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How the Digital Age Is Changing Spiritual Life

Hooked on Gadgets, a lengthy New York Times piece detailing how the Internet, e-mail, video games, and other digital innovations are influencing our lives, makes for sobering, and sometimes frightening, reading. Our increasing reliance on, and even addiction to, electronic media is changing the way we relate to our families and friends, and it may even be rewiring our brains. It is also rewiring our relationship to God.

Whether commuting during rush hour, relaxing at home, or even traveling on vacations, many of us (me included) are never far from e-mail or without our cell phones. The sight of someone nervously pressing a phone against her ear as she races to catch a cab is a common one in many cities, as is the sight of traveler desperately punching out yet another e-mail on his laptop or BlackBerry as he waits for the next flight home in a crowded airport. And many parents, as the Times article pointed out, are increasingly fighting a battle against digital media overwhelming the family home.

While all these gadgets are terrific for keeping us in touch with our work and our families and friends, they also pare away the few remaining moments of solitary time we have left -- for reflection, silence, and inner quiet.

Where is the time for "recollection," as spiritual writers say? How can the busy person balance the need to be "connected" with the need for solitude, a requirement of the healthy spiritual life?

Sometimes it seems as if we can no longer stand to be alone or be "out of touch." People use Facebook, cell phones, and text messages as a way of staying in touch with friends -- an admirable goal. Many websites, apps, and gadgets help us to draw closer together -- even if it's a virtual closeness. But without some inner silence, it becomes harder to listen to God's voice within. It is more difficult to hear the "small, still" sound, as the First Book of Kings described God's voice.

If your eyes are glued to your iPad and your ears stopped up by your iPod, it's hard to hear what might be going on inside you. Cutting back on these gadgets, not answering every single e-mail and phone call right away, may be necessary for a measure of calm. "Deep calls to deep," says Psalm 42. But what if you can't hear the deep?

Solitude and silence also enable us to connect on a deeper level with others, for we are put in touch with the deepest part of ourselves -- God. And in coming to know God, we are better able to find God in others and are freed of our loneliness and anomie. Sometimes you have to disconnect to connect. Time set aside for contemplation and prayer also allows us to grow more aware of God's presence, which can sometimes feel elusive.

We all need some time apart, some time alone, some silent moments with God, to enable us to recognize God's presence -- it's like having a quiet, one-on-one conversation with a close friend who wants to tell you something that requires your full attention. If you're always online, you might miss out on this one way of relating to God. Likewise, if you're completely absorbed in the electronic world, obsessively checking e-mail or constantly returning phone calls, it becomes impossible to experience the quirky surprises in the world around us.

Not long ago, I was walking through a park in New York City. Racing across Union Square to an appointment, I stumbled on a pair of grungy young men, one with playing an accordion, the other a violin. Their music was a sprightly, lively, intricate, intoxicating type of Eastern European folk music. Mesmerized, I stopped to listen to the furious melodies and rising and falling rhythms. A little crowd gathered around, and I noticed that we were in the middle of the weekly open-air farmers' market, with vendors carefully laying out fresh fruits, vegetables, and flowering plants for all to see. As I listened to these two skinny guys, one with long dreadlocks, the other with a scraggly beard, I smelled something unusual -- fresh peaches -- from behind me.

What a glorious moment: the music, the sunshine, the crowd, the shoppers at the market, and the smell of ripe peaches. Just then someone cut through the rest of the crowd: a woman punching her BlackBerry and listening to her iPod. She knifed through us and rushed away. She had missed the entire experience, since she was entirely absorbed in her own world.


This article, written by a Jesuit priest, is a good reminder to all of us to take time in our day to be quiet, to connect with God, to worship and pray.

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