I am, at the moment, on vacation in the Canadian Rockies somewhere in the seemingly vast expanse of the province of British Colombia. As you might imagine, this holiday excursion is great for helping the brain revitalize and clean up its circuitry! This is what we all need to do periodically. The mountains are majestic and the cloud formations seem like huge canvases that the Celestial Artist and Creator (we offhandedly call God) has used to picture the beauty of the heavens. We all need to stop and try to see again. I really mean ‘see’ since we often look but don’t truly see. It is also a time to give the brain a needed rest from all its cares and concerns.
In a coincidental way, (is coincidence a worldly way of speaking of the providence of God?) I am reading two books about the brain: Dr. Daniel Amen’s “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life” and Nicholas Carr’s “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing To Our Brains”. This is very interesting stuff.
We take the brain for granted even though it is an amazing organ. Dr. Amen highlights the need to take care of the brain. What we eat, for instance, can affect the brain and its many operations that constitute our personalities; but it is Carr’s questions that have the most far reaching effects when we chart the influence of the brain on our spiritual lives.
Carr noticed in himself that his reliance on the Internet and its short staccato way of reading influenced the way he processed knowledge. By Googling everything and jumping from subject to subject, from site to site, he found it harder to read one book for a longer period of time. The brain got used to the short attention spans that our dalliances with the Internet tend to encourage.
This got me to thinking about how the Internet affects our prayer life. Of course, there are sites that help us in that regard: how to pray the rosary, how to make an examination of conscience etc. Plus there are groups that help us meditate such as the Jesuit prayer site; but could the constant move and jumping quality of our time on the Internet do something to our attention span and our ability to spend quality time in meditation?
One of the deepest traditions of our Church is its Contemplative tradition. In the Scriptures it says: “Be still and know that I am God.” However, to be still and listen as Mary of Bethany did at the feet of Jesus (much to the chagrin of her sister Martha) is the very basis of the whole contemplative tradition in the Church. Does the involvement with the Internet and what that is doing to our brains endanger this essential tradition of the Church?
Silence is one of the non-negotiables of this kind of prayer. The ability to quiet down the turmoil around us and within us is very important in this tradition. This kind of prayer is not limited to monasteries. It is available to everyone who seriously wants to get in touch with God; but when our external stimuli are of such variety and insistence, it makes it very hard to quiet the soul enough, hence the need to be master of the medium and not its slave. While the Internet makes mincemeat of our attention spans, we can also reverse the trend by fighting back and limiting our web footprint. This takes a lot of determination and a willingness to forego the instant satisfactions that we have been trained to expect; but is not contact with God worthy of it? What can be more delightful, more fulfilling than contact with the living God?
The Internet and all that it implies is here to stay and I am not suggesting we become ‘virtual Amish’ and just avoid our Smartphones, etc., but we have to learn to put this in perspective since this new reality has such a power that without our being aware of it, it can take over our life and all that we hold dear. Caution and balance are essential in prudently managing the web; otherwise the web can become a Spider’s Web and paralyze our responses to God and the world God has created, including the Internet.