As 2019 recedes into the past, it is only natural to look back and reflect on the events of our lives of the previous year, with an eye towards bettering ourselves in 2020.
This is why as long as people have marked the passage of one year into the next, the tradition of making a resolution, a pledge, or some other formal commitment to better oneself in the upcoming year has existed as well. The Babylonians used to promise to repay all their debts. The Jews began a period of reflection at the beginning of the new year at Rosh Hashanah, which culminated in Yom Kipur where they asked God to forgive all of their sins. As for Christians, there were midnight masses, watchnight services, and even the medieval custom of knights taking what was known as the “Peacock Vow” at the end of the Christmas season.
The vow came from a 14th century book called Les Voeux du Paon (“The Vow of the Peacock”), and was commitment to model oneself after the “Nine Worthies” who were nine pagan, Jewish, and Christian historical warriors who were seen as exemplifying the ideals of chivalry.
Nowadays New Year's resolutions have grown into a cultural genre all their own, but which unfortunately have, just about like every other meaningful traditions from our Christian heritage, been reduced to a kind of wish or bucket list.
Of course, this is not always the case and many people genuinely struggle to better themselves, but the sad fact is that 80% of all New Years resolutions fail. While the reasons they fail are many, it is this author's contention that the main reason is because the resolutions’ first principles are all wrong. They lack the one thing that we as Christians should seek above all other things, and that is holiness. After our Lord famously said on the Sermon on the Mount, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life” for “the Gentiles seek all these things; and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
If you have read my articles about Black Friday and Christmas, you will have hopefully seen a recurring theme, which is the urgent need for Christians to step back from the ways of the world from time to time and to make sure our spiritual compasses are still pointing due Lord.
With that in mind, I would like to offer a suggestion for making New Years resolutions that have the pursuit of holiness at their foundation. While the “Peacock Vow” is certainly something that could have a place in the modern era, especially at a time when it seems that being “manly” and holy are at odds with one another, one option in helping us make better resolutions is by celebrating the feast day of St. Clarus.
In the Roman Rite January 1st is the Solemnity of Mary the Mother of God and a holy day of obligation. Because of its importance any saints whose feast day falls on that day tend to be forgotten, including one who deserves to be the patron saint of New Year's resolutions.
Years ago when I was in college, I came upon a book called The Old Hermit's Almanac by Edward Hays. It was a collection of musings and activities for each day of the year to help keep you faith alive and vibrant, and starting off the year on January 1st was the feast day of St. Clarus.
Clarus was a 7th century Benedictine monk who became the abbot of the Monastery of Saint Marcellus in Vienne, Dauphine (modern-day France). He was a gifted theologian, spiritual director, and miracle worker, who was known for his ability to explain dense theological ideas in simple ways. According to Hays, it was his insight and wisdom as a spiritual director that he was most remembered for, and his symbol was a pair of spectacles for he was seen as someone who had keen sight, both physically and spiritually.
When my kids were younger, I used to have them create a pair medieval-style spectacles out of black and white paper on New Years day. On the lens part them (made from the white paper) I had the kids write on one lens all the things they liked about the previous year and on the other lens all the not-so-pleasant events of the past year. Then they would turn the spectacles over and on one lens they would write all the things they would like to do in the new year and on the other all the things they wanted to improve about themselves in the upcoming year.
My kids are older now and do other activities for New Year’s Day, but the activity proved a good primer is getting them to think about New Year’s resolutions in a different way. A way separate or apart from the cliched lists that most people make, which is precisely what the word “holy”, which comes from the Hebrew word quodesh, means.
By reflecting upon the previous year and making resolutions for the next in the context of St. Clarus's feast day, they were in essence asking for St. Clarus and all the other saints in that “great cloud of witnesses”, as well as our Lord and the Blessed Virgin Mary (it's still her solemnity after all), to act as witnesses or co-signors on their resolutions.
In this way, their resolutions were not so much a self-centered and unrealistic wish list that they would soon forget about, but the beginnings of a spiritual correspondence wherein they would strive to cooperate with the grace God grants them to “seek after the righteousness of God” so as to know his will and love for them.
So this year, if you are inclined to make any New Years resolution, be they light-hearted or life-changing, then start off on the right foot. Buy yourself a sturdy journal to be your “captain's log” or your “dispatches from the front lines” of the spiritual combat going on all around us. Then as you begin to list all of your aspirations for the upcoming year, hopefully you can begin to discern behavioral and temperamental patterns that you can use to guide your actions, make adjustments for setbacks, and to spot pitfalls to avoid.
Lastly, do not be afraid or (more likely than not) too proud to get help either by getting together with friends, or better yet by finding a good spiritual director. The need for one cannot be stressed enough, and while it can take some effort to find a good one, the effort is well-worth it.
So on that note, a very blessed New Year to one and all and St. Clarus, pray for us.