Being an active Catholic on social media who checks my Twitter and Facebook multiple times a day, I’m probably the last person you’d expect to talk about the advantages of disconnecting from electronics, but here I am. Over the past month, I have come to realize the value of taking time off from all our electronic devices.
I used to read my Twitter feed while eating oatmeal for breakfast and I often checked again after night prayers. Then, a few weeks back, we had a community planning meeting. We were not just dealing with practical plans, but with what our combined spiritual goal would be for the year. One of the points that was brought up was how we tend to bring out our phones a lot during meals and it takes away from the sense of community. Oftentimes it started innocently as a way to check a fact rather than argue what the truth was. However, like a bunch of you have probably noticed elsewhere, we were on our phones more and more, slowly moving from an aide to conversation to conversation replacement. So we resolved not to bring our phones at meals.
I realized that I am weak, so I started leaving my phone at the door rather than in my pocket during community meals. It also made me reflect on when I was on my phone at other times. Due to varying schedules in our house, I often eat breakfast alone, and figured reading my cell phone then wasn’t taking conversation away from anyone… but then I thought about another value, the value of silence. Silence in religious houses is meant to help us be more open to prayer and traditionally there was “the great silence,” or “absolute silence” after final prayers until sometime in the morning. Old-fashioned monastic communities extend this silence all the way till after midday Mass, but traditionally in my community it has been until breakfast is done (following Mass or an hour of mental prayer if you have a later Mass). I decided to try avoiding using the cell phone at breakfast or after last prayers.
I’m a few weeks into this experiment and I admit I haven’t been perfect. Here are a few things I’ve noticed:
- More focused in my prayer, particularly my meditation, which usually precedes my breakfast. I didn’t notice this immediately, but as I did it for a few days I start to notice I did not get distracted as easily. This was interesting as it was affecting a time where I wasn’t doing social media or news before so there was no change at that time. I’m not 100 percent sure why this is but my suspicion is that on a certain level I was already thinking about will happen after the meditation during it and when I got rid of one thing in the back of my mind, the other things couldn’t jump out as easily.
- Better sleeping, especially by eliminating nighttime viewing. I told myself that checking social media after night prayers, “helped me wind down a little.” However, if I’m honest, sometimes I found something interesting and ended up spending an hour looking at it instead of a five minute check to wind down. There is also some science about how the actual player from electronic devices inhibits sleep. The evidence is sufficient enough that my Kindle Fire has an option for bedtime lighting that only uses the colors that don’t promote insomnia.
- More peace that the world, and even Catholic Twitter, can go on without me. If your social media reach is 15 or 20 friends, it’s easy to go off for a week without telling anyone but as someone who usually tweets multiple times a day to 40,000+ followers, I feel almost like a one-man newspaper so if I’m going off-line for more than a day, I inform my followers. Part of what I tweet is a running commentary on the news, and the quicker I can get it, the better: for example, I got a lot with a tweet to pray for peace seconds after the Ferguson grand jury decision came out. Taking time off social media taught me that part of what drove me to check all the time was my desire to be absolutely on top of the news but this was driven by a sense of my own indispensability. I had to realize that there are surely other good Catholics online at any moment to share important stuff and to make important comments on the news. This wasn’t easy but I am slowly coming to realize the fruit of it. I think a lot of us obsessively check our devices out of a sense of irreplaceability but turning them off lets us realize the world goes on fine if we’re offline a bit.
- A realization of who I’m doing it all for was refreshed by this. Obviously, I already knew I was there for Jesus but this refreshed how I understood that. It allowed me to focus more on the reason why I was doing it and not just what I was doing.
Obviously the silence of religious life doesn’t work 100 percent in families; most couples don’t just go into bed and fall asleep every night. However, I think the spirit of it does; the spirit is not that you don’t communicate but you only communicate with the one you are bound to by vocation. For us religious, that means we only speak with Jesus; but for most of the readers who are not religious, community those you are bound to by vocation will include your spouse and children. I remember an excellent example of this when I was chatting with my sister and she cut our conversation short because she wanted to have a longer time that evening to chat with her husband because he was going away on a business trip the next morning.
Communication is a two-way street and even if it only goes one way, likes checking the latest scores, it is still communication. None of us are bound by vocation to our favorite sports team. Thus, additional silence helps laypeople live the spirit of religious silence according to their old vocation. If a couple agrees to know social media or web browsing after 9 PM (or some other time that suits you), that gives them a great opportunity to just be with each other and discover the richness of their spouse. Of course there are going to be exceptions to ordinary days: for example, when the presidential debate was on, we pray night prayers early so we could go to bed right after he finished at 10:30 PM, and obviously watching the debate is not living silence; likewise, a couple might be out on a date night and need to hail an Uber later than they usually turn off their devices, etc.
All our phones offer an easy way to do this:airplane mode. I use this mode all the time such as when I’m hearing confessions or seeing someone in spiritual direction. I can understand if some people for safety reasons choose not to enable this because they’re worried about a late-night phone call from a sick parent. I only mention this as a way to help you live silence not as the only way to live digital silence.
Instead of doing a nightly digital silence, some other authors have suggested a weekly digital Sabbath where you don’t check social media, email, or the web. This will be another way to live digital silence but I have never done this myself.
Whatever plan you follow, I think it is important to live a certain amount of digital silence. I hope you all enjoy the four advantages I’ve experienced from giving myself some regular time off-line in “digital silence.”