If we are to embrace the next chapter of our lives with open arms, we need to take time to cultivate a sense of closure from the last chapter.
As 2021 comes to a close, we’ve probably given some thought to our resolutions. While the cultural tradition has been criticized by some as being unsustainable, laying out specific intentions at the beginning of the year can propel us toward positive growth when set realistically. Looking ahead and setting healthy goals for ourselves—whether physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional—can bolster our sense of hope and create valuable inner motivation for moving forward.
But entering into a new year is not only about a new beginning; it’s also about an ending. If we are to embrace the next chapter of our lives with open arms, we need to take time to cultivate a sense of closure from the last chapter. After all, it’s equally important to look behind as it is to look ahead. Without pausing to take a conscious assessment of the past year, setting new resolutions will likely only keep us running on the proverbial hamster wheel. Eventually, we’ll become exhausted. If we’re looking for true, soulful inner growth and not a quick fix, carving out time to pray and deeply reflect on the past 12 months is in order.
When we stop to take inventory of our life experiences—especially in smaller increments of time, as with one calendar year—we have the opportunity to engage in deep listening with the Holy Spirit to better understand how God has been at work in our lives. The end of December provides the perfect time to reflect on the patterns and movements of God within us. It is also a time to look at the circumstances that we may not have noticed as they were happening in real time. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20.
Identifying the highs and lows of the past 12 months can offer valuable insight on how to make the most beneficial choices in the future: We can see what has moved us closer to God and what has moved us further away. Putting together the pieces in this way could be akin to following a trail of bread crumbs in order to find the right path for moving forward in the year ahead.
Of course, looking into the past with openness and vulnerability is not always easy or pleasant. Painful things have likely happened in the past year; perhaps even things we would like to run from. But when we turn to God, we get the chance to see God’s presence even in the hardest times.
St. Ignatius wrote about times of “consolation” and times of “desolation,” indicating that both are part of the spiritual life. A state of consolation is when we are acutely aware of and are experiencing God’s active presence in the world and in our lives. In these times, we can clearly see the gifts of the Holy Spirit, such as love, goodness, mercy, and peace. On the other hand, a state of desolation is when we can’t seem to see or feel God’s active presence in the world. It may be because we are resisting God. Desolation tends to be marked by difficult feelings such as resentment, selfishness, fear, and gloom.
Consolation certainly feels more pleasant, but desolation has things to teach us too, which is why annual days of reflection can be so beneficial. No experience, however trying, is wasted when brought to God: There is always growth, redemption, and fullness of life to be had when we put our life in divine hands.
As we reflect on the year and seek understanding of God’s movements in our lives, it’s often helpful to pull out a journal and write down our thoughts as they come. Previously prepared questions can serve as prompts to get us started, such as, “What did I learn this year?” “What rhythms worked for me?” “What do I wish I had more time for?” “What brings me closer to God?” “What feels unnecessarily hard?” “What feels unhealthy to me?”
In the frantic pace of our busy culture, taking an entire morning for prayer and reflection can feel ludicrous and wasteful. The temptation is to barrel on into the new year with grandiose resolutions that we hope will improve our lives. But without stopping to seek God first, will any of those resolutions really last? Instead of taking a sip out of the nearest water fountain, what if we took the time to dig a deep, nourishing well? We might just taste the living water that Jesus promised.
God of my past, present, and future,
I trust you have been active in my life for the past year.
Help me see the ways you have invited me to become
a more whole, loving, and compassionate person.
Give me the fortitude to continue to accept that invitation.