Is Technology the Enemy of Silence?

We live in a noisy age, and noise takes its toll on prayer.

(photo: Himsan/Pixabay/CC0)

While Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence” bemoans how “silence like a cancer grows,” the truth is that modernity is far more afflicted by a surplus of noise than its deficit. In some way, however, the singers were right: “ten thousand people, maybe more” are supposedly “talking without speaking,” even as “no one dare[s] // disturb the sound of silence” – just ride a morning commuter train, where almost every solitary head is fixated on some screen, even as no human voice is heard.

Fr. Donald Haggerty is a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, serving at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, and author of the just-published book, Contemplative Enigmas. The book is a treatment of the spirituality of prayer. One of its main themes is the importance of silence for a truly deep prayer life. Haggerty’s meditations include several on the baneful effect that almost ubiquitous contemporary information technology has on prayer.            

Once upon a time, examinations of conscience included the question whether one was “distracted” during prayer, i.e., letting one’s mind wander to thoughts other than of God, reducing prayer to some rote formula, whereby “these people … honor me with their lips, but their hearts [and minds] are far from me” (Isaiah 29:13). Once upon a time — before handheld devices intervened — most people knew that talking with another person while giving them divided attention was rude. Prayer is, after all, talking with God.

But Haggerty makes an important observation: distraction was formerly something that intruded on my thoughts, while today it’s increasingly considered a normal part of the ambient, background noise. “Whereas, in former times, distraction was a common difficulty to the struggle to give full concentration to prayer or work, now it has become a kind of ‘companion presence’ to many lives. It is not an intermittent obstacle, but a consuming pull” (p. 73). In other words, its normalization has driven out silence so that, in the 24/7/365-always-connected mindset, “silence like a cancer grows.”

The New York priest warns us to gauge how “impulsivity” is gaining greater hold of our lives. Prayer needs time to be quiet. Our contemporary habits, however, not just make that quiet harder to carve out but also increasingly sow habits that blunt our ability and desire to do that carving. In short, today’s ways of “communicating” and working imperceptibly impair our ability to pray, at least in part because they abridge our attention spans. The result is that we can’t handle silence.

“A life uncomfortable with silence perhaps cannot remain long without some form of mild aggression against silence. Today, the ‘weapons of technology’ are the common antagonists to interior silence” (pp. 73-74). Now, Haggerty is no Luddite: he admits that information technology is a modern part of living, essential (and even beneficial) to today’s workplace, and not necessarily “elements of aggression in the spiritual life.” Abusus non tollit usum. But for use not to be undermined by abuse requires knowing what is use and what is abuse, and that distinction is increasingly being blurred by a lack of temperance. Information technology may be essential to work and helpful to daily living, but let’s admit how much of our time is simply eaten up by useless, meaningless gadget time. Deep down, most people will admit that, at least to themselves — yet most people will also recognize that intellectual awareness of imbalance is insufficient to temper the impulse to reach for that device. Man is a sensory creature, and the seductive power of modern information technology lies in its immediate appeal to the senses: just as an earlier generation might have been baffled that, despite their urgings, their children did not “turn off the TV and read a good book,” so today’s parents face the same challenge when they aim — often unsuccessfully — to “limit their children’s screen time.”

Man is increasingly assaulted by sensory and visual stimuli. We even talk about “information” or “sensory overload.” It takes its toll, not least of which on the human power to concentrate, to slow down, to recollect. Which means it takes its toll on prayer.

Lent is a time to examine where we are in life and to make course corrections. Limiting the constant assault of stimuli in order to learn once again how to be quiet … and to pray … is a very worthy Lenten resolution, especially because it helps us reinforce the psychological substructure and habits needed for the kind of attention — and even more so receptive silence — that prayer demands. It’s also a reason for recovering the Sunday rest, not just in Lent but throughout the year. The meaning of dominical rest is to turn from the mundane to hear the things of the Lord, to let ourselves regularly let ourselves be realigned to our true focus, God. The erosion of Sunday rest, including by the invasion of technology, merits resistance. A 24/7/365 world is neither a human nor humane world.

Finally, Fr. Haggerty includes a final striking thought: is one reason we desire to keep the noise on constantly because we fear an otherwise hollow emptiness? Because we don’t want to face what Dominican Fr. Józef Bocheński, the Fribourg philosopher, once called “existential questions?” “Why am I here?” “What’s the purpose of my life?” “Where am I going?” Haggerty cuts to the quick: “In truth, the aggression implicit in compulsive technological use is directed, not against silence itself, but against an emptiness of soul. In a soul cut off from God, a naked gaze into the abyss of self must be avoided at all cost” (p. 74).

The goal of the Jesuit spiritual exercise known as the “examen” is to ask for the grace of God to gaze upon ourselves, as he does. Perhaps our Lenten resolution might be that of Jericho beggar (Luke 18:35-43): “Lord, I want to see” not what’s on a screen but what’s in the depths of me.