Mar 30, 2017
I have had a few “Twilight Zone” moments in my life. One occurred about seven years ago at a dinner to which I was invited. There were four tables of ten, and the attendees were 31 adults and 9 teenagers. The tables of ten were tight, so the hosts had to decide which adult would sit with the 9 teenagers. Since I was then head of a school of some 410 teenagers, they decided I was the logical choice.
At this table, I entered the Twilight Zone. There I was with nine persons, each holding a smartphone in their hands, their eyes focused on the glowing screens while their fingers and thumbs tapped out messages. Not a word was spoken. Were they texting each other or some other persons… here in Saint Louis, across the country, across the globe? Were they saying, “Why on earth did they stick this guy with us?” This went on for what seemed a very long time until a young man who went to DeSmet Jesuit High School took pity and spoke to me. But during the entire dinner, texting was their default mode of communication.
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to meet with some other teenagers. I asked them, “What is the biggest thing that gets between you and God?” I expected to hear things like doubt, sex, anxiety over the future, lack of trust, all those kinds of things that people commonly wrestle with and which prevent a closeness from developing with a loving God. But to my surprise, the most common answer was “my phone.” I certainly had not expected that.
It’s hard to imagine life without the phone. A century ago people used to write letters, definitely a dying art today. You could post a letter in the morning, have it delivered and get a response by late afternoon. The phone was a great invention; instant communication. Almost every household had one phone by the 1950’s; if you had a party line, you learned how long some people could engage in conversation! The first cell phones were bulky and a mixed blessing; work could reach you anywhere, any time. But today smartphones, which have largely replaced landline phones, are hardly used for talking. They are primarily computers and people text… C U L8R… YOLO… Y R U L8?… OMG. No need for small talk. Of course, there are emojis to add a human element, but communication has somehow become less personal and less face-to-face today.
Conversation – the sharing of news, thoughts, ideas and emotions and the discussion thereof – has become a dying art.
You may remember: “There is a fifth dimension beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” Perhaps we have arrived there. If I want to say something to you, I can say it to Siri (in as few words as possible) who will turn it into a text or email and send it to you, and I don’t have to be distracted by your response. I’ll get around to it… whenever. And you can use your imagination to interpret my message.
One evening, I was talking to a student in front of the Priory School. The phone in his pocket rang. He took it out, looked at the screen and said, “It’s just my mother.” And he put the phone back in his pocket. Call not accepted. We can now screen people out of our lives whenever we want. That can become a habit and easily impact our relationship with God. Obviously, it is doing so with some people.
First and foremost, God is a person, in fact, the most personal of persons. His whole essence is love and communication. Salvation history is the story of God communicating his love. The deep relationship between God and mystics like Saint Francis of Assisi and St. Teresa of Avila, is all about love and communication. Prayer is communication with God.
As far as I know, God neither accepts nor sends texts. Nor does he tweet or Instagram. He silently inspires when we take the time to notice when and how he communicates when we pray and listen. How will God get through to us if our modes of communication are so electronic? How do we send him a message “I luv u” or “I need u” if not through heartfelt prayer?
The smartphone can be used for prayer, like a prayer book. There are several useful apps. Even I have such an app. But it does not, like a text exchange, provide instant feedback and gratification; it requires time, concentration and attention.
It is that aspect… attention… which the smartphone and texting diminishes. Real attention to a person registers and responds to moods, tone of voice, nuance, facial expression, body language, a whole other universe of communication beyond the combination of alphabetic characters which make up texts. God has his way of communicating this universe to us.
The smartphone is but one key to a virtual world, but perhaps not a virtuous world. We must work hard to use it to unlock potentials of the real world. That has always been the human task. The world is always turning and developing. (That old soap opera ran on TV for 54 years but no more). Old stories and technologies disappear and new ones arise. How do we use them in a human way? How do we control them and not allow them to control us? How do we use them to bring us closer together and not allow them to drive us apart? How do we use them so they do not get between us and God? God is not in our imagination. God is real goodness, beauty, truth - and the truth will set us free.