Social Media and the Anti-Contemplative Spirit
Lizzie Ashfield looks at the omnipresent social media
In his acclaimed new book The Power of Silence Cardinal Sarah states that contemplative silence is a silence of Adoration and listening by a person who stands in the presence of God.
As someone who spent three years in a contemplative novitiate in France, I can testify to the strength of this experience. This standing in the presence of God (the loving Father who is constantly seeking us out) has immense power to order and soothe our lives.
Putting together the modern world with this silence is highly challenging. The unease we feel around our slavery to social media is constant and has been written about over the past few years by Christians and secular people alike. Those without faith have clearly understood just as well as we have that there is something stifling about this technological slavery.
In the video Millennials in the Workplace Simon Sinek speaks passionately about the deadening effect that technology is having on young people. They are addicted, as are many older people too, to the constant stream of information, entertainment and commentary that flows out like effluent over their lives.
But what truth has Sinek discovered that merits 6.8 million views on YouTube? Surely at it’s base it is that reality gives life, where the virtual sucks life out of us. If Catholics believe Jesus is the Way the Truth and the Life, then surely there is a need to battle strongly for the space He occupies in our lives. The space that the virtual is filling with frightening speed.
I believe that if we look at the ways we use and interact with social media we will see the subtle signs that it is in fact replacing God for us. Usurping the contemplative basis of a truly fruitful spiritual life and becoming that which we turn to in all our needs.
Let’s take the classic example of Facebook. I joined this network a couple of years after leaving the novitiate, and was at first, like many, simultaneously baffled and delighted by its complexity. Here I could connect with friends on the other side of the world from my student days, read articles on many subjects and join groups for various interests. All the while fighting the inherent narcissism and feeling spied-on by others. As one friend wrote on my page not long after I had signed up; “Welcome to the great time-waster!”
Many of us engage with Facebook as we might with God. Facebook is always there. Always open, always happy to see us (Welcome! What’s on your mind? How was your day?”) It’s almost a mockery, a caricature of the thirsting Jesus, whose heart aches for our attention.
Many people give their first moments of the day to Facebook. When I was a novice the training in a life of prayer included the basic rule of a morning Act of Adoration. Before anything else we would prostrate ourselves and give our first moments to God, in whom we live and breathe and have our being. This discipline was encouraged throughout the day as well, with another significant act of Adoration at 3 o’clock in the afternoon to mark the moment Jesus died. I’ll always remember the sight of four novices washing the floor only to stop and curl up amid the dust for a minute or two, giving thanks for that ultimate sacrifice. Many sisters would bow their heads too while waiting for a class to begin. This discipline was hard to continue in the world, but I still battle for that first moment, knowing as I do that my smartphone is now only an arms stretch away from me.
I’m astonished too by the essential need we appear to have to validate ourselves on social media. A couple of years ago a colleague of mine asked about my latest dating relationship. “It’s not official until it’s on Facebook” she said. Another friend commented on an eventual Facebook admission on my part that I was now ‘taken’; “No photos and it didn’t happen”, he said. And there was I happily getting to know somebody whom I had been speaking to God about for several months. Nobody knew! Apart from the most important person of all of course. The One who had overseen all my stages of discernment so far, and proven Himself faithful. The one who was intensely and intimately interested in my heart.
That’s another thing. Surely social media is creating an illusion of faithfulness in our lives? Just today the site greeted me with a video of pictures from my profile arranged in such a way that the ‘Thanks for Being Here’ title gently attempted to manipulate me in to believing that my ‘online presence’ (a classic oxymoron in realistic philosophy!) has communicative value for them. It does not. We are made for communion, not for mere communication. Communion of the soul with God. The mystics speak of this with raptured attempts to describe it. John of the Cross speaks of a wounding of the heart, shot through with the love of God, who is described as the ‘beloved’ of the soul, constantly sought and longed for.
One acquaintance of mine will update Facebook several times a day with extremely mundane anecdotes, from the type of bread she bought that morning, to the latest remark from her dentist on her molars. Why do we tell Facebook before we tell God? Do we imagine this black-hole of apparent ‘communion’ with the rest of the world is more interested than He is in the details of our lives? He, who is the true Beloved, waiting. Always waiting for our merest glances.
Facebook, rather like Google also carries answers to everything. It’s the omnipotent, all knowing force with articles on every subject; How do de-stress with meditation, how to make the best pizza (the video is ten seconds long, you need to get on with your day after all!) or how to tone up for summer. It’s as if we’ve forgotten that God the Father has all the answers and that He has very specific response to each and every personal need. Recently in prayer I heard God’s voice in my heart clearly directing me to take up a forgotten and broken dream that He had planted there like a seed, years before. He knows us better than we know ourselves and beyond. He knows the real reasons we post one thing on social media and not another. He knows what we hide, and what we choose to show. He is the one with the real ‘updates’ on our soul, and our increasingly fractured human condition.
The origins of things are important. Facebook’s motto used to be “Move Fast and Break Things”. It sounded catchy but before long Mark Zuckerberg changed it to “Move fast with stable infrastructure”, leaving behind the entrepreneurial approach of his youth for something more acceptable because as he said “You have to be stable in order to get to the next level”. So perhaps there’s an analogy here. What is the stability of our spiritual life? If there are ‘levels’ where are we? Have we slid down a level or two? Are we still close to Jesus? Are we put off by St Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle; the idea of contemplation alien to us?
