cist., is a theologian and monk at the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas in Irving. His column appears occasionally in The Texas Catholic.