Letters to Peregrinus #31 - On Resolution

Norman Rockwell, “Freedom of Religion,” one of his The Four Freedoms paintings [1]
Dear Peregrinus (9:45 AM, Tuesday):

Happy new year to you, old friend, by which I do not mean from January 1st onwards, but rather according to what our Christian tradition instructs. Our new year, each year, begins with the first Sunday of Advent.

Consequently our “new year” happened on 3 December 2017, when we heard read from Mark’s Gospel these words: “Be watchful! Be alert! You do not know when the time will come.” (Mark 13:33) Mary Oliver, the poet, has her own way of saying this:

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.” [2]

I thought of that Prayer that we learned when we were little ones, kneeling at our bedside with one or both of our parents, with our hands carefully folded into the pious “praying-hands” gesture trained into good children ... and untrained in the bad ones whose fate James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie” (1885) describes.[3]

The Children’s Prayer went this way:

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Honestly, Peregrinus, I do not understand what a “new year” means, and therefore the “resolutions” that are supposed to append to it. I think it better, and wiser, to focus each night on the significances noticed in a particular day, and on what does not matter, and then in an act of entrustment, to let it go, placing it in God’s hands.

We thank thee then, O Father, for all things bright and good,
The seedtime and the harvest, our life, our health, our food,
No gifts have we to offer for all thy love imparts
But that which thou desirest, our humble thankful hearts! [5]

Then, when the morning rises with our eyelids, we have the ability to greet a new day as new, “fresh from the Word”.

Morning has broken like the first morning,
Blackbird has spoken like the first bird.
Praise for the singing!
Praise for the morning!
Praise for them springing fresh from the Word.”

When we have not learned daily to practice letting go of a day just lived – what I call “the art of going to bed”[7] – then each new day given us to live remains saturated with the heaviness, and density, of previous days not properly concluded.

If we have yet to master the art of finishing a day, then how can we imagine a reality larger than that? A whole year is simply too vast a thing convincingly to “let go,” so that we might lay claim to the equally vast and very much more mysterious thing we call a new one.

Something occurs to me, Peregrinus. You have never told me whether you make such annual Resolutions. Do you? I never do. Rather, I keep my focus on the day, on each day, the “thin place” between Heaven and Earth – “and there was the Lord standing beside him” (Genesis 28:13):

17 He was afraid and said: “How awesome this place is! This is nothing else but the house of God, the gateway to heaven!”[8]

My daily resolution is every day to give myself as fully as I am able to persons sent me by God to welcome, to help, to teach, to inspire, and to encourage, and in whom to find God’s favor and direction being shown to me – “for Christ plays in ten thousand faces / lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not His”.[9]

In each of the “works” of each of my days, I practice full and active presence to the other. Such a “resolution” catalyzes newness in me, each day. This is far more significant in the art of living, I aver,[10] and more to the point, than my making a commitment to putting newness into a new year.

It is far more difficult, and it is also a greater thing, to be made new each day through the people we encounter with genuineness and alertness.

To pay attention,
this is our endless and proper work.”

Well, old friend, I wonder what the year 2018 will hold for all of us, each but also as a nation. Each year the necessity to practice a discipline of high- mindedness[12] increases.

Romans 15
30 I urge you, then, brothers, by our Lord Jesus Christ and by the love of the Spirit, to join me in my struggle by praying to God on my behalf, 31 that I may be delivered from unbelievers in Judea and that my service in Jerusalem may be acceptable to God’s dedicated people, 32 and that by God’s will I may come to you with joy and be refreshed together with you. 33 May the God of peace be with all of you! Amen.” [13]

Remember me in your good prayers, Peregrinus. I count on them.


