New Year’s Day - Good Resolutions
Rev. P. J. Gannon, S.J.
Even in this incredulous age, my dear brethren, there are still charlatans and impostors who find it worthwhile to compose almanac foretelling the events of the coming year. This is a striking proof of the insatiable curiosity which possesses us about the future. We would fain lift the veil that hides it from our eyes and study its Sphinx-like countenance to read the riddle there. And this primordial instinct lies at the root of many superstitions – of auguries and omens in the past, of table-rapping and spiritualism in the present. It is natural, it is inevitable that, as we move forward along the road of life, we should turn eager, wistful eyes toward the cloud-capped hills in front, trying to pierce the mist that screens them from our gaze.
But I need hardly remind you that all our efforts are vain. God, in mercy rather than in anger, has decreed that we shall advance blindly, trusting in Him to lead us safely through the dark defiles. The present alone is ours. The past is past, and its realities have become little more than slowly fading memories of vanished hopes and fears. The future, more unsubstantial still, is but a shadowy land of dreams.
Yet if we cannot forecast the events of the coming year, if we must leave much to the Providence of God, we can, nevertheless, within certain well-defined, if narrow, limits, decide for ourselves what the months and years to be hall bring. We can, if we choose, settle with ourselves how our free-will shall shape and mold our destiny amid the clash of wild uncertainties, to which our lives are constantly exposed. We can, by refection on the past and resolution in the present, mark out the direction in which the current of our lives shall run. We can study our charts and set our compass and turn our helm resolutely toward that port of rest which we hope to make before the daylight fails. We can also take precautions against the storms and dangers ahead; we can look to it that our vessel is sea-worthy and duly ballasted, well-provisioned, and fully manned.
And it is at the beginning of the year that we most fittingly sit down to quiet reflection on the tenor of our ways. This is one of those seasons of rest and pause when we take stock, as it were, and see how we stand in the great business of Salvation; when we cast up accounts and examine whether we are solvent or insolvent on the heavenly exchange. You know that if in the affairs of this world we go on without looking to our accounts, we shall surely end in bankruptcy, and all our friends shall say, “Serve him right.” Now throughout all God’s wide creation there is a mighty law in operation, which is, that the soul that labors shall grow fat, and the slothful man shall know want. If we do not think the question of our Salvation worth-while, if we will devote no attention to it, well then, we shall not be saved. No great prize is won without an effort, and the greatest of all prizes within the reach of any man is the prize of eternal life.
How, then, shall we perform this stocktaking? How shall we prepare against the unknown future? I answer this question by another. What does a man do who, on a long journey, begins to feel nervous about the way? Does he not climb some point of vantage from which he can see the road he has come and the direction in which it is leading him? Does he not study the features of the landscape and compare them with his maps and charts? Precisely similarly ought we to act. We ought to step aside from the highway and explore our path, and make sure whether we are traveling toward the New Jerusalem, the City of the Great King, or toward Jericho, the city of Confusion, through the land of robbers who will despoil us and leave us naked by the roadside to perish.
Now, this means, my dear brethren, nothing more than that we should examine honestly, in the light of God’s grace, our conduct in the past and present, the principles upon which we act, the maxims we embrace, the pleasures we pursue, the company we keep, the example we give, the desires that rule our hearts, the deeds that fill our days. When we have thus found out how far we have erred, or are erring, in thought or word or deed, to adopt the vary natural division suggested by the Confiteor, we should determine how we can do better in the future and steer straighter for our goal.
Our thoughts! I wonder do even the best Christians give half enough attention to this subject, or take half enough care to regulate the images that crowd in upon the teeming brain. How many are content if their actions are tolerably free from offense; if the do nothing which the very lax ethics of our time condemn as bad form, or mean, or unsportsmanlike! How seldom we remind ourselves that we must not only avoid evil deeds, but evil desires and evil thoughts! Yet theology is clear upon the point. A really evil thought, entertained with full deliberations and full consent, is mortal sin, and can alienate us from the love of God, and separate us from the sight of God, for all eternity. I am not now speaking of temptations, of images or pictures that rise, even against our will, before the imagination. I am speaking of evil thoughts deliberately dwelt upon and freely harbored; and I am speaking of every kind of evil thought – against faith, against hope, against charity, against purity, against any and every virtue we are called upon to practice. All such thoughts are deadly sin, and even if they do not rise to the height of wrong desires, as they usually will do, they are sinful in themselves and by themselves.
