19 Jun Left to our own Devices: Smartphones and Prayer
Jannah Dennison is an alumna of the Vocational Programme (Wellington, 2018) and works in children’s ministry at Lifepoint Church. She is married to John (Venn Wellington Coordinator and Senior Teaching Fellow) and they live in Tawa, Wellington with their three boys, Theo, Emmaus, and Blythe.
The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
T. S. Eliot, Choruses from ‘The Rock’.
Our morning’s waking ushers in a time of possibility. In Psalm 5:3, the Psalmist describes his response to waking: “In the morning, O Lord, hear my voice. In the morning, I lay my needs before you, and I wait.” Here is a direct appeal to God, and a laying down of needs. An expectancy of reply. An unhurried waiting.
That’s great for the Psalmist, you might think. But perhaps, in reality, there are small children clamouring for your attention; or, worse, actually in your bed. Or your flatmate is clomping around, early. You have things to organise before you have to rush out the door yourself. A time of possibility, indeed. Perhaps for the Psalmist.
There are certainly some things about the earliest morning that are not a choice. Sometimes, it’s the glorious physical (and audible) presence of others. Sometimes, particular demands upon us.
But there is often another distraction here. Enter the smartphone. Ubiquitous, endless, it never really sleeps. It waits, quietly, drawing our hearts and minds. And there is a choice here for us. A question of who, or what, gets our earliest attention. And at the other end of the day, who gets the last word.
So much could be said about smartphones and our lives before God. Phones can add structure to our prayer life, with apps that help us into good practices. Possibilities for fruitful connection and communication, not least for church life, are many. But phones also have the capacity to totally derail our prayer lives. Examining their impact upon the spiritual rhythms of our days helps us to be intentional, and creative.
Paying attention to the liminal moments of morning and night, the bookends of our days, is a good place to start. The Psalms speak regularly of these, of waking and going to sleep. They recognise these transitions as significant, formative, and inviting of trust in God. Here, we can easily harbour a kind of false security through technology: gaining information, being connected, “Getting Up to Date”. But what we can lose is the giving of trust; the praying into and out of the day.
What is really at stake here? We know that what we pay attention to, through technology, is formative. Content shapes us. But how we pay attention is just as important. As embodied creatures, the habitual ways in which we engage with technology changes us, for better or worse. We are formed by our ritual engagements–the multiple handlings of our devices, the “virtual” withdrawal from our actual surroundings.
The quasi-liturgical way in which our culture engages with technology is not neutral: it draws us into a certain way of being in the world by the very nature of the platforms. As the Body of Christ, it is good to interrogate the ways in which our personal technological habits form us, and which in turn form the Body as a whole. Do they enslave us? Do they free up our relationships, with God and each other?
At both ends of our days, then, there is a kind of allegiance paid to the first and last voices we attend to. We are often vulnerable, driven by strong desires for stimulation, control, and avoidance. So we seek global and national news, or weather and traffic news. Work and personal emails draw us into responsibility and action. Social media can engender complex emotional responses. Particularly at night, games and entertainment can become mindless sifting and scrolling. This is when we so often turn to our phones, just when we really need silence. Or sleep. Or companionship. Or prayer.
If we can go so far as to speak of the secular liturgies of our technologies, and the desires that we seek to fulfil through certain platforms, is there a question of idolatry here? Another way of putting it might be to ask, Do we love our phones? It’s an odd, almost abhorrent question. But worth asking, considering many peoples’ devotion to their phones, and the sense of panic, or a kind of bereavement, at their loss. Would a visitor to Earth conclude this, observing the ritual nature of our phone usage?
Returning to the question of how we begin our days, C. S. Lewis knew the challenges of the early morning well, saying “All your wishes and hopes for the day rush at you like wild animals. And the first job each morning consists simply in shoving them all back; in listening to that other voice… letting that other larger, stronger, quieter life come flowing in. And so on, all day. Standing back from all your natural fussings and frettings; coming in out of the wind”. The first voices we listen to each morning have the power to subtly unseat us. Or, they can ground us well for the day ahead.
And at the day’s close, there is a kind of relinquishment invited, aided by prayers such as the Examen, or a Handover Prayer. A Jewish understanding, in fact, would have the new day begin at sundown of the night before, where God is at work even while we sleep. This would be even more reason to give over our trust at the end of the day–to let the last voice be the Lord’s, and to speak and to be spoken to just when we are at our most vulnerable.
This is the invitation amidst our daily challenges: to ask the question as to whether our technologies are interrupting the formative moments of our days. And then, to re-align these moments, letting them be shaped by prayer. Allowing ourselves this, as we move through our days, will do more for us and for our lives together than we might imagine.
(Image by Alan Fung, CC Zero)