I broke my smartphone, but not on purpose.
Perhaps it should have been on purpose- as someone prone to the perils of workaholism, I had developed the tendency to check the thing far more than necessary. It wasn’t the smartphone’s fault; before, when I had been the slightly embarrassed owner of a more conventional and less tricked-out flip phone, my psyche was still marked with the mad compulsion to constantly check my laptop to see if anyone had emailed me in the last ten minutes.
This tendency to check and re-check for even the most meaningless of digital messages was only augmented by my acquisition of a better mousetrap, the kind that could bring me not just audio, but also textual and visual contact with my peers and colleagues; a device that could pick a playlist that could sing me to sleep at night and remember what time to wake me up the next morning. I had R2D2, C3PO, and a volume-controllable personal secretary rolled into one, and on top of it all, I could fit it in my pocket. In our symbiotic relationship, I vowed never to abandon it so long as it continued to supply me with an endless stream of information and assistance on a host of matters, be they recreational or professional.
And so it was, roughly a month into my codependence on this miracle device, I decided to unplug (only metaphorically, of course) and go on a brief retreat at a Benedictine Abbey in Washington D.C. I say metaphorically, because my trusty multifaceted digital companion was slated to join me for the few days I would be staying with the monks. The morning I was scheduled to take off for the Abbey, the haste with which I was preparing my belongings for the two days of semi-solitude (with, of course, access to satellite coverage) was, in my mind, an indication of how badly I needed the slower, more contemplative experience offered to me by a day or two with the monks.
Then tragedy struck.
Or at least the scene appeared tragic at the time. In the aforementioned haste of preparation, shortly after beginning a load of laundry, I began to look, first with mild frustration, then with growing panic, for my omnifaceted electronic sidekick. I stopped just short of calling after it as though it were a lost beagle. With the terror that comes from realizing all too late one’s inadvertent folly, I raced to the basement, flung open the washer, and with trembling hands, fished my waterlogged personal assistant and life manager from the swishing tank of retreat apparel.
Towels were hastily laid out. Batteries were removed. Rudimentary surgery was performed. A bag of rice was prepared, and customer service was called. The response came from the phone company, and was met with sickening silence on my end. In words framed so as to try to lessen the tragedy, I was told that my warranty didn’t cover water damage, and because I hadn’t invested in the eight dollars’ worth of insurance offered to me when I purchased the phone, there was nothing that could be done. My smartphone had been cut down in the prime of its youth.
I can look back on the events of that morning and see the irony much more clearly now than I could in the heat of the moment. Who takes a smartphone to a silent retreat? My rationale, I thought, was sound: how would I be able to find the guesthouse without my GPS? How would I know what time it was if I were anywhere besides my room? What if anyone needed to get in touch with me while I was on retreat? These questions from the world outside the abbey were clamoring for the opportunity to haunt me inside the abbey as well.
I had a great retreat, as it turns out. I ended up finding the abbey without the aid of turn-by-turn navigation. I was able to get to prayer on time, using the same time-telling tools that Benedictines were using a millenium before the invention of portable timepieces; the bells. I never answered the phone once, nor felt deprivation or remorse at not contacting anyone from the outside. I read books that weren’t backlit. I was briefly and mildly upset at not being able to post a photo of a second edition of Erasmus to my social network, but that discomfort quickly passed. Most importantly, I was, for the first time in a long time, able to pray.
I know now, as I did on some level then, that it is not necessary to live with monks in order to be able to pray, but the steady stream of multimedia with which we are constantly confronted can, if we are not vigilant, deaden our souls to the spiritual discipline needed for prayer. It can weaken our resolve, overdrive our senses, and cripple our humility. Prayer offends our modern notions of practicality and constant connectedness, and requires of us time which we do not think we have to give. And yet it is an essential aspect of the Christian life. Without prayer, we simply cannot live in relationship with God. We can only live in relationship to God.
How do we break out of the tendency to confuse the urgent with the important? Urgency is the squeaky wheel that makes us rush for the oil can; importance is the still, small voice that calls us to things of eternal value. For myself, the drowning of my smartphone was a wake-up call to me, telling me that it was high time I started to try to discern the difference.