New Year’s Resolutions: Making the Spiritual Ones Work

Spiritual resolution

I love New Year’s. There’s something about the calendar on my wall flipping over that gives me the feeling of a new beginning. It’s a completely made up new beginning, yet still completely real. Bono from U2 had it right when he said that “Nothing changes on New Year’s Day,” however, for me psychologically almost everything changes.

I love it because it gets people thinking about the things they want to change, and usually it’s pretty good stuff: get a better job, be a better friend, parent, spouse, lose weight, etc. In my mind, anytime a person takes to personal goal setting, with serious intent to change, good things are bound to happen.

I’ve become better at keeping my resolutions over the years and one of the best parts about making the list is reading it years after the fact. I can go back several years and see what my resolutions were, whether I kept them, and how my current goals differ from years gone by.

Every year one of my resolutions is to learn a language. I’ve set out dozens of times like Don Quixote on a quest to slay the giant of learning another language only to realize my quest is complete fantasy; I barely survive for a few weeks, then put it down, pick it back up, put it back down, again and again for the entire year and come away speaking almost nothing. I am proud to say, though, that I can ask where the bathroom is in Spanish, French, German, Arabic, Greek, and ancient Hebrew.

I always list a number of spiritual goals too. Stuff like pray more, go on a mission trip, give more, you know the drill. And when I look back at these lists over the years it’s the failure in this category that upsets me the most.

I’ve been a Christian for 25 years and I have never kept a steady, daily – dare say religious – diet for a year’s time in my life. Please, if you are a Christian do not applaud that I have not kept a religious regiment because you think that being religious is somehow antithetical to the ‘real’ goal of being spiritual. I had this mindset – spiritual vs religious – for most of my life and now I realize that it was largely responsible for why my spiritual resolutions always failed.

And since this is not an article about the differences between being spiritual and religious, here’s the short version of this otherwise long discussion – there is no such thing as an enduring spiritual trait without an enduring religious practice.

The trouble is when a religious practice is used as an end in itself. Religious practice is precisely for the end goal of authentic spirituality (‘authentic’ in contrast to flighty emotionalism). And authentic spirituality as an end goal is impossible without consistent religious practice.

Take for example spiritual peace; that is, the type of inner peace that surpasses understanding, and not merely an external lack of distraction – the peace one finds when in communion with God, not merely the peace one finds laying on the beach with martini in hand (though if you ever achieve both at the same time more power to you). Spiritual peace may come in short bursts from time to time when one’s attention is turned to God in a serious manner, but lasting peace only comes from a devoted prayer life and keeping of God’s commandments.

I’ve known several Christians who complain of anxiety, depression, and basic spiritual unsettledness who have a view of God’s grace as some kind of magic spell that is activated when one engages in a mental ascent of ‘faith’ devoid of ‘works’ (quotation marks used to highlight those highly charged and horribly misunderstood words in Christian vocabularies; the different understandings of the words ‘faith’ and ‘works’ are to blame for 1000’s of church splits in modern pop-Christianity, but that’s another blog). The idea is that only mental ascent is required for faith and anything more – any actual physical practice of faith – brings one dangerously close to “falling from grace.”

With such a perspective on spiritual matters it is no wonder that spiritual resolutions simply don’t last. The most a person gets out of the resolution is the momentary happy feeling of having started the journey – again.

Anyway, to get back on point, my strategy for the spiritual resolution on my list this year looks a little different than in years past. I have only one main resolution and that is to remain in a constant state of spiritual watchfulness*. But watchfulness is impossible without many other daily practices working together to produce the watchful state. And, for me, this is a major reason why the Orthodox Church has what we call a ‘liturgical life.’

The liturgical life is a vast array of practices – daily, weekly, annually – which provide believers with the means necessary to partake of communion with God. It is a whole structuring of life that brings one to an entirely different existence from the one that inevitably ensues if one simply follows the ways of the world. Put into purely secular terms using an analogy of physical fitness, the liturgical life is like a training regimen which prepares an athlete for his or her chosen sport or competition. Imagine competing as a professional boxer and training only when you feel inspired, and only mentally at that. No punching the bag, no sparring, no weights, just pure mental ascent to the idea of boxing. You’d get your ass kicked.

I’ve been an Orthodox Christian for 8 years now and have only participated in the liturgical life sporadically – Saturday vespers, Sunday liturgies, partial attempts at fasting, inconsistent prayer and chanting of the Psalms, etc. Basically, pathetic. This will be the first year that I purpose to be absorbed in the liturgical life. I want to see how far I’m able to push my existence, and how far simple obedience to this great liturgical tradition can push me into real, lasting communion with God – that place where true peace abounds.

I’ll keep my blog updated from time to time to report how the experience is going, and hopefully doing so will act as a sort of accountability to the whole thing itself. Good luck with your own resolutions, and if you haven’t made any yet go do it. Even if you utterly fail at keeping them, do it. Make some good changes this year even if the only change you make is to start a list of resolutions.

Thanks for reading!


* Watchfulness: In the Orthodox Church tradition watchfulness “signifies an attitude of attentiveness, whereby one keeps watch over one’s inward thoughts and fantasies, maintaining guard over the heart and intellect… used to indicate the whole range of the practice of the virtues… closely linked with purity in heart and stillness” (The Greek Philokalia).

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