Nor is any other doctrine tolerable on this point. Indeed, the frightful ravages of crime and vice, the widespread depravity that we behold all around us, with all its pustulous outgrowth of poverty, misery, madness and disease, may be traced back to the light-hearted indifference with which men and women view the beginnings of evil in their own hearts. They let their eyes behold wickedness, and their imagination play round sin, until the sleeping passions wake up to frenzied activity, and hurry them over the abyss into that polluted river which is sweeping so many myriads remorselessly outward to the dark and terrible ocean of perdition, where the lost and reprobate make unavailing moan.
“Out of the heart,” says Christ, “proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false testimonies, blasphemies.” And, surely, we hardly needed revelation to teach us this elementary fact of experimental psychology. To the making of every evil action have gone hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dangerous thoughts and perverse desires. Before our lives are tainted, our hearts are long corroded. Before we join in the Carnival of sin, we have often gazed with secret longing at the swaying figures that move madly forward in the Dance of Death. We have listened, against the voice of conscience, to the ragtime of the Devil’s Orchestra, before our feet begin to beat in unison with the wild measures that it plays.
Very particularly in the rash season of youth do we ignore the small beginnings from which gigantic evils are destined to flow. If only the young could be taught to discipline their imagination and control the irregular cravings of their hearts, how many ghastly life-tragedies we should be spared! Yet you know with what perversity they will court danger. After the capture of Port Arthur numbers of Japanese soldiers were blown to bits, because, in spite of every warning, they would experiment with the shells that ay strewn on the ground, or explore the mines that ran under it. It required the sternest orders to get them to desist from their foolhardy curiosity. Now we do not all possess the physical courage of these brave and reckless little soldiers, and would probably be very cautions, indeed, in handling dynamite or gun-cotton. But there are moral explosives with which we tamper still more recklessly; there are moral mines, beneath life’s surface which, with still more wanton folly, we are eager to explore. We are not afraid of reading any books, however unreligious, anarchical, or immoral; we do not shrink from any companions, however cynical and depraved; we are not ashamed to haunt theaters and music halls of more than doubtful reputation, or visit dancing casinos where the latest dance atrocities rob our youth of the last vestiges of modesty and break down the last barriers of decorum or reserve.
The modern world regards it as an infringement of its liberty if it is asked to observe God’s law, and liberty is our great fetish. Now liberty, right understood, is certainly one of the highest goods that we possess. But it is used at present as the war-cry of license and anarchy. Men forget that, in proportion as they aspire to eternal freedom, in the same proportion must they practice internal and individual restraint. License is always the enemy of true liberty, and anarchy has been from of old, and shall be through all time, the high and straight road to despotism. Even an arch priest of revolt can still chant the praises of –
The reverence and the fear that makes men whole,
And shame, and righteous governance of blood,
And lordship of the soul.
Now this lordship of the soul we must surely forfeit, if we keep not close watch and ward upon our hearts and their irregular motions, upon our minds and their ceaseless activities.
But I need hardly say that the task is not a light one, and no rhetoric can make it light. We have much to contend against. We are exposed, even against our will, to the inroad of dangerous thoughts. The imagination is not wholly under our control, and indeed, grows, at times, quite unmanageable. Images crowd in upon it like moving pictures on a screen, and we cannot quite expel them. But we can do much. The revolt of any faculty will be nearly always traceable to some fault or carelessness of ur own. We must have given it undue liberties before it rebelled, and we can now, by curtailing those liberties, reduce it to submission once more. At least if we want any peace or any security in the spiritual life, we must bring the mind and the heart under subjection.
And then our words! Well, if we guard our thoughts and our desires, our words shall take care of themselves. “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh.” If we never thought uncharitably, we could not speak uncharitably. If we knew no evil, and desired none, we could talk no foulness. But it is something, all the same, if we make a compact with ourselves to watch over the words we outwardly utter; if we resolve not to manifest the suspicions that arise within the breast, or relate the dubious jest that rises to the lips. “If any man offend not in word, the same is a perfect man,” says St. James, and our own experience will convince us that he does not unduly increase the number of the perfect, or in any way lower the standard of Christian perfection. For, truly, it is a mighty victory to subdue this unruly member, which the same Apostle styles, “a fire, a world of iniquity,” Nor could we easily reckon the harm our unguarded words may do, and actually do, in this world of hearts that may be wounded and minds that may be soiled.
For, though the tongue may sin in many ways, and against many virtues, its chief transgressions will be found to be against charity and against purity. The unkind, malevolent, spiteful word that stabs a sensitive heart, the calumnious tale that blasts another’s reputation, the lying rumor that spreads discord among families and friends – these constitute one vast sphere of the tongue’s sinful activity; and the other sphere is hardly less extensive, embracing, as it does, the low innuendo or double-meaning, the vile story or filthy jest, the unhallowed information of evil poured into innocent ears. Yes, truly the tongue can do much harm, quite a world of mischief, and we have advanced far upon the path of Christian perfection when we have it under complete control.
