New Year’s Resolutions: Some Advice from Celtic Monks

Have you recently made some New Year’s resolutions? Are you hoping that this year they will be easier to follow than in previous years? In this article I explore some wisdom from the Celtic tradition which can help you to rise up to meet the challenges you have set for yourself. The circumstances of human life have greatly changed over the centuries, but the nature of the human soul is the same as it always has been. Ancient voices often speak to modern concerns.

One of the first things to consider when making New Year’s resolutions (or any equivalent commitment) is to take a long hard look at our motives. What do we really want from life and are these new goals going to help us get there? It can be very easy for us to have goals which seem like virtues on the surface but underneath are actually fuelled by vices. Pelagius spoke to this tendency when he said

“Truly you must follow humility, not the kind that is displayed and simulated by bodily gesture or by subduing the utterance of one’s words but that which is expressed in the natural disposition of one’s heart. For it is one thing to pursue the shadow of things, another the reality. The pride which hides beneath outward signs of humility is made much more ugly thereby. For, by some means or other, vices are more unsightly when they are concealed behind an outward semblance of virtue.“

It is a classic example of vice being disguised as virtue to say that a person is very proud of their humility. It is easy to understand and we all know someone who has fallen into this trap. However, the same thing can happen in a myriad of different ways. Shame may be hiding behind a desire to get into shape. Greed may be hiding behind a desire to be more productive.

If our New Year’s resolutions are secretly being fueled by vices such as these and others, they will never be able to bring us the spiritual fulfillment which our hearts truly long for. Now, of course, a desire to get in shape or to be more productive can also arise out of a good place. It’s not that these goals are unhealthy in and of themselves. It is good to be healthy and productive so long as we aren’t doing it out of shame or greed.

If you have determined that your goals are coming from a good place, then it is time to form some habits which help you reach them and to let go of the habits which are holding you back. Pelagius talked about habit a fair bit and worked to help people find healthy and holy habits in their day to day lives. You can learn more about his teaching on the habits of our minds HERE.

Another key insight comes from Columbanus. He talks about the importance of avoiding extremes. Virtues, Columbanus tells us, are to be found in the middle way between extremes. In the rule which he laid out for the monks under his care he said,

“Just as error overtakes those who have no path, so for those who live without discernment excess is near at hand, always contrary to the virtues, which lie between the extremes.”

When coming up with New Year’s resolutions, it is important not to go from one extreme to another. If you are trying to get hold of your habit of eating junk food, don’t go all the way to the other extreme of not allowing yourself any treats at all. If we try to go to extremes with our resolutions, we are likely to fail. 

It is better to choose an obtainable goal that seeks balance instead. Try giving up junk food most of the time but allowing yourself to indulge in specific circumstances. Small incremental steps are always better than grandiose plans. You can read more about Columbanus and his teaching of the middle way HERE.

One last piece of advice from the Celtic tradition which I would like to share with you comes from Saint Mac Oige who was a leader in the Celi De reform movement in medieval Ireland. He said, “Whatever art you may put your mind to, you will need perseverance if you want to master the skill. This is particularly true for a person who has devoted themselves to the art of virtue.”

The human mind has a tendency to come up with legitimate sounding reasons for slacking. We often decide we are too busy or that the circumstances of life are preventing us from following through with our commitments. It is hard to establish new habits and it easy to want to give up. But the more we persevere through the mental resistance we all experience, the easier it gets in the long run.

If we fall off the path we have laid out for ourselves (which is inevitable) it is easy to think that the battle is lost. But, if we persevere by picking ourselves up every time we falter, we will form new habits and it will become easier with time. We have to stand courageously before our own tendency to quit and choose what is right instead of what is easy.

As Mac Oige points out, this is true of any art we wish to learn. We would not expect a musician to play the harp beautifully if she had not first practiced and struggled and persevered. Nor would we expect a carpenter to master their craft without continual effort. If following through with your New Year’s resolutions proves to be difficult, remind yourself that it is to be expected. Struggle is always part of growth.

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