By Fr. Glenn Jones:
So, we come to yet another new year—a “turning of the page” (we often hope) to a new chapter for ourselves, our families, our nation and the world; may they all be blessed, safe and peaceful. To further these goals, we traditionally gin up some new year’s resolutions: how can I become a better version of myself that I just KNOW is in there. Somewhere!
But few good things come to us without effort, and the benefits we receive are proportional to the efforts we put in. It’s not unlike the second law of thermodynamics: that there is a natural tendency of any isolated system to degenerate into a more disordered state. When we isolate ourselves from effort—from trying—we ourselves become increasingly disordered—in body, in mind, and in spirit. As an analogy, think of your house: unless you put work/effort into maintenance, the paint peels, the bugs invade, smells start smelling, dilapidation sets in—slow but sure. Weather, wear and age take their inevitable toll. In respect to physical selves, without the work of exercise and self-control from too much chow, the ol’ bod goes to pot, arteries clog, muscles start flabbing, (flab starts flabbing!), clothes start “shrinking”.
All that’s just concerning the physical; but what about the spiritual.
Oh, about the same … though worse.
The “turning of the page” of the new year is, of course, IS a great time to grit one’s teeth in “turning over a new leaf”—setting a target for improving the self. Yet keep in mind: “But while bodily training is of some value, godliness [goodness, virtue] is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” (1 Timothy 4:8)
Now, very often non-Christians ignore the Biblical scriptures, thinking that they’re just a bunch of legends and religious hooey. Yet nothing can be further from the truth; the scriptures are filled with advice and wisdom of the ages, applicable to all peoples, all faiths, all times.
So many of the tenets of goodness and virtue are universal, and thus you’ll find the Bible, the Qur’an, Buddhism, etc., Plato, Aristotle and philosophers throughout history … will promote parallel themes in different wording and forms. Of course there are differences in beliefs and what is true in the theological sense (e.g., Jesus is divine in Christianity, but simply a prophet in Islam, a wise teacher in others), but no religion has a monopoly on wisdom, because much human wisdom is derived from common and universal human experience and practice. Generosity, kindness, charity, justice, forgiveness, moderation, mutual regard, respect toward parent and elders—all of these are found in any moral program proposed for the human good.
These thoughts came to mind in personal reading, happened upon on new year’s day, no less—something quite appropriate at the beginning of a new year: “But as for you, man of God, shun all these [greed, envy, selfishness, etc.]; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness.” (1 Timothy 6:11).
Hmmm … is the Lord speaking to me in particular? Well, yes … and no; such guidance is for all people of every time and place. Always.
Other succinct and universally-applicable teachings can be found in many scriptures, such as: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like…But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.” (Galatians 5:19-23) For very concise and specific snippets of wisdom, one might check out the “wisdom books” of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom, and Sirach. And, of course, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) contains perhaps the pièce de résistance of all moral teaching.
But none of these virtues, nor the cessation of any vices, comes without work and effort—the law of spiritual thermodynamics, as it were. “Vice” in a nutshell is largely the overindulgence of the animal passions, while “virtue” is the moderating/turning/control of those same passions for the good of all … of “our neighbor”. Without the efforts and self-control of the will, we “dilapidate” spiritually just as do our homes and bodies. Like a garden, weeds of vice and selfishness stealthily but inexorably invade and strangle the flowers of virtue—blossoms which are necessary precursors to harvest the fruits of goodness. And, before we realize, the garden is overgrown, its beauty lost, and sneering disdain arises from all who know its wasted potential.
So, do the wisdom seeds of goodness and virtue fall futility upon hardened path, in shallow soil that provides for no roots and resilience, among choking thorns of love of the world? Or, rather, do they fall upon the fertile soil whose gardener tills it, waters it, weeds it, enriches it … so that it might yield beauty and fruit for both God and Man—in love of God and goodness, love of neighbor.
So, as we rev up for this new year, it is wise to consider most that which is of most importance: the spiritual over the material, virtues over vices, the greater over the lesser. As spiritual authors have written: if we corrected even one fault/vice per year, we would soon be perfect. So, may God bless you, your family, and all your efforts toward improvement of self, and to close with a favorite blessing and wish for you and all:
The Lord bless you and keep you:
The Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you:
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.
“…seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”
Editor’s note: Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.