Joy and Hope
February 20, 2010
Easing up on technology could be sacrifice for Lent
In preparation for the Ash Wednesday, the local newspaper called me for some comments about the significance of Ash Wednesday and Lent. This is an annual story so a journalist is always challenged to search for a new angle.
The journalist cleverly latched onto the recent comments of the Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, encouraging priests to engage the new social media technology and start blogging. She thought these remarks appeared incongruent with my Lenten admonition to limit one’s use of these technologies. The text from the Lenten instruction follows: “Other forms of ‘fasting,’ especially regarding alcoholic drink, needless television, video games, Internet use and social entertainment is of true spiritual value and is strongly encouraged.” In the interview, the journalist wanted to know how I reconciled this with the pope’s statement. Many of you, no doubt, will have seen the story by now.
As I write the column, I have not yet seen the article so this is not a reaction to it. The interview got me thinking about Lent and I am using this space to continue my reflection.
I am sure many of us have become fairly dependent on technology. We see it all around us. I have fumed behind the wheel while a pedestrian thoughtfully pauses in the crosswalk attentively tuned to the cell phone in hand. I have gazed bewildered at the young parent chatting on the cell while spending quality time with the children in the park.
Remember when cell phones first appeared, we were all very concerned for the poor individuals in airports who were talking to themselves, wildly gesticulating their hands. We have all sat perturbed alongside people who believed that cell phones operated like the old tin cans and string, speaking loud enough so that the sound made it all the way to Des Moines. We are accustomed to all this now. We may do it ourselves. I still look for a quiet place to have a telephone conversation. I must be old-fashioned.
Social media technology has become pervasive. At a rock music concert a generation ago, folks would have taken out a BIC lighter during some dramatic music moment. Now they take out their cell phones, illuminating the arena with the glow of thousands of tiny plasma screens. You can be sure that, nowadays, while many are enjoying a concert they are texting, updating their Facebook, Twittering, clicking photos, and letting some distant friend listen in on their favorite song.
Sitting in meetings with other bishops, I am amused by the variety of ring tones used by my brothers that interrupt the meetings: a few bars of Puccini, Verdi, a blast from the Tijuana Brass, something that sounds like an old Trimline rotary telephone, a crashing orchestral crescendo from Beethoven, or a crooning melody from Elvis.
To even call the devices “cell phones” has perhaps become a fond nostalgic anachronism. My device has all my appointments, contacts, e-mails, text messages, and even a few poor attempts to use the camera. I can access the Internet to find out where I am and what it will take to get me where I’m going. My service provider is nagging me to get a new phone. Every time I call with a question, I get the same routine: “You know; you are eligible for a new phone.” My response: “The one I’m using is still working.” In my case, I seldom use the phone as a phone. I use it for all its other functions. So, why do I call it a phone?
All of these point to a pervasive need to stay connected. It also raises an even more pervasive question: To what are we connected? Lent is a holy season when we all should ask ourselves that question: To what or to whom am I most connected? There is no doubt that technology has the potential for much good. It also has the potential to do harm. It is a tool. Like any tool, we must know how to use it properly. All these communication devices can distract us. Being so plugged in can disconnect us from being tuned in to what is happening in our hearts and in our homes.
When I visited homes as a parish priest, it unsettled me the number of occasions when I found homes where everyone was watching television, each in one’s own room. It was a sad irony. Isolation was caused by too many communication devices in a house. Add to this ironic innovation the contemporary array of communication devices, cell phones, computers, MP3 players, etc. I recently read that there are 26 electronic communication and media devices in the average home.
The holy days of Lent are a good time for all of us to reexamine how we use technology to make better connections with our families, our friends, our God, and ourselves. That may mean less time on Facebook and more face time with our family and friends. It could also mean exploring how these technologies can help us learn about our Catholic faith, study Scripture, engage in fellowship, and even pray.
During this Lent, the fundamental admonition is to connect with the Body of Christ through prayer, fasting and works of charity. Through the centuries, the church has encouraged these ascetic practices not simply as ways of “giving-up.” They are also important ways of connecting to Christ and to the other members of Christ’s mystical body, the church.
Our fasting and abstinence should give us a feeling of hunger. Through a momentary pang of hunger we can connect with those who daily live with hunger, in their bodies and in their souls. Works of charity offer us the grace of solidarity. In charity we make part of our human network the many people forgotten by the media networks. Fasting and charity will also connect us to the Lord Jesus. He chose to connect with us by emptying himself and “becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.7-8) Our Lenten works connect us to his saving work on Calvary.
Together with prayer, our fasting and works of charity can become powerful communication tools, uniting us more closely to the “one body and one Spirit, as you were also called to the one hope of your call; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Eph. 4.4-6)
Let us pray for one another that this may be so.