If you are someone who makes New Year’s resolutions, by this point in January, you probably have a pretty good idea of whether or not you’re going to succeed in keeping them. When we look at those who are successful in their resolutions, what marks them out is that they have a plan. It’s the people who have a concrete plan for what time and which days they’re going to go for that run, or how they’re going to learn French this year, or what the diet is actually going to look like, who succeed.
The Christian life is no different. We all think we should probably pray a bit more. We all know we could be a bit kinder to others, use our time a bit better and give more to help those in need. Whenever we go to confession, we really do mean it when we say that we will try not to sin again. But unless we have a plan for when and how we are going to do those things, those resolutions won’t come to much either.
Those plans also have to be realistic. If a friend announced he wanted to begin his new exercise regime with a marathon, we wouldn’t hold out much hope of success. In the same way, we can spoil our chances of making progress before we’ve even started if we try to do too much too quickly. St Philip used to say:
It is not a good thing to load ourselves with many spiritual exercises; it is better to undertake a little, and go on with it: for if the devil can persuade us to omit an exercise once, he will easily get us to omit it the second time, and the third, until at last all our pious practices will melt away.
So when it comes to prayer, it is much better to have a short but regular time of prayer than to plan hours of prayer that never materialise. Many people take on too much when they begin to pray, and when they can’t keep up their new routine, they give up all together. Much better to start slowly — walk before you run — and once you form a habit of praying regularly, that time of prayer can grow naturally.
The same goes for the other positive habits we want to build up. If you don’t think you can commit yourself to a big volunteering project, or are cautious about giving away large chunks of your salary to charity, start by doing something small, and gradually build up from there. Better that we are actively doing something, however small, than always planning to do something big that never happens.
When it comes to our sins and bad habits, we may well find ourselves confessing the same list again and again despite a genuine intention to overcome them. But if we only resolve not so sin in some generic way, we won’t achieve very much. We have to form a plan, and focus on building up one virtue at a time. St Francis de Sales recommends this method in his Introduction to the Devout Life. ‘It is well for everybody to select some special virtue at which to aim, not as neglecting any others, but as an object and pursuit to the mind.’
Picking one thing to work on gives us a focus, and makes our target more achievable. It doesn’t mean neglecting the other sins we want to overcome, St Francis explains. In targeting one particular virtue, we grow in all the others as well, so long as we do so for the love of God. If we are motivated by charity, then our growth in charity brings all the other virtues with it. And so we may well find other struggles and temptations disappearing, without having to work on them, because of our progress in the one virtue we have been striving for.
‘When shall we begin to do good?’ St Philip would ask his spiritual children. Perhaps our answer will finally be ‘now’. Make a plan, and start making gradual progress, recalling St Philip’s other recommendation: ‘Do not let a day pass without doing some good during it.’
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