Resolutions of Abandonment

New Year’s resolutions are typically an effort in self-control.  But what if the best resolutions are those by which we relinquish control?

Allow me as a philosopher to begin with a taxonomy of resolutions, since some kinds of resolutions are better than others.

If I resolve not to eat between meals, or to put away machines when spending time with my family, I am making a merely “corrective” resolution.  If I am successful, I simply put myself back to where I should be.  I don’t improve myself but keep from getting worse.

Other resolutions are, let us say, “additive.”  Suppose I resolve to put aside $50/week for a travel fund to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.  Here, each step adds to a previous step.  It’s cumulative, and in that sense, I constantly improve my position.

More than this, some resolutions are “compounding,” just like interest in a bank account.  If I resolve to begin strength training then, as I progress, I become capable of lifting heavier and heavier weights.  If I start to run a mile daily and persevere, by the end of the year I’ll probably be running three or more miles.  Each such compounding resolution is “from strength to strength.”

Among these three kinds of resolutions, the compounding seems best.  But even better are what I call “provocative,” because these lead to or provoke other resolutions, perhaps many of them, and perhaps constantly so.  Provocative resolutions do this because they involve giving up control.

Here’s an example.  Suppose my New Year’s resolution is “to go on retreat as soon as possible.”  I mean a serious, silent retreat, led by a learned and pious retreat master.  When you are on such a retreat, you spend many hours, preferably in front of the Blessed Sacrament, looking at your entire life from God’s point of view and seeking the “lights” that the Holy Spirit provides.  You can see how going through such a gauntlet will likely be better for you than any sputtering (admittedly laudable) attempts “to get daily exercise.”  And you don’t know in advance what God is going to tell you on that retreat.


Here’s another example: resolve to work slowly through a spiritual book that will assuredly provoke self-examination.  The Introduction to the Devout Life by St. Francis de Sales is like this, or The Way by St. Josemaria Escrivá.   Suppose you spend ten minutes a day prayerfully reading such a book, asking for lights and intimations in your soul as you do. Here the key is to choose a book not to flatter yourself, or gratify your curiosity, or allow you to escape into laments for how bad things are now, and so on.   You want to pick a bracing book the author of which will be like an honest friend.

Another provocative resolution: frequent a sacrament.  I want to say, “any sacrament will do,” but there are just two which are designed for us for regular assistance, Holy Communion and sacramental Confession.  The reason is that grace is real and transformative in ways we cannot see in advance.

It’s actually foolish, whatever our resolutions or plans, to attempt to carry them out without grace.  This would be like someone embarking on a serious plan of strength training but not eating protein, drinking lots of water, and getting good sleep.   You would need nature’s help as well as your own efforts.  Likewise with grace in relation to nature in general. Perhaps daily Mass (as much as possible) is the best such resolution.  But even an old-fashioned “visit to the Blessed Sacrament” – stopping at a church even for a couple of minutes – is a tremendous source of grace.

Or another: begin spiritual direction.  Like other “provocative” resolutions, this one has the advantage that you can “get it over with” and be successful at it quickly – say, find a spiritual director and begin meeting with him by the end of January.   There – you’ve done it.  Now, fasten your seatbelt.

What about daily examinations of conscience?   Traditional Catholic piety says that there are two kinds of examinations, the “particular examen,” which is undertaken at least once during the day, and focuses on one virtue or fault, and the “general examen,” which is near the end of the day, and looks over your day in general, in the light of the Holy Spirit, ending with an Act of Contrition.

Obviously, the resolution to do daily examinations of conscience will provoke hundreds of resolutions during the year.

Perhaps the ultimate mode of abandonment is making a commitment. Suppose you are a young man who has been seeing a clearly marriageable woman for months or years.  You know and she knows that you vaguely intend, someday, to tie the knot.  But why are you waiting?  Are you afraid, worried about money, unsure of yourself?   Perhaps your hesitation has come to the point of now doing an injustice to her.

After appropriate consultation with a trusted mentor who has good judgment — why not a New Year’s resolution to propose by the end of this month?   Forget all the nonsense about “three months’ salary” for an engagement ring.  On a tenth anniversary, the simplest stone can be reset, if you wish by then, with other larger stones in a more extravagant setting.

So there, another provocative resolution that can quickly be kept.  And hardly anything is better for the soul than a commitment.

Similarly, for a married couple anxious about finances yet also generous. Here’s a provocative resolution: pray that God will bless you with a child in the New Year.  Such a generous wish, if answered by God, will lead assuredly to twenty-plus years of resolutions.

Finally, here’s one for any married couple, inspired by the proven idea that obedience is good for the soul.  Resolve in all “matters of indifference” (i.e. most matters) around the household to defer without ostentation to the preference of the other.


*Image: A Serious Talk (Ein ernstes Gespräch) by Ludwig Johann Passini, c. 1900 [private collection]

You may also enjoy:

Brad Miner’s Renewal

Russell Shaw’s Why Not Spiritual Direction?

Michael Pakaluk, an Aristotle scholar and Ordinarius of the Pontifical Academy of St. Thomas Aquinas, is a professor in the Busch School of Business at the Catholic University of America. He lives in Hyattsville, MD with his wife Catherine, also a professor at the Busch School, and their eight children. His acclaimed book on the Gospel of Mark is The Memoirs of St Peter. His most recent book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. His new book, Be Good Bankers: The Divine Economy in the Gospel of Matthew, is forthcoming from Regnery Gateway in the spring. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.