Most of us are notoriously unsuccessful in fulfilling those resolutions — whether we set out to lose weight, stop smoking or boost our physical fitness at the gym. By the end of January, a large majority have abandoned their resolutions and settled back into habitual routine.
Yet, this effort at self-improvement shouldn’t be mocked. The desire of people to better themselves is a sign of our higher nature. It shows our yearning to be more than what we are.
Change is difficult. It takes a plan, perseverance and positive reinforcement. It also takes the Holy Spirit.
This past year, Pope Francis gave us the best possible New Year’s resolution as well as a plan for bringing it to fruition. It’s called The Joy of Love (Amoris Laetitia).
Amoris Laetitia, eight months after its release, is still drawing headlines. Those headlines, however, emanate from the conflict over whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should receive Holy Communion.
That’s a valid news story, one which affects hundreds of thousands of Catholics, if not more.
However, in the focus on the news, another crucial section of Amoris Laetitia is ignored, the chapter on “Love in Marriage.” Indeed, the Pope’s tips on how to love better don’t just apply to marriage, but to all human relationships.
In our culture the word “love” is thrown about with abandon. But that love is a vague concept without definition. Who would ever know that love is the core of the Christian vocation?
Love, for the Christian, is not simply a good idea, a suggestion or a feeling. It is a command.
How impertinent for God to command us to love! Too many people have hurt me and others. They don’t deserve my love. However, whether they deserve it is beside the point. We must love even our enemies. Love them, not with a scowl, but with a face brimming with joy.
Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar put it this way: “If we do not love, we have so completely failed to fulfill our calling that we are dead even though our bodies are still alive.”
Dead, hunh? That’s why it is appropriate that Pope Francis called his apostolic exhortation The Joy of Love. What’s the opposite of death? Life? Yes, but even more, it is joy. Joy is the clearest evidence of a person fully alive. And joy only comes from the Holy Spirit.
In his chapter “Love in Marriage,” Pope Francis examines St. Paul’s hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13 and makes it practical. Here are a few points the Pope offers:
“Unless we cultivate patience, we will always find excuses for responding angrily” (AL 92).
“Love has no room for discomfiture at another person’s good fortune. . . . True love values the other person’s achievements” (95).
“To be open to a genuine encounter with others, ‘a kind look’ is essential” (100).
“The opposite of resentment is forgiveness, which is rooted in a positive attitude that seeks to understand other people’s weaknesses and to excuse them” (105).
“Take time, quality time. This means being ready to listen patiently and attentively to everything the other person wants to say” (137).
These represent only a small sample of the counsels Pope Francis provides. Indeed, living according to these “tips” is difficult. Fallen human nature seems to want to wallow in high-minded anger, jealousy, resentment and impatience.
Yet, really we don’t. Our so-called better angels urge us to rise beyond small-minded self-centredness. We are happiest when we give of ourselves to those who, in our minds, deserve love the least.
However, to rise beyond self-love is most often beyond our human powers. For one to love — to follow God’s unconditional commandment — one needs the help of the Holy Spirit. Without prayer, love falters. Without the Spirit, one is stuck in hell.
Check it out. On Jan. 1, the World Day of Peace, make your resolution to love as God commands you to love. Then, beg the Holy Spirit to help you love each day with greater intensity than ever before.
(Glen Argan writes from Edmonton. See www.glenargan.com.)