'I was marching to the beat of empty, secular time. I needed to find a new approach to life'
We all have rituals by which we bury the old year and unveil the new. I end each year fighting with my roof. I have a 100ft pine tree in the front yard of my Virginia house, and an oak of similar size out back, but somehow it’s always the end of December before I deal with the debris. Pine needles blow through the yard like snowdrifts and oak leaves poke out of the gutter like a haircut I had in the 1980s. I sigh and make a resolution to do better next year.
I don’t know that I handle life’s larger matters much differently. It’s difficult to remain attentive to the torrent of minuscule but unceasing alterations, both internal and external, that collectively comprise our lives and the lives of those around us. My six-year-old daughter’s tastes change as rapidly as clutter piles up on the flamingo rug on her bedroom floor; I’ve barely registered a trend before it’s lost, one archeological layer down. We drift comfortably out of touch. And if life jerks us awake and shows us things as they really are, we resent it; we yearn for a quick fix. So we are suckers for dramatic – especially New Year’s – resolutions.
Unfortunately, our resolutions are bound by the limits of our knowledge and imagination. And in matters of household maintenance, my limitations are severe. Our roof is pitched at a 45-degree angle, and my various resolutions will all end in a common result: I fall off the roof. One year found me high-kicking my way off the roof in baseball cleats, which I had somehow thought would help me hold on. Another year the ladder and I went down sideways and knocked a clip off the gutters. I patched it back on with tape.
A third year sees me trying to beat a wind-blown shingle back into its place while standing on the top step of an extension ladder. Each time I pound the shingle with the end of a very lengthy and very shaky tree trimmer, I pivot precariously back and forth like an extra from a silent comedy. The exact plot isn’t predictable, but the conclusion is. I will start January with frostbitten hands and an aching back, banged up from my attempt to wrap up unfinished tasks and begin anew.
I suspect that most of us begin a new year with this paradoxical mixture of hope and resignation. We long for different lives, but can’t imagine what that would even look like, and so deep down expect more of the same. Like Dante in the Inferno, we’ve wandered along without noticing the exact moment or location that we began to go off course. How could we dream up a resolution that has any real chance of changing anything? “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9, KJV). Thanks, Solomon. Happy New Year.
In my book Numbering My Days: How the Liturgical Calendar Rearranged My Life, I suggest that the Church Year can help us begin to break out of these individual and collective cycles of futility.
As the book opens, I am the father of a young child in a two-career family, as overextended as everybody else is. And I’m about as good at arranging my life as I am at home maintenance. So I’m in a coffee shop desperately multitasking, trying simultaneously to get work done for my job, watch my daughter and pour coffee down my throat. Only the last task is going at all well. As my daughter entertains Starbucks with a rousing rendition of Old MacDonald, I realise that I need to find a new approach to life. A secular, mechanical world, the world of the marketplace, has made me what I am, and I’m marching to the beat of empty, secular time. So I wonder if my life would be different if I spent a year in sacred time, living according to the liturgical calendar.
Over the course of a typically chaotic year, I find that the liturgical calendar is a powerful tool for living. The lectionary readings and the feasts of the saints assign a sacred meaning from Scripture and/or Church history to each of our days. If we become attentive to this meaning, we will begin to see the world around us differently, make different decisions and become different people.
We might all consider trying to live 2017 according to the liturgical calendar. For divine rituals possess the power to renew us that our haphazard personal rituals so obviously lack, and only God can really imagine us as – and day by day make us into – the people we ought to be.
This article first appeared in the January 6 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here