2014 is here; God is giving us a new year full of challenges, joys and sorrows. At this time we often reflect and prepare a bucket list of resolutions that, we hope, will improve our life. To help us do this (whatever time of year it may be) Thomas a Kempis in his inspiring book of reflections The Imitation of Christ shares his thoughts on how we can improve our lives.
Be watchful and diligent in God’s service, and often think over why you chose to serve Christ in the first place. Was it not that you might live for God and become a spiritual person? Be fervent, then, in going forward, for you will soon receive the reward of your labors, and then there will be no more fear or sorrow in you. By working a little now, you will find great rest later; indeed, you will find endless joy. If you remain faithful and ferment in what you do, God will doubtless be faithful and generous in rewarding you. You must keep good hope of attaining the victory, but you must not become overconfident, lest you grow lazy or self-satisfied.
There was once a certain anxious man who, wavering often between fear and hope and exhausted with grief, prostrated himself in prayer in church before the altar. Turning these things in his mind, he said: “Oh, if only I knew that I shall persevere.” On the spot, he heard the divine answer in his own heart: “What if you knew this? What would you do? Do now what you would do then, and you will be very safe.” Soon after, having been comforted and strengthened, he gave himself up to God’s will, and his anxious wavering stopped. He no longer feared for his future; instead, he sought to know God’s will for accomplishing today’s good works. “Hope in the Lord and do good,” says the Prophet, “and dwell in the land, and you shall be fed with its riches.”
There is one thing that keeps many people from gaining ground and from fervently striving to improve: the dread of difficulty, or more accurately, the effort of the struggle. Those people progress most in virtue–truly, they progress beyond all others–who make a valiant effort to overcome the things that are most troublesome to them, that work most against them. A person makes more progress and deserves fuller grace in those instances where he overcomes such obstacles completely and where he cleanses his spirit by doing so. But not everyone has the same amount to overcome and cleanse. Nevertheless, a person striving diligently to excel will make greater progress–even if he has more to overcome–than will another who is more even-tempered but less keen for virtues.
Two things especially lead to great improvement: the will to drag yourself from the things that will naturally harm you and the desire to pursue the good things that you need the most. You should also watch out for those things that irritate you in other people; when you see them in yourself, get rid of them.
Turn everything to your advantage. If you see or hear good examples, imitate them. If you think something is reprehensible, be careful that you do not do the same thing; if you have done it, try to correct yourself quickly. As you watch others, so do they watch you. How joyful and sweet it is to see fervent and devout friends living together agreeably and being well-disciplined. How sad it is–and what a burden!–to see people stumbling along in confusion, not practicing their own vocation. How harmful it is for those same people to neglect the purpose of their calling and to shift their attention to affairs that are none of their concern/
Remember what you set out to do, and place before you the image of the Crucified. When you look into the life of Jesus Christ you may well be ashamed that you have not tried harder to be like him, even though you have followed the ways of God for a long time. A religious person who trains himself intently and devoutly in the holy life and Passion of the Lord will find everything he needs, and he will find it in abundance. He need not look beyond Jesus for anything better. Oh, if the crucified Jesus were to enter into our hearts, how quickly and fully would we be taught!
A fervent, religious person takes all things and bears them well, whatever they may be. A careless and lukewarm person has trouble on top of trouble and endures anguish from every side, because he lacks inner comfort and cannot find it anywhere else. An undisciplined person is open to grave ruin, and a person who looks only for ease and relaxation in life will be limited in his spiritual development, for one thing or another will always displease him.
… Oh, if only there were nothing else to do but to praise the Lord our God with all our hearts and voices! Oh, if you never needed to eat or drink or sleep, but could always praise God and could be entirely free to strive after spiritual things; then, you would be much happier than you are now, enslaved as you are by all sorts of necessities. Oh, that there were not such necessities but only the spiritual nourishment of the soul, which, alas, we taste too seldom.
When you come to this, that you look for your comfort from nothing but God, then you begin to know God perfectly; then, too, will you be quite content no matter what happens; then, you will neither rejoice for much nor grieve for little, but will commit yourself wholly and confidently to God, for he means everything to you. To God, nothing passes away or dies, but all things live and all things serve him promptly at a nod.
Always think of the end and that lost time never returns. Without care and diligence you will never acquire virtue. If you begin to grow apathetic, you will begin to do badly. But if you give yourself enthusiastically to your spiritual life, you will find great peace and feel the effort lighter through God’s grace and the love of virtue. The person who loves God with all his heart and soul–and who faithfully and diligently acts on that love–is ready for anything. It is greater work to resist our weaknesses than it is to sweat at manual labor.
The person who does not avoid small faults, little by little slips into greater ones. You will always be glad at evening if you have spent the day well. Watch over yourself, rouse yourself, chide yourself, and no matter what others may do, do not neglect yourself. The more self-disciplined you are, the more you will progress. Amen.
Source: Thomas a Kempis, The Imitation of Christ, Book 1, Chapter 25.