“God brings forth His Son in thee, whether thou likest it or not, whether thou sleepest or wakest; God worketh His own will. That man is unaware of it is man’s fault, for his taste is so spoilt by feeding on earthly things that he cannot relish God’s love”. The above quote was written by German philosopher and Dominican friar Meister Eckhart in the early 13th century. While the language seems outdated in the modern context, the sentiments I think can be seen today. Nowadays our culture today can be at times dominated by distraction. We live in a world of Instagram and Snapchat. The names of these social media apps suggest their somewhat demanding nature. While communication is a vital part of the human experience, consistent demands can move beyond communication to distraction if not managed. Distraction from what? From relishing God’s love?
Our phones and these apps are part of the culture and great ways to connect people, but they can become a distraction. There is a temptation to be consistently distracted by something new, some new idea, some new picture, some new trend, new video, or the million other ways we can be distracted into our phone. Getting so used to the stimulation we get from scrolling can make a more slow-moving experience like silence and prayer almost unbearable because it doesn’t happen quick enough, or we can’t press a button to speed it up.
We live in a culture that has the potential to be dominated by social media, internet news, and the offer of online sales every five minutes, and all of this is fed through the small little device in our hands. All of these communications create desires in us and then offer ways to fulfil that desire. As the philosopher, Aristotle once noted, “It is the nature of desire to be satisfied, and most human beings live only for the gratification of it.”
A question that I found myself sitting with lately is, how free am I from my phone? As I reflected on my phone use, I noticed how I would check the news, or the football transfer market, or look to see if there were any good deals in some of my favourite shops. I felt the temptation to buy more books even though I still have some I have not got round to reading. I then noticed videos like Tik Tok, how entertaining and creative some are, but they last maybe thirty seconds, so I scroll to the next video. Before I know it I am thinking that even spending time viewing a video of more than a few minutes feels long. The need for something new, something immediate, is growing. It is like an automatic response to pick up the phone, check for messages, or browse. Then I noticed how draining this can be after some time and that I generally felt tired after a period of browsing.
The question then evolved into what drives this, how much time am I spending fulfilling the desire or craving rather than freely relishing life? What am I missing? How at ease am I without checking my phone? These instant ‘hits’ from social media, and advertisements via my phone seem so all-encompassing and they continuously produce a desire that cannot fully be satisfied. If this is the case, then life can become an attempt to fulfil or gratify a never-ending desire. What and how is this changing me? This is how Meister Eckhart’s quote came to life for me. I question, have we, in our technological advancement, made our senses so spoiled that our ability to relish God’s love is diminishing with the never-ending distraction of our phone?
I have learned, from working with young people, that the notion of silence makes no sense to them. It’s almost like they see it as not only counterproductive to advancing in happiness, but also as a waste of valuable time in that pursuit. It makes the experience of simply relishing God’s love, in the way that it can emerge in silence and prayer, nearly impossible. Silence becomes something to be evaded because it not only emerges as something that seems unproductive but something that leaves a person at a level of discomfort because of a longing for distraction.
Psychologist and spiritual writer Gerald May wrote, “Saint Augustine once said that God is always trying to give good things to us, but our hands are too full to receive them. If our hands are full, they are full of the things to which we are addicted. And not only our hands but also our hearts, minds, and attention are clogged with addiction. Our addictions fill up the spaces within us, spaces where grace might flow.” May uses the word ‘addiction’, which we tend to think of in the context of substance abuse. But he mainly characterises it as a loss of freedom. The word ‘addiction’ seems hard, so maybe another word to consider here is ‘attachment’.
I use my own phone too much. Recently a parishioner observed me on the phone, whilst out for my walk and reminded me with kindness, to leave the phone at home!! I think the notion of our hands being too full to notice the grace given us has never been so apt. Phones and media are essential, they connect us, and we have been particularly grateful for them in our recent lockdowns. But my lockdown experience and use of my phone and media has caused me to ponder. I ask the question, is it possible that our attachment to our phones and their accompanying distractions has filled up our minds, hearts, and spaces where grace might otherwise flow? In our significant advancements in technology, have we become poor in our spirit?
In the midst of all this distraction, how can we properly hear spiritual or theological ideas which require time for attention, reflection, and consideration, before they blossom into something more profound? A challenge is to notice or become aware if your phone is becoming something you have to have rather than something you can take or leave. Are your hands too full to see the gifts God wants to give you? This question has challenged me, and in this struggle, I have found an invitation from God to go deeper, an invitation to move into silence and allow God to speak.