To accomplish this, we must conquer that silly vanity to be witty and entertaining at all costs, which lies at the root of all bitterness, cruelty, and indecency of speech. We fancy it is clever to say the sharp thing, to wing the arrow deftly to another’s bosom; or to tell the highly seasoned rumor we have heard; or to narrate the ugly joke, which is so sure to raise a laugh in certain circles. This is, indeed, a most pitiable vanity. In the first place, there is very little intelligence required for such forms of humor. Sir Horace Walpole, the great English statesman, was wont to encourage the coarsest anecdotes at his table, and, when someone remonstrated with him for this, he made the cynical reply: “Well, you see, a man in my position must keep all sorts of people in good humor, and this style of conversation gives every fool a chance of being witty.” The true humorist is mellow, and kindly, and clean. It is only those who cannot be entertaining within the limits of charity and decency that are tempted to overstep them. In general, also they fail in their design. The do not conciliate affection, or esteem, or any respectable popularity. At most they make themselves feared and tolerated. The very people who seem to enjoy such conversation will voice quite other sentiments when the would-be Swift or Rabelais is gone. Even common social prudence dictates kindliness and reserve in all we say, for they are the qualities that mark out the gentleman; they are the traits that win real admiration and sincere friendship. But a higher law than social prudence endorses and enforces the canons of good taste in this matter. Conscience and religion tell us that “for every idle word a man shall speak he shall render an account of it on the Day of Judgment.”
Lastly, our deeds! Perhaps, on an honest survey of our conduct, we shall find that, not content with thoughts or words contrary to the Christian law, we have even been guilty of many deeds, the recollection of which is as a weight upon the soul. “In many things we all offend”; and each must here reflect what those “many things” are in his own case. While we are all sharers in our common humanity, with its great universal traits that link us p in one vast brotherhood, we are yet all subtly dissimilar. Further, we are subject to very different influences, and exposed to very different dangers. Hence each must contemplate his own life, in its present definite and concrete surroundings, and see what deeds, in the past year, he has reason in the light of faith to regret. Have I been just in my dealings, avoiding those sharp practices which my conscience condemns, or would condemn, if I did not silence it by saying, “Oh, they are all doing it”? If I am an employer, have I treated those under me with equity and consideration, giving a fair wage even to those who are too weak to enforce it? If I am one of the employed, have I given honest work for an honest wage, or have I adopted the convenient principle that my chief duty is to get as much as I can while doing as little as I can? If I am father of a family, have I done my best to provide for it, and look after its wants, both spiritual and temporal? Have I lived in amity with my wife, or have I made her days one long martyrdom, by that refined cruelty and studied neglect which kills? If I am wife and mother, have I endeavored to fulfil the weighty and important functions of my position? Have I governed my household wisely, beading my children, and all entrusted to my keeping, to God, educating them in self-discipline, industry, and obedience, to be good citizens of the earthly republic, and elect members of the heavenly City hereafter?
If I am son or daughter, not yet transplanted from my parents’ home, do I love them and reverence them as I ought, or have I, like so many other children nowadays, abrogated the Fourth Commandment in my own favor? These or similar questions we must put ourselves, and, when we have answered them honestly, and seen that there is something at least which might well be remedied – some words or thoughts or deeds for which we cannot help feeling remorse and shame, we must resolutely determine in the coming hear to set things right.
And here a difficulty meets us which it is well to answer at once. Many get tired of resolutions, and say, What’s the use of it? I have often formed these good resolutions before and never acted up to them. I have often determined to renounce those habits or practices that I feel are so unworthy of a Christian. I have often promised to keep away from those dangerous occasions, where I have fallen before. But I have not kept my resolutions. Why should I waste time making fresh resolves, when I know that they, too, shall go the way of their predecessors? This is a very common and a very subtle form of temptation. It is a species of despair. It is very like the languor that comes upon men in long marches through snow. Their one desire is to lie down in the snow and sleep. Yet this is death, and they must keep moving, and rising when they fall, or they are doomed. The man who remakes his token resolutions is at least fighting; the man who refuses even to resolve to amend has surrendered. The one may hope some day to surmount his difficulties; the other can only expect to grow more and more obdurate and inveterate in his evil courses. The one may hope for God’s assistance, seeing he is doing something at least to correspond to His graces; the other must fear that the channels of grace shall dry up through his obstinate perversity. Therefore, as long as we faint, and fail, and fall, so long must we renew our courage, our hope, our determination to struggle onward and upward towards the heights on which God’s city stands, with gates ajar for all the tired, torn wayfarers, who honestly and earnestly strive to reach them.