Wise Resolutions 

In a previous column, I advocated what I called “provocative” (New Year and other) resolutions that involve giving up control, and prove to be a fruitful source of other resolutions later.  Here I want to consider resolutions that are “wise,” because they are based on a shrewd understanding of human nature.

Here’s an example.  An accomplished professional, a young medical doctor, spent three full days on a silent retreat examining all aspects of his life – everything that he was doing wrong in relation to God, his family, and work.  At the end of the retreat, he explained to some friends: “I resolved not to sit down in my chair when I come home from work.”  It may seem a silly resolution, but it was wise.  He realized that if he sat down, he put himself in relaxation mode.  He didn’t place himself at the service of his wife.  He would look at his phone rather than spend time with his children.  He would never get around to taking needed exercise.  Given human nature, that one apparently silly change was linked for him to all kinds of other, truly needed changes.

Wise resolutions are like this.  They are intensely concrete and therefore easily verifiable.  They are probably not themselves important and therefore easy to do.  But they are strategically linked to many other things that are important.

We may wonder why it seems the Church and our culture generally have lost sight of this kind of wisdom.  Cleanliness is next to godliness.  Posture is important for prayer.  How we dress affects how we work.  A general abstinence from meat on Friday helps to create a community.  Even: old rites for Mass may transform lives. Presumably many of our faults spring from a once justifiable reaction against mere routine and a now exaggerated emphasis on “authenticity.” But there is no point in bewailing: we are free to do things differently in those matters over which we do have control.

And there are reliable sources of practical wisdom anyway, which will not go away, for instance in athletics.  “Put a dot on your glove just above the thumb where you can see it,” a highly accomplished golfer told me during a match the other day. “Take off your glove between shots.  But when you put your glove back on, that dot will remind you that now you must concentrate on nothing else except your shot, until you take the glove off again.”

A dot: excellent execution.  What’s the connection?  Wisdom – good athletes must have it in some form.  Human nature is such that we cannot concentrate with true intensity except for brief periods. Also, we won’t attain concentration without monitoring ourselves.

Some wise resolutions that I have seen help friends:

Say the Rosary daily with your family.  The beauty of the Rosary is precisely its routine, which neutralizes personalities and personal dynamics.  Quarreling? It disappears for 20 minutes.  The father seeming to impose piety?  Just lead by starting to pray.  Nothing hinders the Rosary – it’s as easy as saying words.  But the repeated words, as you know, are meant to be a kind of background music for meditating on the mysteries of each decade.  The daily family Rosary, something easy and humble, is nonetheless strategically important as a source of grace and for building up a community of love.

Simply count your calories.  Get a scale and weigh foods.  Read nutrition labels.  Keep a scrupulously complete log. Eat nothing without recording the calories.   My friends have found that simply knowing the “price” of eating this or that food goes a long way toward encouraging trade-offs that one can be happy with.

And, while care of the body is important for a Christian, most good ideas concerning the body can be transposed analogously to the soul.   Therefore, try this: each day, pick a brief prayer or aspiration (“I believe, Lord, help my unbelief”, “Mary, prepare for us a safe path”, or in Latin if you prefer, Faciem tuam Domine requiram), and count how many times you say it.  Nothing more than this: Let the effects develop out of it as God wills.

In general paganism understood human nature better than Catholics do today.  One way to describe the false implementation of Vatican II is the jettisoning of accreted pagan sensibility that had long been Christianized.

Whitewashed church walls and felt banners? Definitely not pagan. In our family we have a small Infant Jesus of Prague statue on the mantle, which we dress in different colored garments for the different liturgical seasons  (brought back from Prague, concrete connections in these sorts of things are helpful). This particular devotion of course did not arise first in pagan religion.  But it’s the sort of thing a pagan would have done and enjoyed.  A seemingly silly devotion like that is wise, because it will bring in, over time, all of the background structure of piety that the devotion presupposes.

Let’s move from an individual to a married couple.  The rejection of artificial contraception has the hallmarks of wisdom.  In this case, the change is not silly, as it involves inherently wrong action in a serious matter.  If implants or IUDs are involved, the change may not be so “easy.”  And yet, as St. Pope John Paul II liked to emphasize, this one change, hard to understand for many, is transformative: the couple must now communicate better; the husband must become observant of the woman’s cycles; both of them must grow in the virtue of chastity; and their basic outlook changes, from asking how a child fits in with their life, to considering rather how their lives fit with a child’s.

David Hume, when he fell into the Nor’ Loch of Edinburgh, praised the wisdom of a fishwife walking by who refused to help him until he recited an Our Father.  And who knows whether le bon David wasn’t saved in the end by her seemingly silly insistence?

 

Image: Devotion by Antoine-Émile Plassan, 1863-64 [Walter Art Museum, Baltimore, MD

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Prof. Pakaluk’s Resolutions of Abandonment

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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 new book, Mary's Voice in the Gospel of John: A New Translation with Commentary, is now available. Prof. Pakaluk was appointed to the Pontifical Academy of St Thomas Aquinas by Pope Benedict XVI.