“And the Word was made App and dwelt somewhere in the virtual universe”.
It is easy today to inhabit or at least slip in and out of an alternative reality created by devices – iPhones, iPads, Androids, Notebooks, Tablets and Kindles – each with almost endless connectivity, apps and tools, social networks and so on.
The average young man in the West is said to send 120 messages a day; that seems incredible to me but then I think of Fr Umbers [college chaplain Fr Richard Umbers] and just maybe it’s true.
Most smartphone users check their phones several times every hour; 20 per cent of young people do so every couple of minutes; watch people in cafes today and instead of animated conversation or staring into each other’s eyes, they are likely to be ignoring each other and reading or texting someone else; sit anywhere near them on a train and you are likely to get to overhear their phone conversations and bad taste in music.
Four-fifths of smartphone users now keep them nearby through all their waking hours, half check them regularly even when on holidays, and a whopping two-thirds keep them close-by and active even when they are asleep: I expect that the Marriage Equality movement will soon be campaigning for the right to marry your smart phone!
Research suggests that we are fast passing the stage of ordinary reliance on these technologies and coming to a point more like addiction, with all the associated dependency, anxiety, stress and distraction.
Half of those who use these devices predict that they would suffer a high level of anxiety if their smartphones were out of action for a few days.
Now don’t get me wrong: I am no technophobe. I use these things as much as the next guy.
I’m there among the daily users of word-processing, email and Google; I’m among the seven out of 10 managers and professionals who check their phones within an hour of getting up each day and the seven out of ten ‘online adults’ with a Facebook account; I from time to time tweet or have others tweet for me; there’s an archdiocese/Archbishop Anthony app; I’ve got a YouTube channel and all my homilies are podcast or vodcast and sometimes live-streamed.
I even once had a man take a mobile call in the middle of my hearing his Confession and he blithely discussed his shopping list for the way home! I was too flabbergasted to tell him off.
All this can be for good or ill. It is said that spirituality and pornography are amongst the most common uses of cyberspace. “How to meditate” is among the most popular Google “how to” searches, “Who is Jesus?” the most searched “who is…?” question and “What is love” among the most asked “what is…” [queries].
People use technology in search of the deep and meaningful and not just the fleeting and self-indulgent.
But it’s risky. Pope Francis recently questioned whether for all the information we are any wiser and for all the social networks we really have more or deeper friendships. Families, he suggested, should have some technology free zones and times to just chill out and talk to each other. We need to recover the arts of attention to one thing or person and face-to-face conversation.
The prologue of St John’s Gospel tells us that “The Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” (Jn 1:14). God didn’t want to be a virtual God, only a theory, a principle, an app; He didn’t want to dwell only in inaccessible light, in ‘the heavens’, in the virtual universe.
Our Catholic faith is grounded in the two mysteries St John intimates here: the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation, the transcendent and the immanent, the Incarnate one, true God and true man. Christians do not believe in esoteric gnosis, secret knowledge and hidden gods, but a God made man so we might have real friendship with Him and salvation through Him.
The Word and the Sacraments that extend this Incarnation are the true and highest connectivity, the Church is where we are online with what is really real about God, creation and ourselves.
Tonight St Paul pleads with us “to live a life worthy of God” and Jesus exhorts us to eschew hypocrisy and live with clean hands and pure hearts (1Thes 2:9-13; Mt 23:27-32). Residents of the Warrane community, assisted by the Opus Dei chaplaincy, are given every encouragement to live lives of such authenticity, holiness and apostolate.
The world is yearning for mature and responsible young men to lead in the home, the academy, the market, the professions, the Church. In his recent, much discussed encyclical, Laudato Si, Pope Francis recommends a very ancient and very modern asceticism: that we give up some of our creature comforts and focus on what really matters: creation and the wonderful creatures in it, humanity and especially the poor amongst us, and God the creator of them all.
Perhaps you can take a lead by fasting from your devices in Lent, on Fridays, or on Sundays, at least for a few hours, and focus on those around you and the One above you; fasting from food and drink before Communion, and in Lent, on Fridays; praying a bit more and engaging in acts of charity.
Freeing yourself from some of the technocratic rat-race might give you space for cultivating character and making a difference, for being not virtual men but men of real substance…
Tonight, I have the privilege of baptising and confirming Yiwei Neo who will take the name Edward and whose sponsor is James Kwa. Welcome Edward to God’s family the Church! Welcome into the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ! Welcome to the communion of saints with the Blessed Trinity!
With St Paul in tonight’s epistle we give thanks to God that when you heard “God’s message, you accepted it for what it really is, God’s message and not some human thinking; and it is still a living power among you who believe it”.
Now, like Paul, you should be a hard worker, “impeccably right and fair”, by your words “teaching what is right”, by your actions treating every one fraternally even paternally, living “a life worthy of the God who is calling you to share the glory of his kingdom”.
This is an edited version of Archbishop Anthony Fisher’s homily during Mass at Warrane College Chapel, Kensington, on 26 August.