The Flicker of the Screen

Is the Biggest Threat to Contemplation Hiding in Our Pockets?

For if there is no dark night of the soul anymore that isn’t lit with the flicker of the screen, then there is no morning of hopefulness either.

The above quotation comes from a fascinating, and I believe vitally important, article by Andrew Sullivan, called I Used to Be A Human Being. Originally published in New York magazine, it’s long for an internet article (7000 words) — but read it anyway. Take the time. Savor the beautiful language, the keen insight, but most important of all, it’s vital and challenging message.

This is a topic that has been on my mind for a while. I have a commitment to daily silence, which by the grace of God I manage to observe. But I’m also in the thrall of my iPhone, let alone my MacBook Pro. And I’m increasingly aware of the disconnect between these two behaviors.

I’m not a luddite, and I don’t think we need to take sledgehammers to our technology — at least, I haven’t gone there yet. But Sullivan suggests that many people are now spending upwards of five hours online every day. Five hours! Every day!

What would it look like if instead of spending five hours online — and just ten or twenty minutes in a kind of hazy, distracted silence — we decided to divide the time up more evenly: no more than two or two-and-a-half hours online, with just as much time given to silence and/or lectio divina and/or liturgical prayer? Would we really miss those extra three hours online? Would we really miss the ranting about Trump or Clinton or Pope Francisshutterstock_232845250, or for that matter, the silly cat videos (yes, I love those too, but really, they’re just little moments of amusement, necessary to help us deal with all the ranting)? Do we really need to see everyone’s vacation pictures on Facebook? Does it really matter that Brad and Angelina are getting a divorce, or that Jimmy Fallon ruffled up the Donald’s hair?

What if we just slowed down — I’m not saying eliminate, just slow down — the rate of our online consumption of “content,” and gave that time to prayer, to contemplation, to silence instead?

This is something I am seriously praying about, and I invite you to pray along with me. For me, it might mean less new posts on my blog, and more reliance on automated services to keep Twitter and Facebook happy in my absence. It might mean a “technology Sabbath,” where one day a week all the electronic devices remain dark for twenty-four hours. It might mean using the feature on Scrivener to block social media for several hours at a time so I can remain more focused, more present, as I write — whether for online publication or for a forthcoming book.

Each one of us has a different relationship with the online world — and with silence. I’m assuming if you are reading my blog, you, like me, are drawn to both. So be it. But here’s my question: what would life look like, if we made a radical commitment to a 50/50 split: for every minute we spend online, on Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Youtube, Huffington Post, or wherever, we devoted the same amount of time each day to silence, to prayer, or to lectio? Not in a juridical sense, but in a spiritual, life-giving way: a generous commitment to prayer that matches our online-content-consumption.

Julian of Norwich counsels us to be generous in prayer, and generous in trusting God. Can we trust God — and life — enough to limit our online consumption, so that we can be truly generous in the time we give to prayer?

Will you ponder this question with me? And share your thoughts, if you are so inclined.

Thank you, and God bless!

 

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

A word from Carl: Thank you for posting your constructive comment. The goal of this blog is to encourage people to pray. Therefore, I invite you to pray before you submit a post. Please note, I will delete any comments that are offensive, abusive, off-topic, or spam.

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10 thoughts on “The Flicker of the Screen

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful article, Carl. I too, struggle with finding balance between online and solitude. Since I work from home in a role that involves a lot of daily online presence and research–it is far too easy to ‘just take a minute’ to check Facebook, or personal email, or, or, or–just a moment, extending itself into a considerably more time than I planned to spend.

    Your blog post encourages me to be more prayerful while being more mindful of the wasted “moments” spent online.

  2. I’ve been increasingly troubled by this too. Even though I don’t do social media (and find that choice cuts me out of some folks’ lives), or play games, and rarely watch a video… still I spend too much time online. For every online convenience, such as shopping and bill-paying, it seems there’s the price to pay of endlessly deleting or unsubscribing to unwanted emails. Just logging on to do purposeful work (church-related research and public relations, or personal writing) doesn’t mean there won’t be distractions: It is easy to get caught up in news loaded with links to more news, or sidetracked by exploring interesting sites when in search of specific information. Yours is a good idea. I need to combat the false sense of urgency that comes with being online and realizing gosh, my inbox has filled up again, just have to clear it out one more time, etc. There’s nothing that can’t wait.

  3. I was pondering my own overuse of my online connections today. While ignoring the call to meditate, I was scanning through my phone .
    Ironically I saw your posting as I was perusing. How very apt and how much I really wanted my silent time. Why did I wait ? I am thrilled by the challenge you pose . I accept . Thank you ,dear Sir.

  4. Personally I think the point ought simply to be ” do we spend enough time talking to God or contemplating God , or do we make excuses and allow distractions to stop us” ; If it were not the non constructive online time we allow as a distraction it may be , mindless or senseless…… shopping /gossip/ eating/TV watching /reading ..etc.
    As a military spouse who is also an immigrant and therefore I have friends and family overseas and around the country that I no longer see personally my online time and Face Book time is actually very constructive. Yes I do need to share there because these are connections with people that I would otherwise not keep in touch with because I would only have limited time to write letters and send a photo or 2 to a few chosen close people. The point in all things should be self control and THAT is really what is lacking these days .
    Reading your blog is in-fact a recommendation by my Spiritual Director so it is constructive online time I hope.

    • I certainly didn’t mean to imply that social media or other online tools are bad! Just that it’s easy for some people (like me) to get out of balance with it. I certainly have been blessed by many new, old, and restored relationships that have been facilitated by social media. Your point is well taken: the key here is balance, and limiting whatever distractions might hinder us from prayer. Thank you.