Rick, SJ


[1] https://www.nrm.org/2012/10/collections-four-freedoms/. The famous painting that follows by Norman Rockwell is part of a four he painted on “the Four Freedoms”, of which this particular one, “Freedom of Religion” was published on the cover of The Saturday Evening Post (27 February 1943). His inspiration was in a speech given by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – “In his January 1941 address to Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt articulated his vision for a postwar world founded on four basic human freedoms: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. In the spring of 1942, Norman Rockwell was working on a piece commissioned by the Ordnance Department of the U.S. Army, a painting of a machine gunner in need of ammunition. Posters of the gunner, titled Let’s Give Him Enough and On Time, were distributed to ordnance plants throughout the country to encourage production. But Rockwell wanted to do more for the war effort and decided he would illustrate Roosevelt’s four freedoms. Finding new ideas for paintings never came easily, but this was a greater challenge. “It was so darned high-blown,” Rockwell said, “Somehow I just couldn’t get my mind around it.” While mulling it over, Rockwell, by chance, attended a town meeting where one man rose among his neighbors and voiced an unpopular view. That night Rockwell awoke with the realization that he could paint the freedoms best from the perspective of his own hometown experiences using every day, simple scenes such as his own town’s meeting.”

[2] From “Sometimes” by Mary Oliver, published in her Red Bird (Beacon Press, 2008).

[3] For example, some lines from that famous poem:

“You better mind yer parents, an’ yer teachers fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,
Er the Gobble-uns’ll git you
Ef you

[4] This very famous children’s bedtime prayer has had many versions since it first appeared in the early 18th century, in The New England Primer, but whose source is likely the Englishman, Joseph Addison (1672-1719), who was an essayist, a poet, a playwright, and a politician, and who with his friend Richard Steele founded the famous daily during 1711 and 1712 called The Spectator. The Prayer that I quote above is the version that I learned as a boy.

[5] Stephen Schwartz, “All Good Gifts, from Godspell. Wikipedia notes: “Godspell is a musical, composed by Stephen Schwartz with the spoken parts by John-Michael Tebelak. It opened off Broadway on May 17, 1971, and has played in various touring companies and revivals many times since, including a 2011 revival which played on Broadway from October 13, 2011, to June 24, 2012.”

[6] Wikipedia notes: “’Morning Has Broken’ is a popular and well-known Christian hymn first published in 1931. It has words by English author Eleanor Farjeon and was inspired by the village of Alfriston in East Sussex, then set to a traditional Scottish Gaelic tune known as “Bunessan” (it shares this tune with the 19th century Christmas Carol “Child in the Manger”). It is often sung in Children’s services and in Funeral services. English pop musician and folk singer Cat Stevens included a version on his 1971 album Teaser and the Firecat. The song became identified with Stevens due to the popularity of this recording.”

[7] I have grown in my conviction over the long years of going to bed – I have gone to bed, as of today, 23,214 times – that we miss something important if we fail to recognize that there is an art to be learned, the art of going to bed, well, artfully. We are meant in this art to learn how to gather up the significance of each day (e.g., the Examen prayer of the Jesuits) – the one that we have just experienced – concentrating on what was important in the day and letting go of the rest through acts of trust, of forgiveness, of humble acknowledgment of one’s limitations, and in gratitude. Learning how artfully to say goodbye to the day we have just lived includes the capacity to say hello wholeheartedly to the newness given us in the day into which we awaken the next day.

[8] New American Bible, Revised Edition. (Washington, DC: The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, 2011), Ge 28:17.

[9] https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/44389/as-kingfishers-catch- fire. Gerard Manley Hopkins, SJ (1884-1889) expressing himself in one of his most famous poems.

[10] The Oxford English Dictionary at the verb “to aver” – “to declare true, to assert the truth of (a statement).” This English word derives from the late Latin verb adveroare (1).
[11] Mary Oliver, “Yes! No!”, page 264 in Devotions: the Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (Penguin Publishing Group, 2017).

[12] The Oxford English Dictionary at the adjective “high-minded”, definition 2 – “Having or characterized by strong moral principles; noble, honorable, earnest.”

[13] Joseph A. Fitzmyer S.J., Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, vol. 33, Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008), 724.

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