As the New Year is just around the corner, for many people also comes the time for setting their New Year resolutions. This year I will reach my ideal weight, this year I’ll take better care of my health, this year I’ll finish the college that I always wanted and so on. The first weeks of the year the gyms are full of enthusiastic first time athletes, the grocery stores have record sales for diet foods and the pharmacies sell years worth of nicotine patches. But the statistics show however that only 8% of people are successful in achieving their resolutions. So come February the gym crowds vanish, the excitement fades away and life goes back to its usual unforgiving pace.
Why do so many people fail in their New Year resolutions? One research shows that most of the people that fail their goals focus too much on the downside of not reaching their targets and rely solely on will power to achieve them. On the other hand the same research shows that people who break their goals into smaller ones and integrate themselves in a support network are more likely to be successful.
Spiritually a similar situation occurs especially within the Sacrament of Confession. Most of the people that come to take the burden of sin of their chests also want to get rid of its weight forever, so they come to Confession with the strong will to begin a renewed life in Christ. I will start fasting, I’ll do my daily prayers, I’ll help the poor, I won’t sin anymore. But come next Lenten season most of them arrive confessing the same, over and over again.
The Fathers call this wish to start anew “setting a good beginning”. Indeed that’s what Confession is all about, we come to clean our sinful self so by the power of the Holy Spirit we are renewed and be given the great opportunity to start again with a pure soul. This is very similar with Baptism, where the old man dies as he is immersed in the water while a new man emerges victorious in Christ upon the exit. The difference between Baptism and Confession is that Confession can be repeated every time we fail. God knows that the “spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Mat 26:41).
As with the New Year Resolutions we have to break a vicious circle in order to be successful in our spiritual endeavors. The first thing one should be aware of is not to set goals to high. Elder Cleopas from the Sihastria Monastery used to say that ”the forest guardian is not afraid of those who come once a year to cut a big tree, but he fears those that come every day and take only few branches that added make much more”. In a similar fashion, in our spiritual life, we don’t get anywhere by setting goals that we can’t achieve, or we can achieve isolated with great efforts: like strict fasting the entire Great Lent, while we never fasted before, or reading a Psalter a day, while we can’t pray for 5 minutes at a time and so on. Our spiritual goals should be small but consistent.
Progress in our spiritual life should comes out of this consistency of doing something every day and adding a little at the time. “An elder was asked by one of his disciples ‘Father teach me how to pray’. The father answered: ‘Pray and prayer will teach you how to pray!’” Heroic things never work because they either lead to failure or pride that eventually leads also to failure.
Another important aspect of our spiritual struggle is to never isolate ourselves from the community of the Church. The Church is our main support system in our ascetic endeavors. Receiving the Sacraments, especially Confession and Holy Communion, brings us all close together with God and through Him with our brothers and sisters. We are all together in this great work of redemption and we can greatly help each other in achieving our personal spiritual goals that summed take us all towards the salvation of the entire world.
The most important however is to never let ourselves be discouraged by failure. “A young monk said to Abba Sisoes: “Abba, what should I do? I fell.” The elder answered: “Get up!” The monk said: “I got up and I fell again!” The elder replied: “Get up again!” But the young monk asked: “For how long should I get up when I fall?” “Until your death,” answered Abba Sisoes. “For a man heads to his judgment either fallen or getting back up again.”
Persevering and continuing to fight for virtue is the way of the Christian. There is no escape from the pain of this cycle of failure and redemption. But we should learn to endure it with hope knowing that, even though we are not perfect, even though we have failed Christ, we remain Christians because we continue to valiantly fight with all we have left in us until the very end.
“When Abba Sisoes lay upon his deathbed, the disciples surrounding the Elder saw that his face shone like the sun. They asked the dying man what he saw. Abba Sisoes replied that he saw St Anthony, the prophets, and the apostles. His face increased in brightness, and he spoke with someone. The monks asked, “With whom are you speaking, Father?” He said that angels had come for his soul, and he was entreating them to give him a little more time for repentance. The monks said, “You have no need for repentance, Father” St Sisoes said with great humility, “I do not think that I have even begun to repent.”
After these words the face of the holy abba shone so brightly that the brethren were not able to look upon him. St Sisoes told them that he saw the Lord Himself. Then there was a flash like lightning, and a fragrant odor, and Abba Sisoes departed to the Heavenly Kingdom.”
The glorious ending of Abba Sisoes is not an isolated occurrence, but many that have allowed Christ to grow in them have followed this example of dedicating their entire lives to perfection in Christ, never content of their results, always looking for new ways to be more like Him.
Like the river Jordan turned back its course towards its springs, when Christ entered in its waters, so the person that has Christ entering in his heart turns the course of his life towards the source of his life that is found only in God. This is what “setting a good beginning” truly means, to always look towards God and direct one’s life towards him, step by step, step by step.
May this New coming Year be for You and Your families full of peace, joy and hope in the mercy of our Lord! Amen.