Repentance or Resolution?
I’ve never been big on New Year’s Resolutions. January is my stay-at-home month, the one time of year when I politely decline social invitations and get into my pajamas as soon as I come home from work. I joke that I’m part bear. In January, all I want to do is hibernate. Give me a pile of books, and I’m set. It’s not my best time to try new things.
I’m as likely to start a new exercise or diet routine “as needed”—any time of the year, be it March 30 or October 2. All I need is a mirror and a scale to tell me I’m overweight. January 1 is no more likely to suggest self-improvement than any other day.
We’re fortunate in the Orthodox tradition that we don’t have to wait until January to assess our lives. The Church in her wisdom provides us four fasting periods, four seasons of reflection. We have recently finished the Nativity Fast, and Lent will soon be upon us. The Summer offers the Apostles Fast after Pentecost, and the Dormition Fast in August as we remember the Theotokos. We know that fasting is more than refraining from food. The Fathers call fasting without prayer “the fast of the demons” because the demons do not eat; neither do they pray. The fasting seasons and their accompanying increased dedication to prayer provide built-in opportunities for reflection and repentance.
Honest self-assessment paired with humble prayer lead us to realize our need for repentance, and that brings us to the Church for the Mystery of Confession. My own Spiritual Father recommends Confession at least four times a year, especially during each of the fasting periods. The prayer of Confession includes this commitment of the penitent: “I promise with the help of God to better my way of life. . .” Unlike annual resolutions, which we strive for in our own strength and often let fall away, repentance gives us the opportunity to turn over a new leaf with the help of God.
For many people who attempt New Year’s Resolutions, late January or February may bring the disappointment of failure. Plans eagerly implemented encounter obstacles and setbacks. It’s too hard. We give up. Instead, consider this account from the The Desert Fathers:
‘A young monk went 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. . .” ’
If we fail in our New Year’s Resolutions, it’s a long time to wait until next January. But in a life of faith, we immediately get up after we fall. Indeed, St. John Chrysostom tells us in his Pascal sermon that God “honors the deed but commends the intent.” The struggle—the intent—is important.
The blessing of the Church is that the Mystery of Confession is available to us any time of the year. We don’t have to wait until January.
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