[A piece from 2011]
I recently found myself at the beach for a few days between weekend visitations. As the last person in North America without a cell phone, I was astonished by the number of people walking along the ocean with a cell phone glued to their ears. Why? WHY???? One afternoon I was on a hotel treadmill overlooking the swimming pool, trying to keep weight and heart disease at bay. A young couple in bathing suits sat together poolside. The young man paid no attention to his wife or girlfriend, but had a computer on his lap and a cell phone at his ear. Why bother with the pool? Meanwhile cell phones – or, more precisely, people with their cell phones — invade more and more previously quiet places. Have you tried to read in an airport waiting area anytime in the last ten years? I dread any easy and inexpensive cell phone access on airplanes: being trapped next to a cell phone yakker for hours on a plane strikes me as something close to sublunary hell.
The problem changes as phones become ‘smart’. I recently was at lunch with four younger friends, lawyers all. At one point all four of them were mutely punching buttons on their phones. I asked them to please put down their devices. Sometimes I suppose the attractions of virtual living or of digital information or communication may be greater than those of real people. I hope such occasions don’t often coincide with my presence. Of course these devices have their uses. At another lunch a couple of years ago, when the U.S. government was complaining about Russian behavior in the Caucasus, I wondered aloud why we were helping Muslim Caucasians in a fuss with Orthodox Christian Russians. About 90 seconds later one of the lunchers informed us that 62% (or some such figure) of the Caucasians in question were Orthodox Christians. Haverland needed to stop grumbling. At least smart phones allow their users to amuse themselves without intruding into the quiet of others. But discreet and discrete uses do not excuse general abuse.
Many forms of meditation and prayer begin with ‘recollection’. By recollection the praying person recalls himself to reality: that we stand before God in whom we live and move and have our being. By recollection we remember that we are – always and utterly and whether we acknowledge it or not – in God’s presence. God is always present: the question is only whether or not we remember that fundamental, all important fact. Recollection is the remembrance of what is and is truly important. That basic beginning point then leads into other kinds of prayer. When we remember that we stand before God, whose glory we so often ignore and whose call we so often slight, then we quickly are brought to confession. When we remember the splendor of the Lord with whom we have to deal, we come to adoration and praise. When we remember that all good comes from God, we gratefully turn to supplication and intercession. When we acknowledge to ourselves that we cannot always live at a high pitch of consciousness of God’s presence, we nonetheless make resolutions and perhaps depart from conscious and deliberate prayer into prayer of another, more habitual, less direct kind.
The modern world, whose blessings and conveniences I love and use and am grateful for, has its great dangers. One of the chief of these dangers is distraction. Perhaps the chief entertainment available to pre-modern men and women, apart from converse with friends and family, was public worship: the spectacle of the liturgy, the beauty of liturgical music, and the rhetoric of preaching. As alternative entertainments came along – the press, the stage, the concert, then radio, cinema, and television – we became increasingly distracted and in need of recollection. The widespread availability of computers and the Internet has radicalized the problem of distraction and increased the fragmentation of our society. In some ways the new technology gives individuals more control over the content of the distractions to which we are subject – for good and for ill. But the areas of quiet and of freedom from distraction seem to shrink.
We can and should choose to control and limit the sources of distraction in our lives. Most of us cannot simply abandon the technologies which are available to us, but we should resist their abuse and limit their distracting powers. Unplug and turn off for Morning Prayer and for daily intercessions and for meals with your family. Enjoy real, not merely virtual, community and people. Cultivate friendship and the quiet presence and conversation which friendship requires. Recollect yourself in silence. Meet God in a place of calm which you will have to work to build around yourself. Then, perhaps, if you must, turn your phone back on.