We Document Almost Everything, but Should We Document Contemplative Prayer?

There’s hardly a day that I don’t take a picture of my kids or something noteworthy in my surroundings. I can take as many shots as I like in order to capture a moment, save the best ones, and delete the rest.

There are plenty of times when I’ve captured a perfect expression from one of my kids, picked up the brilliant shades of red, pink, and purple in a sunset, or preserved an especially important moment for us to look back on in the years to come.

Yet, I often wonder how often I’m removing myself from participation in life when I shift into documentary mode. This is especially true when it comes to our kids. How often have I disengaged from them in order to take their picture? Are there times when I could have had a more meaningful interaction if I kept my smartphone in my pocket?

I confess that I’m quite contrary about the ways smartphones document everything from meals, to date nights, to shoes, to quirky selfie expressions. How often should we step back from a moment, an interaction, or the simple rhythm of daily life in order to put our documentary hats on?

I view myself relative to our culture as a documentary minimalist, and yet I often find myself asking how often I’m removing myself to document something rather than to be fully present for it. Documenting becomes a habit of sorts, a way of interacting with the world that wasn’t really possible until digital cameras, smartphones, and social media increased both the ease and the social opportunities for extensive photographing and sharing.

This tendency to document feeds into a common tendency among Christians who practice contemplative prayer to document or savor any notion of spiritual consolation or a spiritual experience.

Thomas Keating shared in Open Mind, Open Heart that we are always tempted to hang onto a spiritual experience as if we are taking a picture of it, preserving it for reference and consolation later. Rather than allowing ourselves to be present for God in silence, we run the risk of demanding spiritual experiences each time we pray, turning to our preserved memories if we can’t feel the way we want.

Martin Laird notes in An Ocean of Light that such spiritual experiences are mercifully few and far between lest we spend our time journaling about them and comparing them with each other.

Contemplation invites us into a practice that remains deceptively simple, merely being present for God without any demands for a particular feeling or consolation. This prayer invites us to trust in a pure faith that God is present and at work in us regardless of how we feel.

This may prove to be a disappointment at first, but it can also prove liberating. We only have to receive what God gives us, no more and no less.

There is no ideal outcome or result we have will ourselves to have.

There is no technique, trick, mindset, or chant that will make prayer more effective.

God is present based on grace and our prayers are rooted in the reception of that grace whether we know it or experience it in a particular way. There is nothing for us to capture in the moment because we are already being held by a loving God.

 

Photo by Nigel Tadyanehondo on Unsplash

The Challenge to Pray in a High Tech Consumer Society

Distraction from a mind filled with thoughts is one of the greatest obstacles to spiritual formation according to most Christians I’ve heard from in the past few years. This comes as no surprise since we are immersed in a distraction-rich ecosystem.

If our smartphones and other digital devices leave us feeling distracted and a bit at the mercy of their content, what is driving that distraction?

I would argue that, in part, our consumer economy that relies on advertising for entertainment and business revenue can’t be overlooked as a factor in filling our minds with thoughts. Some estimates say the average person is exposed to 10,000 advertising messages per day.

In other words, we can’t even process how many ads we’re seeing and hearing.

Adding to the complexity of our advertisement-driven economy, these ads are often selling us the comfort, status, and efficiency that we either crave or try hard to resist. These ads are appealing and tap into real needs and desires that may or may not be good for us.

The pursuit of comfort and the use of elegant interruptions are detrimental to the flourishing of Christian spirituality because they distract us and can even give way to a resignation. We may accept that the distractions and diversions of our smartphones and other screens must be accepted at face value.

What can we do about distraction? We may well feel helpless as advertisements distract us while pushing and pulling us toward the latest product or lifestyle.

In 1983, the journal “ETC: A Review of General Semantics” published an interview with French philosopher and devout Christian Jacques Ellul about the role of technology in society and the wider trend of efficiency and manipulation. Ellul shared his concerns about advertising:

“Advertising has now created a new type of man . . . Publicite is one of the ways to shape a new mentality for modern man. It has succeeded in making modern man into a consumer and has pushed him to take advantage of consuming. And now, advertising has shaped a conformist man . . . a man who is more into pleasure. He is a lot less worried about his work, more worried about consuming than living the agreeable part of life . . . I think for this reason we find ourselves in a society which more and more tries to strip the individual of his responsibility. And it seems that we are in a completely different world compared to other societies. And being in the presence of such complicated phenomena, we do not have the impression of being able to do much.”

This creation of a society that conforms to the demands of advertising and resigns itself to accepting the distractions can feel hopeless. How can spirituality thrive when there is a daily avalanche of offerings that demand a reaction and push us toward action?

While some may prefer drastic measures, most of us will benefit from a commitment to become the kinds of people who can sit in silence and intentionally move away from our screens for set periods of time.

Even two minutes of intentional silence (heck, use a timer if you want) can help us get our bearings and lay the foundation for a habit of daily silence.

Give yourself a bit of silence in the car on the way home from work or the store and then work on expanding the time a little bit each week.

Learn what it feels like to be free from the noise and appealing colors of your screens so that you can be fully present for God. Over time you’ll get a better handle on what it feels like to be present in the moment rather than at the mercy of technology.

Some Next Steps…

If you’re ready to remove some of the prompts to use your smartphone more frequently, consider this list of changes you can make to your phone via the Center for Humane Technology.

As you remove these prompts and make more space in your life for prayer, consider new prompts you can create for prayer. For instance, you could take a few minutes to write down some thoughts about the previous day each morning and use those as a prompt for prayer. Or you could read the morning office and seek a word from scripture to carry with you throughout the day.

 

Photo by Aaron Sebastian on Unsplash