Silence is an indispensable condition for keeping things and pondering them in one’s heart. Profundity of thought can develop only in a climate of silence. Too much chatter exhausts our inner strength; it dissipates everything of any value in our heart, which becomes like a bottle of perfume left open for a long time: only water remains with a slight touch of its former fragrance. – F. Suarez, Mary of Nazareth, p. 155 (In Conversation with God, Volume 5 by Francis Fernandez. p. 77)
A few thoughts about solitude, isolation or quiet time.
Yesterday I read an article on the First Things website by Mark Bauerlein titled Prayer in the Facebook Age. In this piece Bauerlein articulates something I’ve failed to each time I discuss my need to quiet time. It is not merely that I seek quiet, or that I am withdrawing into some sort of forced isolation. It is that, like Jesus during his times of departing from the crowds, I am “going toward something else.”
It is easy to overlook those moments in the Gospels when Jesus withdraws from others. They come across as pauses, a rest between miracles, parables, and edifying encounters such as that with the rich young man. The work of Jesus’s ministry takes place amid others, and the exchanges can be taxing, as when the Canaanite woman asks his help and he replies that his bread is not for dogs. “And she said, Truth, Lord: yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters’ table” (Matt. 15:26–27), and Jesus relents. The souls he helps and tangles with make him weep and roar; he denounces, mourns, blesses, and heals. Disengagement allows for calm and quiet. Especially in Luke 4:42, his solitude marks a retreat from the madding crowd: “And when it was day, he departed and went into a desert place: and the people sought him, and came unto him, and stayed him, that he should not depart from them.” Here and elsewhere, the people press and beseech, and Jesus needs a respite.
But, of course, the isolation has a positive content. It’s not about getting away from others but about going toward something else. Jesus isn’t alone. He’s with the Father. Prayer can happen in company. Church worship is corporate prayer. But there must be times when a soul petitions the Father in solitude. The Catechism of the Catholic Church says that “faith is not an isolated act. No one can believe alone, just as no one can live alone,” but Jesus’s example shows the periodic necessity of making God your only companion. Too often the world draws you away from him, and so you must slough off your circumstances and address him by yourself, oriented toward nothing else, no outside distractions or commitments. The first commandment is, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.” Loving your neighbor comes second.
Bauerlein says that we are in danger of losing these moments of solitary faith, and I agree. He goes on to implicate the abundance of social media as the culprit for this loss, and again I agree.
Social media is the culprit. Texting, selfies, updates, chats, snapchats, tweets, multiplayer games, blogs, wikis, and email enable people to gossip, boast, rant, strategize, self-promote, share, collaborate, inform, emote, and otherwise connect with one another anywhere and all the time. The volume is astounding. Earlier this year, Facebook boasted 1.23 billion active users, while late last year Twitter’s 200 million users sent 400 million tweets per day. According to Nielsen Media, a teen with a mobile device sends or receives on average around 3,300 text messages per month, in addition to logging 650 minutes of phone calls.
Those habits, which researchers term “hypersociality,” dominate leisure time. Data analyst Bill Tancer found in 2008 that social media had passed pornography as the most popular type of search. The whole range of fallen human motives passes through the tools, but the prime one is, precisely, “I want not to be alone.”
No wonder so many are lost. No wonder so many have no concept of God. Look at those numbers of Facebook and Twitter users and their activity again.
If you’re interested in learning more you will want to read the rest of his brief article.
When I recently took a few weeks off from Facebook I found myself really getting into Twitter. Instead of checking Facebook throughout the day on my phone or laptop, I justified Twitter because I would only check it twice a day. And this was manageable in the beginning because I did not “follow” too many other accounts. However, once I started immersing myself in it I began to follow others, be followed by more, and before you knew it those times spend at the beginning and end of each day had doubled in minutes spend reading though all the Tweets.
When Baurelein stated that Jesus wasn’t alone in his times of isolation but was with the Father it wasn’t telling me anything I didn’t already know. Yet it was as if I was really comprehending it for the first time. When I go on retreat, or spend time alone outside my house or down in my basement, I am not merely doing nothing. True, sometimes I am doing nothing by staring blankly at the tv, but more times than not I am reading or praying, specifically the Divine Office. Other times it’s a favorite devotional book. Others it’s a piece of favorite music, such as a Beethoven symphony, uncluttered by words. I am not alone. I am in good company. I am conversing with the Father.
Reading the commentary about today’s Mass readings from In Conversation with God, author Francis Fernandez point out that:
As the Gospel wonderfully demonstrates, Mary lived in a beautiful state of recollection, of presence of God. She kept all these things in her heart. Her contemplative spirit has a certain enchantment. In the intimacy of her soul, Mary penetrated more and more deeply into the mystery that had been revealed to her. … Only he who ponders things in his heart with a true Christian spirit can discover the immense riches of the interior world, the world of grace, that hidden treasure which is within us all … It was by pondering things in her heart that Mary, as time went by, grew in understanding of the mystery, in sanctity and in unity with God. The Lord invites us to cultivate this same interior recollection. We will then be able to converse with the Master. St. Teresa has written that recollection is nothing else, in my opinion, but being on terms of friendship with God, frequently conversing in secret with Him Who, we know, loves us.
As she does in all things, Mary always points us to her Son. To go deeper into the mysteries of this life and into the very depths of our very souls, we need to make time to develop and interior life. This goes against the exterior life of celebrity, narcissism, Facebook likes and retweets. This is where the seeds of the eternal are planted, nurtured and in time, grow.
Bauerlein points out that a study shows that there is a correlation between time spent on social media and time spent with God in prayer:
This may explain the findings of a recent study showing a correlation between Internet use and religious disaffiliation. Using data from the General Social Survey, computer scientist Allen B. Downey concluded that Internet use accounts for 20 percent (5.1 million people) of overall decreases in religious commitment since 1990. The science is fuzzier than Downey allows, but the trend matches our assumption that more social media means less prayer. People spend fewer minutes alone with God, and, more damaging, they acquire a sensibility less inclined to seek him out.
I believe these last two excerpts from Fernandez speak to the ills of social media as pointed out by Bauerlein.
Jesus approaches us in many different ways. If we are to properly understand his message, we must needs be souls of prayer. Like any artist or man of letters, the Christian must know how to temper his impatience and anxiety to the slow plodding of time. He learns the lesson, perhaps with some pain, that every seed needs time to germinate in the earth, take root and break forth from the soil. That is no matter, for it is essential to a plant’s growth. As the ancients were wont to say a tree will spread out its limbs in accordance with the depths of its roots. (F. Delclaux, The Silent Creator, Madrid 1969)
Human life has a profound meaning which is ultimately expressed in God. Therefore, we cannot allow our lives to be dominated by frivolity, vanity or sensuality. God teaches us the true importance of events and the real value of things. To be recollected is to join what is separated, to re-establish a lost order. If we want to be recollected souls, we have to guard our senses from hazardous dissipation. Otherwise, we shall find it impossible to be contemplatives in the middle of the world, no matter how tranquil our immediate surroundings may be.
A final point. Take a look at this AdWeek graphic. (The AdWeek article is worth a look as well.)
Instead of reaching for your phone in the first fifteen minutes of your day, try prayer. In doesn’t have to take more than a minute or two to initiate the first conversation with God of your day.
My God, I adore You, and I love You with all my heart. I thank you for having created me, made me a Christian, and preserved me this night. I offer You the actions of this day. Grant that all of them may be in accordance with Your holy Will and for Your greater glory. Protect me from sin and from all evil. Let Your grace be always with me and with all my dear ones. Amen.