Advent is a time for online watchfulness

The end of the liturgical year, the anything-but-quiet waiting weeks of Advent filled with the tug between the contemplative and commercial, the awesome birth of Christ in hearts anew on Christmas night, the first day of the brand new year and the World Day of Peace. . . . There has always been something almost magical about the turn of the year. Children with their excited hope for what Christmas morn will bring and cloistered nuns with their contemplative immersion in the mystery of all Christmas is — and everyone in between — are swept up by something fresh and exciting and innocent in these weeks.

I've been thinking about how much we need this gift particularly at this time, this year. Our hearts have been so beaten and tainted by the mainstreaming of aggressive and violent language. It has infiltrated our hearts and minds through social and news media on our computers and television screens. Then like an unwanted blot of dark ink it has soaked into our conversations and relationships and thoughts and desires and dreams.

Joel Stein makes the case in his article "Tyranny of the Mob" that a culture of aggression and violence is overtaking the web on which we spent a considerable amount of time every day. (It appeared in TIME magazine August 21, 2016, and online under the title "How Trolls Are Ruining the Internet.") I find myself so desensitized to this spewing of opinion couched in degrading language in comments and tweets and in interviews and videos that I scroll right past it without the horror I once had. Years ago I would have said in shock: "What is becoming of us?" Being a witness to this online culture of anger and hateful vitriol may be even more harmful than participating in it.

In the past I've downloaded apps on which I could participate in "conversations" with people who were "not in the pews" and outside our sphere of ministry. I downloaded them in curiosity to see how people were communicating in this social space. I continued it as a ministry. That raw, in-the-moment place of communication was brutally painful to witness. Women who talked about the anniversary of the abortion of their children were told by some to "get over it." A young man who was depressed was encouraged "to go ahead and get it over with." Lovers now lost because a relationship had ended were told "don't bother expecting anything from anyone." This was mild compared to the pervasive and generalized trolling we see today. Trolls play pranks, harass, threaten and attack others' reputations, opinions and beliefs just for laughs. According to Stein, psychologists attribute this to the "online dishibition effect." The anonymity, invisibility, lack of authority and accountability for one's behavior "strip away the mores society spent millennia building." And this is the frightening aspect: "It is seeping from our smartphones into every aspect of our lives."

Today I'll scroll past the most nasty and degrading statements in comments, videos and news stories, barely registering the horror of what one person is doing to another.

It is for this reason that the end of year celebrations of the coming of a child, the Prince of Peace on Earth, are more than ever needed if we are to find once again peace in our own hearts . . . and possibly peace within our communal cultural and social conversations. I've been asking myself: How do I protect myself from the poison of these attitudes? What can I do when I see children repeating what they've heard and read, aiming the arrows of their words at others? What does God want to give us as a gift this new year to help "reset" our social skills? How can I keep a deep spiritual sensitivity of mind and heart so that I live as a citizen of heaven while yet on this Earth? (Philippians 3:20)

The ancient practice of cleansing our thoughts holds a key. This is how I've started practicing this watchfulness in these end-of-year weeks:

1. After my alarm goes off in the morning, I slip back under the covers for a few moments (unless I fall asleep again!). I imagine myself before Jesus washing my feet, or Jesus transfigured on the mountain. Intentionally I turn my inner vision to this place deep within me where I meet Jesus, a place of light. In my room, I remember, angels and saints surround me, cheering me on to my heavenly homeland, telling me they want me with them in heaven, that it is not that hard, that they will help me.

2. During the day I return often to this contemplative and truly "social" space, marked by faith, hope and charity.

3. Watchfulness is the practice of offering each thought to Jesus, immediately after it arises in the mind. "I plunge this thought into your heart, my Jesus." "I offer this plan to you, Jesus." "I show this desire which is angry or jealous or mean-spirited to you, Jesus. Save me."

4. And so the day goes. Little by little I become more attentive to what passes through my mind and to the passionate desires that attach themselves to the thoughts. If I associate them to the Lord, talking to Jesus about what is within my mind and heart, they don't develop into words and reactions and behaviors that are tainted with the insensitivity that seeps into my consciousness through my online life.

At Christmas Jesus seeks to open our hearts to us. He is already there through the graces of Baptism, having taken up residence within us. When we experience the light of a deep communion with him, the purity of thought and intention, the gentleness of respect and word, our hearts are opened to us and we enter into this sacred and truly "social space" that we carry within us.

Watching our minds and hearts, cleansing our thoughts, returns us to the naïveté of the child. Those who see a child, cannot help but soften their own hearts and curb their tongues. They are overtaken by a sense of gentleness and love they can't explain. Perhaps that is why Jesus came to us as child. Perhaps that is the only way we would listen.

[Daughter of St. Paul Sr. Kathryn James Hermes is the author of the best-selling book Surviving Depression: A Catholic Approach as well as a number of other titles. Everything she does or writes has one focus: giving people the tools for joy by radically shifting their focus through Presence. She works with individuals online at pauline.org/heartwork, and her newsletter can be found at pauline.org/sisterkathryn.]

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