One of the key lessons I learned when I started working as a high school teacher was to begin planning the year with the end in mind. Otherwise, it would be difficult to effectively prepare students in a way that made sense and attained our goal as a class.
Now, I certainly understand that there is value in the journey itself. Yet, every journey ultimately leads somewhere. Knowing what that somewhere is can certainly help make the journey a better source of growth and mitigate confusion.
Perhaps that is why many of us become excited when we set New Year’s resolutions. We have an end in mind and begin to eagerly plan for the journey to get there.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been good at the whole New Year’s resolution thing. I bought a juicer once. I used it once. It now occupies a lot of room in my bottom cupboard.
But the premise of resolutions can be intriguing to consider in this way: what is our end? What is it that we are ultimately made for? And, perhaps equally as important, how do we get there?
Not just in a one-time resolution. Not just this year. But across our lifetime. How can we know that, as we lay on our death bed, we have reached our purpose?
The famed philosopher Aristotle, in his “Nicomachean Ethics,” spoke to these questions by postulating that humanity’s ultimate end was happiness.
Seems pretty straightforward. But how do we get there?
For Aristotle, the manner in which happiness is attained is through a life of virtue. To this end, virtue — he postulates — is the mean between excess and deficiency in disposition. For instance, courage is the rightly ordered mean between cowardice and rashness. When we fall into either of the latter, our actions — and by extension our lives — become, in a sense, disordered. Not all things or actions lead to happiness.
The philosopher, theologian, and saint, Thomas Aquinas, later built upon Aristotle and the classical tradition. For Aquinas, not only is our end happiness but it is a perfect happiness attained in God. That is to say that our end will only be realized when we encounter the Beatific Vision: seeing God face to face in Heaven. Until then, our experience of happiness is “imperfect”; a foretaste, but not the fulfillment of, the perfect happiness we were made for.
It is in this way that we can better understand St Augustine’s words in his “Confessions’: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”
Our end then, is found in God. And, in particular, a profound intimacy with God, face to face.
That is something much more profound than losing 10 pounds or trying to be a “nicer person” this year. Instead, this speaks to conviction, meaning, and purpose. It speaks to the heart of who we are.
Anything short of that is at best manifestations of imperfect happiness, and at worst distractions or deficiencies that pull us from the mean Aristotle referred to.
If then we are made for God, Who is the source of perfect happiness, and this happiness comes from rightly-ordered virtue, then it would stand to reason that this virtue also comes from God.
This is the heart of the Christian message, that not only did God become one of us to save us from sin, but to also show us this virtuous way of life. “The one who has found his life will lose it, and the one who has lost his life on My account will find it” (Mt 10:39). Rather than trying to “find oneself,” find God. Only then will we grasp our meaning and purpose.
By all means, strive to be more healthy and friendly this year. Start that savings plan. But, as the cliché goes, you can’t take it with you when you go.
So, above all else, strive to be holy. Today, next month, this year, next year, every year. It is the one resolution we can make, and continue to make, that will always be worthwhile. And it is the only resolution we can make that is directly ordered toward our ultimate end.
And as we resolve to seek this end, what do we share of it with others? What will my wife, my son, or my daughter know of this end? Will they know how to get there? And what role do I play, as a spouse and parent, in helping them with either?
The first thing I would say is this: do we live as individuals seeking our end? Will our spouses and children see us modeling a purpose-driven life? Will they see us striving to live virtue? Will they see us striving for God?
Second, we must consider if we actually desire this perfect happiness for them. I know, this may sound silly. Of course we do — right? Well, I think that many of us desire happiness for our family and children, and even others in general. But not all happiness is perfect happiness. And, if perfect happiness is found in God, then we must consider if we desire others to know God. Intimately. Face to Face.
I spoke with a parent once who was explaining to me why they wanted their children to go through Faith Formation in their parish and receive Confirmation. What struck me was that in their explanation they never once mentioned Jesus. Faith Formation was spoken of as any other after school program, travel team, or extracurricular. It served a purpose to them, but not much more than reaching Confirmation and being a “nice person.”
If Christianity and faith Formation were really only about being a nice person, gaining values or reaching a (incorrectly) perceived “rite of passage” as Catholics, I wouldn’t be quite interested in it either, much less ensuring my children “went through it.” I can buy countless self-help books online that can give insight into being nice or mindful.
But Christianity is not about that. Not even close.
Christianity is an encounter with Jesus Christ; a call to conversion; a relationship of sacrificial love that leads to perfect happiness.
It’s what we desire and desire for the ones we love. And as Aquinas pointed out, it can only be found in God.
So, desire to know God. Desire that your spouse and children know God. Not just know about Him, but know Him. Make it a priority in your daily life, in your home life, in what you place importance on in word and action. Share the faith with them and share how God has and continues to work in your life. If everything is important, then nothing is important. Make clear in your life and family what is important: God.
As we begin this New Year, think and act with the end in mind. For when you strive for holiness you’ll be striving for happiness, until that day when we see God intimately, face to face. On that day we’ll see that nothing else really mattered except that.
Anchor columnist David Carvalho is the senior director for Faith Formation, Youth, Young Adult and Family Life Ministries for the Diocese of Fall River. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.