All the best spiritual writers of the Church place the sacraments at the top of the list of a foundation for the contemplative way, but few of us build higher on this rock than we find convenient. The Eucharist is key. Jesus Himself. In Him alone our souls find rest. A daily dose of this ultimate contemplative feast (and a silent thanksgiving spent only with Him) is surely a good foundation. There were days in the convent when I missed my morning Oraison, arriving in haste for Lauds having failed to spend 45 minutes in silence with Him. Most of us in the novitiate experienced these mornings at some point and we all agreed: a day not begun in this way was never as peaceful, fruitful or blessed.
There are friends of mine who admit to spending a whole hour on Facebook before even getting up on a Saturday morning, and they do so long before saying any prayers. So, while I’m not suggesting we all take on the timetable and lifestyle of religious, I do think that we should be aware how pervasive this anti-contemplative spirit is in our lives. It’s not a moral wrong in itself, but like many venial sins, it can become a norm which robs us of the chance to help virtue grow. It is like fertiliser to the weeds that grow up and choke the seed of the Word within us.
I stand in the presence of Facebook and I fester. I no longer stand in the presence of God and praise Him as I did when I wore the habit. But this tide of the anti-contemplative is not beyond our control. We still have the right to exercise will power, despite the tsunami of pressure to be slaves to the virtual. If we allow it to suck the lifeblood out of our communion with the Father, we effectively give it permission to own us, as only He must be allowed to do.
The fruits of the contemplative life are many: peace, freedom, charity, patience for starters. The fruits of Facebook are less attractive by far: anxiety, distraction, cheap laughs and self-centredness. My most disciplined friends (who only use the medium to promote good causes and share uplifting articles) do not fail to feel this. Even they may spend hours scanning through old photos and lurking on the pages of those they are curious about. We are being consumed by this black-hole, instead of seeking time with the Lord of Light.
Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is often cited in Catholic journalism. One idea is that the elves represent something of the contemplative, withdrawn as they are from the world, living peacefully in hidden places like Rivendell, whose ambiance is described by the author with the love and awe of a person who has experienced the depth of retreat-like stillness.
But the elves are not passive. They are peaceful, but they also defend their borders. The treasures of Rivendell and Lothlorien are in the roots of the trees, the age of the elves themselves, the wisdom in their eyes. These resting spaces are defended with arrows and wit. No sleeping on guard for the elvish contemplatives. Theirs is a precious task; to withstand the darkness by preserving the life of the spiritual, which is a fortress against rising storms in the world of Middle Earth.
The heights of contemplation are not inaccessible to us. Mysticism has its roots in simple truths. We are created for God. We are precious in His sight. We are loved by Him. No matter what walk of life we take, or what vocation we have these truths remain. A fruitful apostolic life flows from the contemplative. It takes prayer to really know who we are; children of God with a mission. We need to waste time with God, before we truly waste it online. As the Cure of Ars spoke of Adoration “I look at Him, and He looks at me”. How much infinitely more fruitful than looking at the screen of an I-phone!
The late Mother Angelica used to say in her down-to-earth fashion; “If we are too busy for God, we are too busy”. It’s simple. Our hearts really are restless until they rest in Him, no matter how worthy the things we pursue might be.
But it’s not as if we check our updates in church, is it? Or in the confessional queue? Oh yes, there are those for whom it cannot wait, because they are addicted. Afraid to miss out on an update, but not afraid to receive the Lord without reverence. But why beat ourselves over the head about it? Social media is here. It’s here to stay. We can’t all take the habit and leave the world. But nobody has taken away our free will, our will power or our ability to ask for help if the virtual has taken over our life. We have a choice with this choking!
Healthy spiritual surroundings
There are certain things desirable for contemplative prayer. Most often these are silence and solitude. The contemplative life is like a delicate seedling, reared carefully in a certain type of soil. The soil of healthy spiritual surroundings. It is watered by a frequent reception of the sacraments. It needs protecting. It needs attention. It needs vigilant observation. Spiritual reading is like plant food to the seedling of contemplative life, boosting its chances of developing in to a robust plant that will bear fruit.
When we have found the “One whom our soul loves”, we can never be satisfied with passive networking and meaningless consumption of pictures and memes. There needs to be a balance in our relationship with God. A relationship which is deeply spousal for the soul. We cannot receive if we fail to give to the Beloved. To reap the benefits of His presence without giving time to Him in which He can speak to us.
Over 33% of social network users admit to joining the networks because their friends were there already. But our search for community cannot firstly be online. We need the strength of real connection, not only with others but also with Him, the creator of all Unity from the beginning.
So, as I type up the notes I wrote on paper, and edit through a keyboard while trying to ignore the buzz of my Samsung, I smile sadly that spell checker is insisting on a capital F and a capital Y for Facebook and YouTube, while I myself correct the lower cases that refer to God the Father Himself! He is the Name above all Names, The King of Kings, The Lord of Lords, and the nurturer of our spiritual life; that parched land that cries out for the water of His Presence while we attempt to nourish it with the spiritually dead sprinklers of social media.