Resolutions

Theodule Ribot, Conversation Piece: Three Heads

Is it better to make resolutions or to keep them?

To keep them, obviously, you might huffily reply. Then why do we continue to make resolutions, seeing as we so often and easily break them? New Year’s resolutions in particular seem destined to end up as fodder for comedians’ punchlines. Yet if the point of resolutions was merely to make them, knowing full well that we would undoubtedly fail to keep them, it would be a short step to a sluggish, airless cynicism.

Despite our tendency to welch on promises all too blithely made, we shouldn’t give up on resolutions too soon. Driving even the most banal and superficial resolution is the desire for truth, goodness, beauty. And amid the wreckage of failed resolutions, of broken promises, of spoiled loves, of what Brian Fallon calls the “burned out cars / In the disenchantment lane,” God continues to seek man and to wait for his resolution.

The setting for this is the sacrament of confession. After telling our sins, we’re asked to express our sorrow for our sins and our intention to avoid future sin. A typical form of the act of contrition includes the words, “I firmly resolve, with the help of your grace, to sin no more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.”

There’s some serious wisdom involved in this formulation. Human intention and divine grace are coupled, paired so that we’re clued into the meaning of our words and the portrait of reality they sketch. No sooner are the words “I firmly resolve” out than we swiftly add, “with the help of your grace.” Neither part is dispensable. We need to engage our will, to put our heart, our honor on the line. Yet left alone, the best of intentions can bust under pressure and become just another paving stone on the road to eternal irresolution.

Man is made for resolution. It’s a remarkable dignity to have one’s word count for something. The Church asks us to voice our intention to change, to amend our lives because it recognizes the part we have to play, and which no one and nothing—not even God—can play for us. God waits for man’s resolution; as St. Augustine put it, the “God who created you without you, will not save you without you.” God has made us as men and women who can choose him, freely, firmly, amid trial and against temptation.

So we are encouraged in confession to make a wild resolution—one which God knows we could not hope to keep by our own white-knuckled willing. Is it better to make a resolution, or to keep it? Or is it just about “meaning well”? Is it the thought that counts? Far from it, praise God. A firm resolution to cease from and avoid my besetting sin is not merely a thought, nor, really, an intention in the thin sense of its ordinary usage. Used in the setting of confession, my “firm resolution” is to insert myself into the powerful currents of grace, to be transformed in my habits, manner of speaking and behaving; renewed in my way of thinking and judging right from wrong; braced and bolstered in my desire for the good, the true, the beautiful.

It is the help of grace that bears up my resolution when it’s no longer as firm as at first. It is the help of grace that freshens the sense of purpose in my resolution when the point of keeping it is obscured by temptation. It is the help of grace that helps me sidestep occasions of sin and persevere in pursuing virtue even when there seems little payoff.

The grace of confession is a gift to be recalled and revisited. Remember, Christian, your dignity, and remember the mercy of the Lord. Make frequent confession a firm resolution for this year.

Image: Theodule Ribot, Conversation Piece: Three Heads

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Br. Paul Clarke, O.P.

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Br. Paul Clarke entered the Order of Preachers in 2013. He is a graduate of the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, where he studied philosophy. On DominicanFriars.org