In an essay some years back called This I Believe, Sr. Helene Prejean, the nun who was portrayed (by Susan Sarandon) in the movie Dead Men Walking, began by writing, “I watch what I’m doing to see what I believe”.
After her ordination, Sr. Helene, was living a relatively comfortable life, working with white middle-class Americans like herself. One day, Sr. Helene realized that she wasn’t living what she thought she truly believed: to answer Jesus call to love the outcast, the criminal, the underdog. This led her to make a series of changes in her life culminating in her work for over 20 years with death row inmates and the families of victims.
It’s a fairly natural inclination, as we head into yet another new year, to aspire to improve ourselves or to have a fresh beginning in some part of our lives. Perhaps this is the year we will stick to that exercise program, pay more attention to our finances, or maybe just stop getting so irritated at small stuff. Like me, you may have a litany of past years failures, which you hope not to repeat this time out.
When I looked a little more carefully at Sr. Helene’s approach “watching what I was doing to see what I believed”, a couple of things struck me. First, and somewhat uncomfortably, was that my time, resources and energies are, by and large, focused on my own needs (comforts!) and of those close to me. And the few things that I do, that I might even begin to consider living the gospel message, rarely cause me any personal discomfort. As you can imagine, this realization didn’t enhance my self-image.
The second thought was that if you really hope to change anything, you first need to really pay attention to what you’re doing, and see how it matches up with what you think you believe. And while it sounds simple enough, it can be quite difficult. Whether or not we are conscious of it, we tend to be very committed to our current lifestyle, otherwise we would change it. It might sound odd, but many of us want to change while staying the same. Furthermore, when it comes to our faith and following Jesus, we may not even think of it as being “resolution-eligible”; something not requiring attention like our waistline or finances. Probably understandable given our puny success rate with promises to ourselves to improve: who wants to make a commitment to God and then drop the ball. Talk about asking for trouble!
But hold on, all is not lost. Jesus did point out when discussing how difficult it would be for a rich man to get into heaven, “that all things are possible for God”. That’s not to say that we should sit and do nothing and wait for God to inflict a self-improvement plan on us. But Jesus did reassure us in the gospels, that any small step to move closer to God will be met with overwhelming welcome, compassion and love.
So heading into this year, we might want to start with taking stock of where we are in our faith journey, and then just take one area in need of attention. It could be a decision not to avert our eyes when we encounter a homeless person, or to attend the sacrament of reconciliation at least once this year, maybe to pray once a month for those people that we really dislike. It doesn’t need to be major.
And so while I would not discourage those dreams of a triathlon or pumping up that 401K, we do have it on good authority that if we have “faith the size of a mustard seed”, God will look after transforming our faltering steps.