Happy new year!
'Tis the season for making a resolution for a positive change in our lives. It's easy to get cynical about new year's resolutions (how many of us join the gym in January, only to cancel our membership by March?), but I think we need to keep a positive attitude. Better to make a resolution and at least attempt to improve ourselves, than just not to bother at all.
I think the best approach to a new year's resolution is to start small. Making a modest change in life - and sticking with it - is the way to go. With that idea in mind, I'd like to suggest seven very modest ideas for new year's resolutions, each of which represents a contemplative approach to life and to spirituality.
Choose just one of these to be your new year's resolution (if you want to do all seven, great! But only make a resolution for one of them). Next year you can pick a different one to make a resolution with, and so on. And take your time. A year lasts for 365 days, after all. So read over this list, pray about it for a couple of days, and then make your resolution. Maybe a new year only begins on January 1, but a new blessing in your life can commence at any time.
Here, then, are my seven suggestions for a truly contemplative new year's resolution:
Invite silence into your life every day. Pretty much every item on this list requires some measure of silence; and indeed, silence is the heart not only of contemplation, but of spirituality in general. So if you don't already have space in your life for silence, begin here. It doesn't have to be dramatic or heroic: begin with just 5 or 10 minutes a day. But make it every day. And not just time for reading or thinking, either - let your silent time truly be wordless and receptive.
Speak less, listen more. We can be contemplative not just in the way we relate to God, but also in the way we relate to each other. Learning to listen is a valuable life-skill, the mark of a good leader, and a mark of wisdom. But to be a good listener, sometimes we have to get out of our own way. The good news: as we become better listeners in our daily lives, we also bring this contemplative gift into our spiritual life as well.
Spend more time wondering. Wonder is one of the most delightful words in the English language. Something is a "wonder" if it is marvelous, delightful, or astonishing, but when we say "I wonder" we express curiosity and openness to being surprised or being able to see or think in a new way. To spend more time in wonder is to open ourselves up to letting God lead us in creative and unexpected ways. It is a profoundly contemplative act. Let go of the need to always have all the answers, to always be in control or in charge. Give yourself the gift of wondering.
Befriend unknowing. A contemplative understands that life is full of mystery. Perhaps before we can even wonder we have to be willing to acknowledge our own unknowing. This word comes out of one of the great contemplative classics, The Cloud of Unknowing - where it represents the spiritual truth that an infinitely mysterious God cannot be fully "known" or comprehended by a finite human mind. But contemplative unknowing means more than just theological humility - it's a way of life that embraces "not knowing" as a way to trust, to learn, to listen, and to wonder.
Make a monastery a regular part of your life. If you are lucky enough to live close to a monastery, try to visit it on a regular basis - just to spend some time in silence and prayer. But even if you have to travel a great distance to get there, carve some time out of your schedule for a weekend or even a week-long retreat. Monasteries are the natural habitats for contemplatives, so even if you're not a monk, you can stop by to pray in the chapel or meditate in the public grounds.
Discover a new way to pray. In a previous post I have talked about the many different dimensions to Christian prayer. For example, there is vocal prayer, meditative prayer, liturgical prayer, imaginative prayer, silent prayer, repetitive prayers like the Rosary or the Jesus prayer... and even the most dedicated person of prayer does not necessarily know all the different ways to approach intimacy with God. So for this resolution, learn about - and try - a way of prayer that is new to you. It may or may not become a regular part of your spiritual practice, and that's okay. Even if you try something and decide to go back to your preferred prayer exercise, at least you've learned something about the marvelous diversity of Christian spirituality. Of course, to make this a truly contemplative resolution, consider the quieter forms of prayer, particularly prayer involving watchfulness, silence, breathing, and stillness; in other words, prayer that takes as its starting point Psalm 46:10: Be still and know that I am God.
Read the mystical classics. I put this suggestion last because it can be the most dangerous. Sometimes we read books as a way of avoid doing the thing we really want to do. A favorite technique for avoiding prayer is to read books about prayer! So beware of this temptation. Still, if you can balance reading with actual prayer, the writings of the great mystics are like rocket fuel for the spiritual life. To get some suggestions of books worth reading, click here. But don't go hog-wild and try to read a dozen books at once! Remember, spirituality favors depth over breadth. Pick one book (or two at the most) and read slowly, thoughtfully, prayerfully. When you finish that one, move on to another. Take your time. This isn't a race.
I hope these resolutions are helpful and/or inspiring to you. If not, then leave them be; but if one of them seems to be calling to you, try it out. And it doesn't have to be just at the beginning of January either - if you stumble across this blog post in the middle of June, then that's the time for your "new year's resolution"! Because what matters with a resolution is not the day you start it - but all the days you keep it. And may your contemplative resolution last for many, many days indeed.