Dear Fr. Joe: I want to use the new year to really grow spiritually. I always have great goals to do better, but never seem to hit them. Can you help me?
Ahhhh – the New Year and its resolutions! I think your experience is one that many share – including me! Based on my own past struggles and resolutions, I do have some advice that I hope will help you.
I think the first, and perhaps best, step in this situation is to realize that you, like everyone else, need help. One of the consequences of original sin is that we are flawed creatures who wrestle with doing what we know we need to do. The Apostle Paul captured a lot of the frustration of trying to do the right thing in this passage from Romans 7, which starts on verse 15:
“I don’t understand myself; I do not do the good I intend to do, I do what I hate”
Through the rest of Romans 7, St. Paul walks through the struggle of his desire to do the right thing and his inability to do it. He goes on to say that, when he’s not frustrated by his inability to do what is right, he’s frustrated by how prideful he gets when he does get it right! It’s the crazy trap we all wrestle with. So, what’s Paul’s answer? He ends up thanking God because all of these troubles force on him the truth that can save him: Jesus is the answer.
St. Paul found that his frustration with his sin compelled him to turn to Jesus, and this, I think, is a great part of what made him a saint. So we who, 2,000 years later, have the same problem as St. Paul, can find hope in the same answer: Jesus! It’s not a failure on our part to need God’s help, it’s reality. And by living in that reality, we draw all the closer to holiness.
So, any goal that you and I have related to holiness simply must begin with our need for Jesus and his Holy Spirit to take our desires and make them possible. What’s the best way to connect with Jesus and his Holy Spirit?
That would be prayer. It would seem, then, that we have arrived at our first goal: we will be men and women of prayer in the new year. There is no goal we can set or thing we can do that will accomplish more for the kingdom of God in our lives and the world around us than prayer.
I recognize that prayer can be tough. For me, I’m a bit of a “mover.” I like to move around and have a tough time standing or sitting still. My first real efforts at prayer often ended in a frustration that I couldn’t just sit there for long periods of time; when I did, my mind went everywhere but toward God. I struggled with this for a long time. One day, I talked to my folks about it. My mom gave me a great prayer. She told me that, as soon as I got up, I should begin praying “Lord, let your Holy Spirit pray within me.” Then, when I sat down to prayer, say it again as I started. I got into that habit and now, years later, not only can I sit still and at peace, but I really need to! God is amazing. That simple prayer can help guide you toward a really healthy and whole prayer life. Also, if 300 more people pray that prayer, I think my mom gets a toaster oven or something. All kidding aside, one of the blessings of this prayer is the recognition built within it that prayer is not just about our effort or will power, but about God getting it done in us and for us.
Once we’ve decided that any progress in holiness needs to start on and center around prayer, we should set one or two realistic, concrete and measurable goals toward our prayer life in the new year.
An active and healthy prayer life is one that is both personal and communal.
Personal prayer is time with just you and God. This is when you present yourself and some dedicated time to the Lord and let him take it where you need. Make sure your goals here are realistic – what amount of time will challenge you, but not present such a huge jump that you are going to fail? Set your goal around that idea.
In terms of communal prayer, I’m assuming you go to Mass every Sunday. If not, then that’s something you’ll really need to do right away. I have written about this in the past, and probably will write about it again, but suffice it to say that we need the community and the community needs us.
What you’ve asked here is a beautiful thing and I hope you can see that there is no reality we can conceive of where God would not be pleased with your desire to make this new year a year of growth in holiness. With that in mind, you can be sure that God with you and in you will guide you toward the life you were made for: sainthood in Jesus.
Enjoy another day in God’s presence!
Father Joe Krupp writes a column, “In the know with Fr. Joe,” for Faith Publications.