Your memory of that seven-week-old fit of willpower might be hazy, or you might recall your sanguine hopes just fine but you prefer not to. But if you’re Catholic, the question need not depress you, right? Because just as New Year’s fervor starts to fade beyond recovery, Ash Wednesday appears on the doorstep. Another chance to start over! Just like a second New Year's Day!
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for chances to start over, and one of the things this convert loves most about the Church is Her matchless generosity with second, third, and umpteenth chances.
But despite appearances, New Year’s resolutions and Lenten penances are actually just about opposites. One is all about self-improvement, and the other is all about the futility of self-improvement—all about “without Me you can do nothing.”As Jacques Philippe points out in The Way of Trust and Love,it’s easy get things very much backwards:
The desire for perfection is a good thing in itself, but it can be ambiguous. What do we really want? We would like to be experienced, irreproachable, never make any mistakes, never fall, possess unfailing good judgment and unimpeachable virtue. Which is to say we would like to have no more need of forgiveness or mercy, no more need of God and his help. If at bottom our dream of perfection is to be able to manage without God, we are no longer on the path of the Gospel.
New Year’s resolutions are a more familiar, more American-friendly, more can-do kind of thing. Lenten penance is like a stranger who looks just like somebody you know, but as you get closer you realize your mistake.
Your New Year’s resolution and your Lenten penance might even be identical. They might both lead to, say, losing weight, or achieving a more productive lifestyle. (Or not. There are all kinds of different approaches, with their respective “benefits and pitfalls,” as Simcha Fisher points out here.) But here’s the difference: a New Year’s resolution is successful if you persist in doing (or not doing) whatever it is you’ve decided to attack.
A penance is successful if it brings you closer to a Person. If you keep your resolution flawlessly but your flawlessness turns you in on yourself (“I thank Thee, Lord, that I am not like other Catholics…”), then you've failed. St. Paul explains, in his letter to the Corinthians, and he doesn’t mince words:
If Ihave the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.
If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have
love, I gain nothing.
This doesn't mean we ought to sneer at self-improvement techniques and fall into either despondent fatalism or complacent passivity. God gave us free will and “placed us in our own hands,” as we personalists like to say, for a reason. "Becoming who we are" is, you might say, the most ambitious self-improvement project anyone could ever embark on. And it won't happen without our taking the reins of our own freedom.
But there's more to it.
So before you declare your Lent a failure, make sure you know what counts as a success.