In 1532, Thomas More resigned his position as Lord Chancellor of England because he refused to take the Oath of Supremacy acknowledging Henry VIII as the Supreme Head of the Church in England. In Robert Bolt’s play, “Man for All Seasons,” on hearing of her husband’s resignation, Alice scornfully asks: “What will you do now – sit by the fire and make goslings in the ash?”
To which More replies: “Not at all, Alice, I expect I’ll write a bit. I’ll read, I’ll think. I think I’ll learn to fish! I’ll play with my grandchildren – when son Roper’s done his duty. Alice, shall I teach you to read?” What a waste of time, she thought.
While in prison awaiting his execution, the future martyr-saint had a great deal of time to think.
The Wonders of Electronics
Without electronics, the world would screech to a halt. Words fail to describe the wonders that the electronic age has wrought for communication, science and medicine, for economics, homeland security, and law enforcement. Today with cell phones, parents can monitor their children’s safety. Educators anticipate the time when every child in third world countries will own a computer and a cell phone. Every day, electronics offer new possibilities for human progress, and we are all their beneficiaries.
If only . . . What if . . .
In 1720, after traveling with his employer, Prince Leopold to provide music for his entourage, J.S. Bach returned home to find that his wife, Maria Barbara, had died and had been buried! Such an unthinkable tragedy could not happen today. Had computers been available to Thomas Aquinas, he might have left us more summas than we already have. Had computers been available to Beethoven’s copyists, they would have been spared the pain of deciphering the composer’s scribble and his verbal abuse.
Warnings for Our Young People
Not everything is rosy in the electronic age. Recent warnings state that mobile devices have become an addiction, especially for our young people. Moderate use is not the issue. Excessive use interferes with how they relate, or do not relate, to one another. When an individual cannot forego one hour without networking, addictive behavior is near.
Parents are worried because it is so difficult to extricate their children from their hand-held gadgets. When they should be doing their homework, when they should be reading good literature, when they should be playing outdoors, they are “tethered” to their machines, always “on,” always ready to be used.
Networking, not the telephone, is the communication for them. This is where our young people can connect with the world, but on their own terms. Instead of making real friends face to face, exchanging ideas through listening and responding with words, feelings, and actions, they make virtual friends with strangers. Technology makes it easy to control how and when they communicate with others or if they wish to communicate with them. Texting and tweeting require a minimum of explanation and a minimum of civility or courtesy. Networking “offers the illusion of companionship without the demands of intimacy and communication but without emotional risks” (Michiko Kakutani in “’Friends’ Without a Personal Touch” (The New York Times, February 11, 2011).
Adults and Electronics
Nor are adults blameless in this regard. Children complain that their parents are preoccupied with their own electronics. It is virtually impossible to travel without someone’s private phone conversation intruding on public space. Collective exasperation and outcry are sounding their crescendo. People in local cafes, mothers pushing baby carriages, pedestrians walking their dogs – many are using cell phones. If you have lunch with a friend, most likely the cell phone is on, and it will ring. Hand-held devices are in use at Sunday Mass, presumably because the homily is boring. “Public space isn’t what it used to be,” and “the centuries-old walls between what’s considered private and what’s considered public are crumbling” (Stephanie Rosenbloom, “Bad Manners Are in the Air,” (New York Times, November 3, 2013). What has happened to the dictum of Emily Post that etiquette, both at home or while traveling, does nothing that can annoy or offend the sensibilities of others?
Personal Space and Silence
Excessive use of electronics interferes with activities of the mind and heart, and on one’s ability to be alone. Time spent alone is essential because what we say to ourselves is more important than what we say to others. If we are tethered to electronics – and this includes radio and television, how can we listen to the voice deep inside praising, encouraging, or admonishing us? Fear of loneliness, fear of being alone is a neurosis spreading across swaths of age groups. Loneliness is a defeat, solitude, a triumph.
Silence brings its own power. But it can also be resisted. Silence can disturb. For many, it is noise. Whereas noise competes with reflection, silence invites it. Today, external silence seems to be a luxury; noise, the norm. But quiet time is still possible to find if the desire to do so is there. What little external silence exists should not be snuffed out by using mobile devices.
Prayer and the Daily Examen
Addiction to electronics has made inroads into the life of prayer, as the Psalmist intones: “Be still and know that I am God” (Ps 46:10).
For the person of faith, lay, religious, or clergy, time spent entirely alone with God is the most important activity of the day. All other activities should either lead up to the time of prayer or flow from it. Prayer is the power of our lives working deep within us, the energy of our activities. Time spent alone with God enables the individual to live in God’s presence during the remainder of the day. Curiously enough, far from taking time away from one’s activities, prayer seems to add time for them.
Prayer affects one’s attitude toward life. The saints grasped this truth, which is why their activities were so effective.
Prayer may not be the first thing one does in the morning, though many still make their morning offering while hurrying to their destinations. What counts is not necessarily the length of one’s prayer but the desire to pray. For mothers and fathers, on the run for the sake of their families, it may be possible to catch only ten or fifteen minutes for prayer, and that time may be in the shower. Some business people find a quiet place in a church at lunch time. Some take a walk and pray; others pray at their desks during their coffee breaks. Consecrated religious typically pray an hour each day, exclusive of attending the Eucharist and praying the Hours. Pope Francis tells us that he prays between 7 and 8 o’clock in the evening.
The best time for solitary prayer is entirely the decision of the individual. We pray as we can, not as we cannot. The particular examen is another type of prayer. In it, one reflects on how the day went. It evaluates whether or not the individual has found God in prayer, in oneself, in others, and in the events of that day.
Perhaps we need more modern versions of Thomas More.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.