We are fast approaching Ash Wednesday, and it is time to start planning your Lenten fast.
Lent is about recommitting to prayer, fasting so as to make room for God and almsgiving to relearn self-giving love — and for many of us, the biggest obstacle to prayer is social media, the biggest time-waster (and stressor) is our phone and computer, and the location of our frivolous, self-centered spending has moved online.
So as so many Catholics gear up to turn off Facebook for Lent here are some more nuanced ideas for what to give up for Lent (derived from a Sunday Guide my wife and I posted at the National Catholic Register).
1. Moderation instead of fasting on Facebook.
Every Lent sees a mass Catholic exodus from Facebook. I like this; I have done this. It may be just what you need to make your Lent more focused on God. But if I have learned anything in the spiritual life it is that it is harder to have a little cake than no cake, it is easier to control your environment than to control yourself … and moderation can be as great a sacrifice as fasting. Instead of no Facebook time, why not a set Facebook time? Sunday afternoon? Saturday morning? Thursday evening? Then you might just form a new habit, instead of following a forty-day fast with a 320-day binge.
2. Turn off your phone.
I was struck by a Facebook status update from Brendan Vogt: “Leaving your phone at home on purpose when you hang out with someone is the new way to show them you care about them.” For Lent, why not sacrifice the phone at key events: When you spend time with your children, in business meetings, with your date, with your spouse, and, heck, when you are waiting somewhere and in a position to meet new people?
3. Use paper in church.
There are some great apps that aid prayer and provide liturgical readings. I love them, use them frequently, and even take them to my Holy Hour. They are great, as long as they don’t lead the user to start clicking on the e-mails and texts and Tweets and notifications that light up our phones. It may not even take that: I have found myself sitting in an adoration chapel idly surfing the Internet from habit before realizing how I was behaving in the presence of God and apologizing profusely. You’re better off with the phone off, alone with a prayer book and the Blessed Sacrament, the Great App that accomplishes what it signifies.
4. Choose group entertainment.
The evolution of isolating entertainment went something like this:
First, we sat connecting with each other over conversation on porches and at card tables. Then we stopped talking and winked at each other as we listened to the family radio. Then we were silent and unaware of each other in the glow of the television. Then we were sitting alone in separate rooms looking at individual laptop screens. Now we are alone all over town, with earbuds and screens of our own. Don’t let this happen in your life! This Lent, ban Netflix unless a family or a group is watching; play music that everyone can agree on through good old fashioned speakers … and reclaim togetherness!
5. Uproot your ear buds.
The Rule of St. Benedict says every guest should be treated as Jesus Christ, and as Benedictine College’s president likes to point out, “If you met Jesus Christ wouldn’t you take your ear buds out?” Do so. Interact with other people this Lent — and wean yourself of the need to have a soundtrack accompanying your every move.
6. Give up video games.
The Hoopeses have experimented with video games over the years with our nine children, and we have always disliked the results. The boys especially become obsessed, sullen, less helpful, and too focused on entertainment. We know families who have used Wii and other systems constructively to encourage children to interact with each other, but we decided it is better to encourage our children to find entertainment in the real world and in each other. We have been delighted by the results. Why not give up virtual reality for Lent? Real reality is a subtler pleasure … but it has much to recommend it, once you reacquire the taste for it.
7. Unplug the Internet.
Why not simply unplug the Internet during certain hours of each day? That way you will have to rediscover the world that exists outside your screen. (By the way, if you haven’t done so yet, filter your Internet the first week of Lent. Web filters are not just for kids — with the proliferation of pornography, adults need extra help in making choices, too. You can find Internet content filters online in three basic kinds: Filtering software; hardware filters at your router; and Internet proxy filters from your provider. Look them up and get it done. We use the free OpenDNS.com filter software.)
8. Give up your extra technology for Lent.
Here is a revolutionary idea: Maybe you should only have as much technology as your job, or state in life, demands. Why do teens need smart phones? Why not have a family laptop? Why not resist a little to the tendency to wire everybody into a different frequency? Use Lent as an experiment in simplicity. Our kids have minimal (old, cheap) iPods … and if they want to hear music, they play it out loud so we can all share in the fun or the shame of it. We also try to follow the best practices for Internet responsibility: Everybody should use one centrally located charging station, where you can see everyone’s machine from an hour before bedtime until an hour after wake time.
9. Read real books for Lent.
Paper with words on it has changed lives before and can change yours. “The value of reading is best demonstrated by noting the ill effects of its absence in the lives of those who give themselves to idleness and fantasy,” said one wise monk. “We need space to step back from issues to assess their significance more surely.” Real reading is the opposite of Twitter … it immerses us in ideas where we can take our time to sort out what is being said in the privacy of our thoughts.
10. Call people.
So, to end all of this advice against technology, I would recommend a piece of technology: Your telephone. Disembodied voices aren’t quite as intimate as one-on-one conversation, but they are a lot better than disembodied thumbs. Why not commit to three real-person-encounters each week in Lent. I plan to do so. Maybe on a land-line with an extra long curly cord that stretches from the handset to the wall…
If you don’t give Twitter up for Lent, follow @TomHoopes