Many writers and thinkers are ambivalent about the effect of our constant engagement with mobile phones, Facebook and the like. Concern ranges from the hearing damage caused by iPods to the destruction of our ability to concentrate, establish relationships, or research beyond surface issues. One such writer is Neil Swidey from the Boston Globe in an article called The End of Alone. He is no Luddite. His article begins with these words; "Don't get me wrong. I love technology. It's magical how it makes the world closer, and more immediate." Even the thoroughly technologically engaged are also worried about our inability to "unplug."
Swidey has a beautiful picture which goes to the heart of the matter.
I'M SITTING IN A PEW near the back of St. Anne's Church in Fall River, a soaring structure of Vermont blue marble that could rival a lesser European cathedral. It was built in the late 1800s, when the southeastern Massachusetts mill city's French Canadian community was big enough to warrant a church able to seat 2,000. On this blustery afternoon, the crowd is more like a tenth of that. The priest is talking, but the lousy PA system makes it hard to hear what he's saying. So I'm doing what I've done before in this situation: trying to keep my young daughters occupied by whispering for them to study their surroundings -- the exquisitely carved red-oak woodwork near the high ceiling, the enormous pipe organ in the rear balcony, the colorful stained-glass windows on every wall. With its combination of architectural grandeur and crumbling-plaster fatigue, the place is like Venice in the unforgiving light of morning, rather than the soft-lit romanticism of night. It's honest and beautiful.
Then I hear an odd chirping. My eyes follow my ears to a pew to my left and behind me, where a guy with slicked black hair and dark glasses is sitting. He's chewing gum and wearing one of those Bluetooth cellphone attachments in his ear.
Hey, man, I'm bored, too. But, c'mon, take that infernal thing out of your ear. Say a prayer. Collect your thoughts. Or just do what my 4-year-old is doing and stare at the ceiling.
Did I mention it was Christmas Day Mass?
Even in a place of worship, people are unable to disconnect from the immediate and let the transcendent connect with them. Swidey's experience is depressingly frequent. I often hear the phone ring during worship, and it's not just doctors on call.
One of the reasons for our mystification and dissatisfaction with prayer is this lack of disengagement. An important aspect of worship is that it is "done down the front" while we sit and are still. Perhaps we engage in the singing of a hymn. Perhaps a prayer touches us, or we tune in to the sermon. Often I tune out, which is just as important. Like the daughters, I idly survey the ceiling and the statuary; pity about the flat ceilinged, iconoblasted worship spaces of so many modern churches.
It's in the idleness that the transcendent and the divine engages us.
I've never forgotten the high school conversation where a friend and I tried to explain to a town friend what you think about on a tractor. We didn't have the vocabulary to explain what happens when you spend eight or ten hours going in circles around a paddock, at little more than walking pace; I once spent 12 hours a day for a whole week, and had not finished the one paddock.
Such experiences made space in our minds. They taught us to be alone. We began to learn the art of contemplation. Swidey wonders how young people can now learn to be alone, and what it will mean for them in the future if they do not.
This learning of solitude learning has many benefits. To work at many tasks involves a comfort in being alone. It needs the maturity of intense uninterrupted activity. The discomfort, almost panic, I saw in my six year old son in the vast aloneness of a desert holiday is something we all need to overcome to function well. There are times when we will all be in desert places.
But solitude especially relates to prayer. Much praying seems akin to texting and email; noisy in church, music in the background, constant input, lots of words. When is there time and space for God to speak in that? When will we be quiet and looking at the ceiling? When will there be tractor times, or long baths, or un-plugged train commutes when something beyond the immediate is able to speak to us? To be serious about prayer means to take time, unplugged, un-busy time. Indeed, the practice of time-wasting by being still and un-busy, and unplugged, is a healthy thing whether prayer is on our minds or not! As someone once said, "The problem with business today is that executives take showers instead of baths."
I'm gaining enough wisdom to be able to chart some of my spiritual health. Honesty demands I confess that some of this is simply to do with getting older; the body can't manage the same ill-treatment it once endured! When I cease walking, keep working, and don't take time out, I get sick. I don't mean TV time out; although stopping work enough to watch TV was a big step forward for me! I mean just sitting and thinking, without an MP3 player, without a book, and not surfing; simply walking home watching the people, and not composing another article or sermon. Getting sick means not only sore backs, or colds, or headaches; it means grumpiness, disconnection, depression, despair. Time out, whether we see it as prayer, or some other form of recreation, is necessary for health. Workaholic Christians, or followers of any faith, are first of all, workaholics. Plugged in, over-texted, constantly twittering and surfing Christians are likewise, Christians second, and reap the consequences.