I can remember not too many years ago sitting for hours at a time in silent prayer. Saturday evenings or Sunday afternoons were often the cherished opportunity I had to nourish my inner life. I read, pondered and prayed.
During those years, my apostolic assignment required full attention to one thing at a time. Even though I was juggling a number of responsibilities, I could list them in a long to-do list and check each item off as I did it. I went on the internet to look up information, and I closed it when my search was done. I picked up a stack of books and went off to a quiet part of the convent to write an article or create a presentation.
Between those years and today, Google came of age. I laugh when I remember the slow speed at which information was gathered and shared in the early '90s, when I was an editor for one of our monthly magazines. After taking notes on information from a number of print sources available to us, we wrote a letter to a prospective author. Then we filed a copy of the letter. Waited for a response. Filed it. Wrote a response. Filed it. Sent a contract. Filed it. Signed the final contract. Filed it. Of course we could speed up the process by making phone calls. These, too, however, had to be followed up by written communication that was later filed. This could take 10 to 20 days, depending on the complexity of the topic and the distance the letters were mailed.
Today this process is both condensed and accelerated. Instead of a monthly magazine, the digital marketing department here at Pauline Books and Media has a newsletter emailed two times a week (and there are three other smaller newsletters that are biweekly). Instead of days of planning and communication, one long planning day per quarter, followed up by countless email communications to keep simultaneous writing projects connected with social media components with quick deadlines on track, is more the norm. Instead of long interesting research trips to the library, I can scour through websites turned up in Google searches and quickly obtain more information in half an hour than I ever obtained through reading magazines in a library.
I noticed not long ago that sitting still for long hours (or even a few short minutes!) had become an unpleasant and grueling struggle. There are some good reasons why this is so. Habitual internet use has been shown to impair brain structure and function. Brain scans indicate that media multi-tasking leads to lower grey matter volume in the prefrontal region involved in decision making and goal-directed behavior. Ilia Delio put her finger on my experience in her article "Can a Renewal of Inner Space Help Heal the Earth?" I read a lot more today than I did 10 years ago, but reading in "Googleland" causes my focus and attention to narrow, since skimming webpages requires more logic and analysis than transcendence, curiosity or creativity. As a result, Delio says, "our souls are not at rest; we cannot find the peace we long for."
One day as I sat in chapel, uneasy and fighting the temptation to get up and just leave to work, to eat, to sleep, to do anything else but pray, I knew I wasn't enduring the dark night of the soul. Nor was I in the full throes of an addiction. I spend my days quickly moving between 30 or 40 open computer tabs, managing multiple digital conversations and projects, but in chapel I keep company in prayer with a God whose language is often silence. I was having "withdrawal" symptoms.
Technology can lead to efficient work, but it can also impair the soul. As Delio states, "The power of newness comes from within. … The inner universe is still a vast expanse of infinite love and life." My heart longed to soar, but my computer habits had clipped my inner wings. A little exercise has been helpful in setting me free to explore the inner life once more; you may find it a help in your own spiritual journey in this computer age.
- Find a quiet place and a period of time that would be longer than you normally give to prayer or quiet reading.
- Spend some time listening to your mind and your body: what do you want this half hour to be? What do you want to experience? What are you experiencing? Where are you holding tension? What are your places of resistance? It is important to bring to conscious awareness the way your body carries the illness of the modern mind that has been deprived of a healthy immersion in silence and solitude.
- Allow yourself to feel fully what you are experiencing as you place before you what you want to have happen.
- Imagine yourself as a speck within the Son who is bowing in ecstatic surrender to the Father. Allow yourself to be taken up on the wave of his obedient Love to his Father. Ask Jesus to show you what prevents your becoming completely transformed in him and like him in all things. Take careful note of the one thing you hear or the image you see at this point.
- One by one "turn the lights off," as it were, in each of your physical senses and your spiritual faculties. You could pray, "I do not need to see anything, I only need to love. I do not need to hear anything, I only need to love. I do not need to taste anything, I only need to love. I do not need to think anything … imagine anything … desire anything … strive for anything … I only need to love you, Jesus."
- In that very quiet, very silent place of immense solitude, where the mystery of God flows into your own mystery, where the Father and Son and Spirit take up residence in your heart, simply rest. Allow God to rest also, to make of your soul his temple, his heaven.
- Keep your eyes turned to him. Silence again your senses and faculties. You do not need to feel anything, only to believe, a blind unfeeling belief in God's love and in his residence within you.
Various studies show that the practice of mindfulness actually reverses the loss of gray matter and breaks the feel-good loop caused by use of cell phones and internet. Although mindfulness can be a healthy and helpful mental practice, for us Christians — as temples of the Trinity — mindfulness is not a goal. The prayer exercise presented above incorporates the focus and centering that is a part of our own spiritual tradition into the larger movement in which we, in Christ, adore the Father, surrender all to him and love him in worshipful obedience. It is a simple support for us as we begin to reclaim our inner universe.
[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. She works with individuals online at pauline.org/heartwork, and her newsletter can be found at pauline.org/sisterkathryn.]