Susanna Spencer has a masters in theology from the Franciscan University of Steubenville. She is a writer and the theological editor for Blessed is She, and writes on her own blog Living With Lady Philosophy. She is a homeschooling mother of four and lives with her family in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Recently, during one of my few undistracted times of reading I came across a striking passage in St. John Cassian’s Conferences. I was intrigued by the first-person account of a particular monk:
I was never able altogether to get rid of the incentives to gluttony. For though I reduce the quantity of food which I take to the smallest possible amount, yet I cannot avoid the force of its daily solicitations, but must be perpetually 'dunned' by it, and be making as it were interminable payments by continually satisfying it, and pay never-ending toll at its demand. (St. John Cassian, Conference V, Ch. 21)
While gluttony is certainly a temptation in my life, though my vocation has not lead me to the austerity of the monastic life, this monk’s account of his battle with gluttony rang very true to a different form of intemperance in my life. The truth is, and I am certain I am not alone, that I struggle daily to have self-control in my use of the internet and social media.
The more I have tried to limit my use of the internet, the more I realize that this tool is a necessary part of the life I live. It is central to much of my work, managing my children’s home school, cooking meals, keeping up on basics like weather and news, staying in touch with out of town relatives and friends, and my prayer life. Yet, I can never seem to come to terms with it, especially since I got my first smartphone a few months ago (and I still call myself a millennial).
St. John Cassian’s teaching on how to overcome gluttony has the some really great advice, which can be applied to all areas of intemperance. We must bear in mind that he wrote these things for monks, not lay people, so we should apply them to ourselves according to our state in life. His words ring true when he says, “It is easier to find men who altogether abstain from the more fattening kinds of foods than men who make a moderate use of what is allowed to our necessities!” (Institutes, Book 5, Ch. 7) It seems that it would be easier to just give up the internet entirely—living off the grid of social media—but it is more of a challenge to accept the internet as part of modern life and use it with temperance. The problem is how to form the habit of temperance.
St. John Cassian recommends fasting, vigils, spiritual reading, building up in oneself a horror of sin and a desire for holiness for a monk wants to overcome gluttony. The goal is to get to the point where the need to eat is simply that—a necessity that one does not dwell on longer than one needs to. (Institutes, Book 5, Ch. 14). He makes a special note that fasting should be based on age, health and condition in life. The problem with needing to eat is that it is a necessary part of our life, one that we cannot avoid, and we will always be plagued with temptations to gluttony.
So, when a person wants to overcome intemperate internet use, St. John Cassian might recommend fasting from it on certain days or at certain times, having vigils of Internet-free evenings, spiritual reading and prayer in place of social media use, trying to have a distaste for the distractions online, but most of all building up a desire to grow in temperance and holiness. What one does should be based on age, condition in life, and health. Temperance toward something we use every day requires constant vigilance.
St. John Cassian lays down a few simple tips for a monk struggling with gluttony, “[H]e will not in any case allow himself to be overcome by any delicacies, or take anything to eat or drink before the fast is over and the proper hour for refreshment has come, outside meal times; nor, when the meal is over, will he allow himself to take a morsel however small.” (Institutes, Book 5, Ch. 20) Similarly when one is striving to use the internet well, one should not be overcome by distractions, not use it when it is not the proper time, and avoid even the smallest morsel of glancing at social media at the wrong time.
Practically, it might help to think of using the internet in the same way one thinks of meals. A temperate person does not grab a piece of candy here and there between meals all day, nor does she pick up her phone and check her email, Instagram, Facebook, text messages, etc. every time there is a lull in the day. Cassian talks about how gluttony or immoderate use of food leads to a dullness of one’s senses and mind, and I have found for myself that even short but frequent taps into social media dull my mind for living in the present. I use it to slip out of home life and avoid my reading and writing. Then the dullness of my mind creeps into my prayer life. I stop listening to the readings at Mass, and I don’t pray as attentively. And that is when I know it has become a problem yet again.
That is also when I make a new plan, a new set of resolutions, and ask God for his help. I resolve that when I go on the internet I will do it for a specific purpose and will go at a time that is good to use it, and that I will not take little morsels of social media—for even the quick check distracts me from being present to my life. Ideally, I would start off my days with Morning Prayer, checking the weather, sometimes baseball scores, and look to see if there are any urgent emails. I use my phone to read the daily Mass readings and pray with them in the early afternoon. During the school year I have no need to use the computer during the school day, but the afternoon is my time for research reading and writing and that is when I have to be most careful to waste my time. Then at the end of my work time, I would ideally set aside 20-30 minutes to catch up on leisure email, social media and articles. Then I often use recipes stored in documents online to cook dinner. After dinner, I do another email check, and then I should be done for the day, because I have learned my lesson too many times about intemperance. (As an aside, I do things like online shopping as needed, but the struggle to not check social media while doing so is REAL.)
If you share this struggle of internet intemperance, I encourage you to pray about changes you need to make. It is something that one must face as long as there is an internet to use, and I know I will be making these same resolutions again all too soon. St. John Cassian says, “A reasonable supply of food partaken of daily with moderation, is better than a severe and long fast at intervals.” (Institutes, Book V, Ch. 9) It seems to be the same with use of the internet—a reasonable use of it in moderation will be better for us than a long fast followed by internet gluttony. So, we struggle on with the help of grace to find the self-control we need. Let us lift each other up in prayer to grow in the virtue of temperance!