How Powering Down Your Phone Can Help You Dial Up God

COMMENTARY

(photo: Shutterstock)

Our Ukrainian Catholic pastor used to say that he wanted to collect everybody’s phones for Lent. He had had enough of phones disrupting the Divine Liturgy. One lady in particular should have really changed her ringtone to match the consecration bells.

“But people can’t live without their phones,” I told my priest.

“I mean, how else do you know if it’s raining?”

But I get his point. We’re already surrounded by electronics at home, and then somebody goes and invents one that does everything your home electronics do and you can take it with you. Everywhere.

If Jesus were to walk the earth today, he’d have a new saying, “The phone you will always have with you; me you will not always have.”

Is it true that you can’t live without your cellphone? Nearly half of Americans think so.

A 2015 Pew Research study found that 46%, given a choice between “not always needed” and “can’t live without,” chose the latter. So, should we resist the internet, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat says, or use it wisely?

When you get to the stage where you can’t live without your phone — or other gadget — I question whether you’re really living. While I have no desire to return to the days of knocking on doors in a strange neighborhood with a train of small children when the car overheated, I often long for the inaccessibility that stepping out of the house once provided. Now, there is no conversation, no activity that cannot easily be interrupted with a call, text or sudden urge to google.

Overuse is taking its toll on person-to-person communication. You see people eating at a restaurant ignoring the person across the table, everyone immersed in their phones. You see people taking walks side by side talking on their phones or texting other people. I once witnessed a gang of teenagers provoke a fight with two perfect strangers so that they could film it and put it on YouTube.

Why are people so dependent on their phones? Besides the random need to play a game, watch a movie, post a selfie, check the weather app, shop, get directions, listen to music, text a friend, get some work done, check email, or unleash a tirade against this article, why would you want to immerse yourself in a substitute reality? Why would you want to connect with people and a reality that may or may not exist, while ignoring people and the reality which surround you? Why are so many people looking for something better than the reality they are in?

I think it’s the desire to pray.

This concept that there’s a better reality, an untapped power, a limitless potential, an ultimate satisfaction, a connection with the great beyond happens to be hardwired in us. We long to transcend our limited, fallen reality because we were made to transcend it. We are meant to behold the universe, to see beyond — to communicate with God.

Which reminds me: We are not the first generation to respond to this longing by falling under the spell of an electronic device. Not by accident was early television called a miracle. The German language renders watching TV fernsehen (“far seeing”). In this context, its players are aptly called stars.

Previous generations could only escape to this substitute reality. This generation now has the capacity to insert itself in the quest of its own stardom, its own form of immortality, or at least a degree of validation in the form of “likes.”

Electronics didn’t cause the problem. Blaise Pascal wrote of it in 1654 or thereabouts.

“Men are unhappy because they require constant diversion” (Pensees, 139). I can’t help but think, though, that in Pascal’s day, reality had a way of asserting itself anyway. How bad could the divertissement he spoke of have been? You couldn’t devote a great portion of your day to it and live long.

We aren’t dying here from over-electronic use, but many aren’t truly living either. With diversion literally at our fingertips, we as a culture are losing touch with each other and with God. What happens when you are bereft of a real relationship, ultimately prayer? You fill in the gap with something else. You don’t pray; you “send thoughts,” as if they’ll emit positive energy into the universe or something. This substitute reality seems to bear it out. You can type your thoughts into your device, and the receiver can read them. This is fine to a degree, but have you ever checked email or Facebook with a vague hope that God had personal messaged (PM) you?

While a need for transcendence may spark our electronics use, using those means to find it is the surest way to zap that spark into the earth like lightning down a rod, diffusing its strength and energy.

The only way to get in touch with reality is to power down the substitute. This will take different methods for different people. Some will regain control just by keeping the phone put away in a purse or glove box. Others will need a more radical approach, like my pastor said, kind of like how devout drinkers used to “take the pledge” during Lent so that they’d recover some of their devotion to God.

Archbishop Fulton Sheen used to urge a daily Holy Hour — one hour of uninterrupted complete and utter silence before the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. This is essential for priests and religious, but for laypeople, quiet time with God is also a must. It must be uninterrupted, perhaps reading Scripture, but without talking, listening for the word of God. In the silence, God speaks. It has a way of reorienting the person to the things that are real — first to his relationship to God, that ultimate reality, then to his relationship with the other people God has set before his eyes. I have been doing it for years and can say that if you’ve ever longed for a PM from God, you will find one there.

Susie Lloyd writes from

Whitehall, Pennsylvania.

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito says of discerning one’s college choice, ‘There has to be something that tugs at you and makes you want to investigate it further. And then the personal encounter comes in the form of a visit or a chat with a student or alumnus who communicates with the same enthusiasm or energy about the place. And then that love of a place can be a seed which germinates in your own heart through prayer.’

Choose a College With a Discerning Mind and Heart

Cistercian Father Thomas Esposito, assistant professor of theology at the University of Dallas (UD) and subprior (and former vocations director) of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Dallas, drew from his experience as both a student and now monastic religious to help those discerning understand the parallels between religious and college discernment.