Praying: It’s fundamental
August 9th, 2016
By Father Mark Doherty
On the whole I think the new Jason Bourne movie is a dud, but there is a theme in the newly released film that Matt Damon and Paul Greengrass could have drawn out to greater effect. By naming the prominent tech company portrayed in the action thriller Deep Dream, the lead actor and writer appear to be suggesting that the plethora of computing and social technologies at our fingertips threaten to lull us into a servile dream state where the integrity of our personal agency is either compromised or stunted. Put another way, there is the real risk that overreliance on these technologies, especially media and social platforms, is producing a “zombie-like” state of being endangering human flourishing.
I am no Luddite. Nor, I think, are Damon and Greengrass. It is incontrovertible that recent developments in information, media and social technologies can serve as aids in promoting human flourishing. As an example, my mother, who had little knowledge of or use for computers and related technologies until a decade ago, now makes daily use of the Internet to access the vast range of programming on offer by EWTN and other religious media enterprises. More recently, after the birth of her first grandchild, my sister-in-law helped my mother sign up for a Facebook account so that she could have ready access to the pictures and updates that my sister-in-law regularly posts. There is no doubt that my mother is benefiting from these tools.
But growing evidence also indicates that increased reliance on these technologies, especially of the social and media variety, can impede and stunt our flourishing. Our attention spans are being fractured; social graces, even of the most basic kind like holding the door open for someone, are becoming rare as our horizons shrink; narcissism is on the rise as we become increasingly preoccupied with how we come across to others on social media; more and more we are escaping into alternate fantasy worlds of our own making or those presented to us in popular television shows, movies and novels. We are witnessing the rise of a “zombie” state of being.
What’s especially frustrating is that alerts have been issued, alarm bells have been rung, but instead of waking up we seem to be drifting ever deeper into sleep.
Even among those who manifest a desire to grow in their relationships with God and those around them there is the increasing sense that they are losing ground. Many struggle to get a grip on their reliance on these technologies. In my work as a confessor and spiritual director I see firsthand the extent to which overreliance on media and social technologies stymies the fiery breath of the Holy Spirit. For the fire of divine love to burn brightly in our lives it needs the oxygen of prayer to feed it and the outlet of engagement with neighbors to sustain and channel it.
Overreliance on these technologies steals precious time away that could and ought to be dedicated to prayer. This is the most important threat. All the great saints, including St. Teresa of Avilla, tell us that there is no genuine growth in life with God without a prayer. Life has always been busy. Even in Carmel it’s busy, but we are making it unbearably clogged with our overconsumption. In the same way that life has always been busy, so prayer has always been “plagued” by mental distractions. But we have made things much harder now by exposing ourselves to tsunamis of stimuli. Addictions have always presented real obstacles to human flourishing, but advances in media and social technology have exponentially increased the kind and number of addictive behaviors. In my work as a confessor and spiritual director I see firsthand all of these struggles playing out in the lives of people who care enough about their well-being to come and ask for assistance.
Recently, on the occasion of my ordination anniversary, a parishioner asked me what wisdom I’ve gained since my ordination that would be worth passing on. I replied by saying that I take evermore seriously the common refrain of all my childhood coaches: It’s all about the fundamentals. Focus on the fundamentals; drill on the fundamentals, and everything else will fall into place. Make prayer the top priority of every day; focus on being attentive to the needs of the person right next to you; frequent the sacraments; cut down on the stuff that hampers the execution of these priorities, and I guarantee that the fire of the Spirit will rouse you from your slumber and set you aglow.
Father Doherty, parochial vicar at St. Peter Parish, San Francisco and chaplain for Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, will begin moral theology studies in September at Fribourg University in Switzerland.
From August 11, 2016 issue of Catholic San Francisco.