Phones are distracting. We all know this. We take steps to mitigate our distraction, like silencing them and turning off notifications. These are aspects over which we have control. Of greater concern is the more insidious aspect of smartphone distraction, the distractions of which we are not aware.
About a year ago, I attended a talk at a conference by Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. He introduced me to the psychological concept of salience, the idea that our brain allocates conscious and unconscious attention to that which is most important in our environment. That with the greatest salience, the most importance, is what receives the greatest part of our attention.
Carr reviewed several studies on the impact of devices on relationships, and his survey revealed that not only were smartphones overtly distracting, with partners reporting a decrease in intimacy and trust correlated with proximity to their phones, but also that the unconscious processing ability of our brains decreases it close proximity to a phone. The nearer a phone (on the table versus in a purse or even in the next room), the more poorly subjects performed on tasks that required sustained and unconscious attention. These effects persist even when the phones are turned off. Our phones sap our ability to be present to one another in ways we are not even aware of, which makes them ways beyond our control. This is why I won’t pray with my phone.
I realize that there are a number of helpful apps and beautiful online ministries, and I don’t mean to discount their value. Especially during the years when I had a long commute, I loved praying along with a recording of the Divine Office or listening to archived talks from Fulton Sheen, or streaming archived talks from Steubenville conferences on Youtube. I still love soaking in the spiritual wisdom of the Blessed Is She podcast, and learning from Nancy at Do Small Things With Love while I wash the dishes. My phone is a great asset when it comes to learning about prayer and living a life of faith, and connecting with the catholic community in the literal sense of the word – universally – across the vast space of the world and even across time. My phone serves many beautiful and inspiring purposes. What it doesn’t help me to do is to be more present.
Presence in Prayer
When we think about making space for prayer, we often associate this with silence. The quiet allows what is inside of us to rise to the surface. This is one reason why silence makes us uncomfortable; when what is inside is painful or difficult, we prefer to mask it with noise and busyness rather than to acknowledge it and enter into it with Jesus. Increasingly, the “noise” of our society is found in the mental clutter, the things that fill our phones and draw our attention. We say we have little time for prayer, but we find ourselves reflexively filling the small, empty moments of the day with Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, and Pinterest. This isn’t wrong; it can even be beautiful. But, if we remember Mary and Martha, we know in our hearts that whatever busyness we fill our lives with, there is something better. If, in the small moments, we choose to take a breath and repeat the name of Jesus over glancing at our feeds, we will be truly fed. This habit also makes stillness in prayer more accessible. When we practice quieting ourselves throughout the day, it becomes much easier to let go of the busyness and be present to prayer in the time we’ve set aside for it.
The Wisdom of Sacramentality
While we certainly can read the Bible or pray the Liturgy of the Hours on our phones, I suspect that the removal of the physical from our prayer lives is more significant that we might suppose. In our postmodern culture, we have a tendency to overly spiritualize our lives, and to denigrate the importance of the material world. Such an attitude is not consistent with the message of the gospel or the teachings of our faith. God created the world good. He himself entered the world and became man. Jesus reaffirmed its goodness by incorporating matter into his miracles, especially his healing. The woman with the hemorrhage was healed by the touch of his garment; he used spit and mud to heal the blind man in the Gospel of Mark. We believe that the beauty of the natural world can draw us out of ourselves and into God. Jesus gave us the Sacraments; the physical signs of bread, wine, water, and oil become conduits of grace. The beads of the Rosary are tangible anchors for a complex and mysterious meditative prayer.
As tools for prayer, smartphones are limited in their ability to substantiate our prayer in ways that speak to our senses. We can read from them, but expose ourselves to many distractions. Because the phone represents so many things, its mere presence doesn’t call us to prayer. Perhaps the greatest strength of the smartphone as a tool for prayer is its ability to help us pray with worship music or join in recorded recited prayers, and so involve our senses. In deference to the wisdom of our Tradition, I choose physical Scriptures, prayer books, and journals. They serve to cement the reality of my spiritual practices in the space of my home as well as in my memory.
Encountering Christ in the Other
One of the most heartbreaking side effects of smartphones is when we are engaged not in the presence of one another, but in our screens. One of the most powerful ways we encounter, love, and serve Christ is in our fellow human beings. Loved ones, coworkers, strangers on the street, the bagger at the grocery store – this is where Jesus shows up, asking to be fed. How can we recognize this when we don’t even stop to look one another in the eyes? The disciples on the road to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus, and they walked and spoke with him for miles. In every encounter, we have the opportunity to pray, to be present to the one in front of us as Mary was with Jesus. How often do we let this opportunity slide by? Certainly, we can be serving God joyfully online, but when we put the screen between ourselves and the one before us, we overlook Christ in his most pressing form. The screen can wait; the present is here but a moment.
We want to be more present to God and to one another, but we live in a culture saturated in technology. What can we do? For those of us not ready for a complete phone-fast or withdrawal from the virtual world, there are some less drastic measures we can take to limit the distracting powers of our phones. We can observe ourselves and assess our phone use with the attentiveness of an examination of conscience. Which apps are life-giving, and which drain us? Are we tempted to mask pain or loneliness with the phone, rather than turning to Jesus? Does the use of the phone turn us inward, or draw us out of ourselves in service of the other? We can delete apps that are problematic for us, and turn off notifications to lessen distractions. At home, work, or social gatherings, we can keep our phones stored away, turn on “do not disturb” for a phone Sabbath. We can leave the phone in the car during Mass and Adoration. Leaving it behind frees our minds to be fully present, and rarely is there anything so pressing that it can’t wait an hour. Really, that is the question it comes down to: to whom do we give our attention? Jesus tells us, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock,” (Rev. 3:20). Can we even hear him?