On Basil the Great and Difficult Resolutions

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Russian Icon of Basil the Great

I’ve always thought that New Year’s resolutions were a bit like casting about in the dark for answers to questions that we’re not asking. We spend so much of the year making quick decisions, rarely reflecting on the patterns or habits of behavior and thought that have landed us where we are. Then at the end of the year, there’s this mad scramble to think about what we didn’t like about the year, about ourselves, about our relationships. We resolve to change those things. Is it any wonder that we fail at keeping our resolutions? Most of the time, our resolutions are merely treating symptoms. The root of the problem remains securely hidden away, happy to take a break for a couple weeks of well-intentioned and only mildly harmful self-abuse. 

I think it’s fitting that today, January 1, is also the feast day of St. Basil the Great, bishop of Caesarea in the fourth century. Author of several classics, and many good sermons, Basil urges us routinely and honestly appraise ourselves, and not as a matter of annual resolution, but as a daily habit. Self-understanding and change take time, because real reflection takes time to mature. And mature reflection is essential for deliberate action.

“You are the master of your actions. Do not look for the guiding cause beyond yourself, but recognize that evil, rightly so called, has no other origin than our deliberate choices…” (Homilies on the Hexaemeron, 2)

“In truth the most difficult of sciences is to know one’s self. Not only our eye, from which nothing outside us escapes, cannot see itself; but our mind, so piercing to discover the sins of others, is slow to recognise its own faults” (Homilies on the Hexaemeron, 9).

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