What St. Benedict Would Tell You About Your Smartphone
This Lent, replace the phone in your hand with a monastery in your heart
Writing before Steve Jobs was even a twinkle in his mother’s eye, the German philosopher Martin Heidegger wrote in “The Question Concerning Technology” that “everywhere we remain unfree and chained to technology, whether we passionately affirm or deny it. But we are delivered over to it in the worst possible way when we regard it as something neutral.”
Regarding technology as neutral, warns Heidegger, foolishly makes us “utterly blind” to its essence. If Martin Heidegger felt “chained to technology” in the pre-personal computer days of 1953, how would he feel in 2019?
Heidegger’s warning is echoed in an emerging cultural awareness that technology like the smartphone—particularly the aesthetically bamboozling, hypnotically designed iPhone—is not a neutral entity. In fact, these “shiny cool things” that “infiltrat[e] every square inch of our lives” may have been created harmful.
If not a neutral tool, what is the essence of a smartphone—these ubiquitous devices that we carry in our hands, our pockets, and purses?
When Christians think of asceticism, we tend to think of giving up—depriving. The underlying rationale seems to be that happiness lies in ourselves and that unhappiness lies in desiring what is outside of us.
But a human being is made in the image of God who loves and desires what is outside the divine self to extreme degrees. To create and incarnate and redeem are not the actions of a self-satisfied deity, but of a God whose desire to pour himself out in love quite literally knows no bounds. Our ability to love and desire what is outside of us lags far behind the overwhelming love of our creator.
Asceticism, then, is not a stifling of our desires, it is a retraining of these powerful inner forces so that they are taught to seek that which will truly satisfy. Asceticism trains us for right relationship: to love others in a just manner and proportion to who and what they are. And, through loving others well, to love God well.
Asceticism reorders all our relationships around God. To be in relationship is to be the subject of claims: you have agreed to be someone I can rightfully make a request or demand from. A smartphone is a piece of technology, which, unlike other tools in our lives, like an oven or a lawn mower, has a predetermined program that seeks to reshape the daily functioning of the user. To own a smartphone is to enter into a relationship whose settings were coded by its makers. It makes a claim on us.
There is a growing dread that when we purchase a smartphone we become not just their owners but their subordinates. Gadgets designed by Apple and Microsoft, and the apps that pepper their screens, are designed to be addictive. Companies take advantage of our propensity for distraction for their own gain by magnifying the “deafening roar of smartphones.” Notifications interrupt the blank blackness of the screen with bright light, a thrilling “ping” interrupts the sound of conversation, music, or the silence of the day. To own a smartphone means to accept a piece of technology into your life whose aim is to mold the conditions of your daily living in its own image and likeness.
So how can we own smartphones without being owned by them?
Along with the dissatisfaction with smartphones and technology bubbling to the surface, there is a sense growing among the Christians in the West that the cultural structures we inhabit are, for the Christian, uninhabitable.
Alastair MacIntyre's famous phrase at the end of After Virtue—that modern Western humans await “another St. Benedict”—has awakened a sense that there is a need for Christians to live differently, to dissociate from the structure of contemporary culture. In order to, in fact, be Christians, we have to restructure the culture; conforming not to the world, but conforming the world to Christ. Today’s Christian feels the call—perhaps, like that original Benedictine—to question the received culture, to step forth into the unknown, to seek—like the monks who knock at the monastery door: Christ, and truly Christ alone.
When examining our smartphone habits, why look to Benedict? St. Benedict, living in the chaos of Rome’s downfall, saw that a new polis, a new way of living together, needed to be established—a Christian city built of men and women committed to living as Christians together. Benedict’s Rule has guided a rich monastic tradition ever since and preserved Christian focus on living life in Christ.
Benedict founded his community on three unique vows: stability, obedience, and conversatio morum. The daily task of the Christian and her community is to convert—to change direction—to continually retrain her desires to focus not on her own self and wants and needs, but on God.
In Chapter 6 of Benedict’s Rule, Benedict enjoins the monks to be silent and to seek silence, “on account of the great value of silence, let leave to speak be seldom granted to observant disciples.” (§6). Benedict, however, neglects to extrapolate on what the “great value of silence” is. Two back-to-back chapters on the disposition of the monk in prayer and during the liturgy of the hours reveal the aim of silence. Chapter 20, “On Reverence in Prayer,” commands the monk not expect to “be heard for [much] speaking, but for purity of heart and tears of compunction” (§20). Words are secondary to the interior condition of conversion and honesty that the monk must lay before God. Chapter 19 enjoins the monk to “sing the psalms that mind and voice may be in harmony.” (§19).
For the Benedictine, silence is the discipline whose goal is to bring the interior self (the mind) into harmony with the exterior self (the voice). Thomas Merton, a much-later successor of Benedict, echoes the call to seek this inner harmony in his New Seeds of Contemplation: “Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him” (1).
The practice of the monk, or any contemplative in the heart of the world, is silence. This silence allows the contemplative to dive deeper into her own soul. Silence allows us to reach beyond the world of distraction and illusion—of being a self based upon the demands of the society or technology around us. In silence, we discover our true self—the self that is addressed and shaped not by the demands of our phones, but by the call of the God who loved us into being.
Our smartphones capitalize on our tendency for distraction. They keep us fixed in a shallow sphere of living through their interruptions and notifications, which prevent us from entering into silence. But silence is necessary for entering into an encounter with the true self God made us to be.
In order to meet the living God face-to-face, we must first—to paraphrase C.S. Lewis—know our own faces. To encounter God, we must first encounter our true self as God’s beloved child. It is this encounter—with the God of love who gives us our nature as beloved—that Benedict’s rule aims to create space for in the monastic community.
Silence gives us time to open our eyes to God and God’s creation, to see the world as a sacrament of love that does more than divert our eyes like an Instagram feed, but truly delights us. In silence—in the harmonizing of our interior self with the exterior—we find space to free ourselves from constantly being notified and to pay attention to our neighbor. The human who is constantly interrupted cannot enter into the sacred activity of paying attention, which, Simone Weil writes, is the “substance” of our love of neighbor—of the relationship we long for. By choosing to put the phone back in our pocket, by allowing ourselves to be quiet, we create space to listen to the still, small voice of God—the true joy and delight for whom our distracted, weary hearts long.
We can create this space for silence and attention in small steps—putting our phone in our pockets or bag instead of on the table, turning off notifications, or deleting an app. In a moment of boredom or quiet, we can begin to retrain our restless desires by reaching for a book or rosary instead of the phone.
We are creatures restless, full of hunger for a God who alone can sate us. As we retrain our appetites to thirst for the living God, perhaps our “Benedict Option” this Lent can be to create a monastery in our own hearts, where silence—not the cellphone’s interruption—is the order of the communal day.
This article originally appeared Feb. 28, 2019, at the Register.