June 2013

Br. Peter Junipero Hannah, O.P.'s picture

On Silence and Schizophrenia, or, How to Use the Internet Without Losing Your Soul

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Pascal famously remarked that “the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room.” There is much in this, and it is difficult to think of a simpler, more practical and pertinent recommendation for our contemporary world.

Mary & MarthWhen I was growing up in the 1980s, my parents were firm that I and my sister would not have televisions (or, by extension, video game apparati) in our rooms—too much distraction and too many other worthy things to occupy time, like, say, organizing a baseball card collection.  My parents—I thank them now!—went so far as to regulate the amount of television we did watch by a “marble system” invented by none other than my mom.  A double-sided tupperware container was assigned to each of us, and six marbles were placed in one side of the container at the beginning of the week, each marble standing for half an hour.  When I or my sister watched television for half an hour (or, for myself, when I played those very primitive video games like Super Mario Brothers, Metroid, and R.C. Pro-Am!), we would transfer one marble over to the other side.  Three hours a week of television or video games, and my sister and I had to apportion the time according to our tastes and prudential judgment.

 

By this simple system, my parents effectively trained me and my sister to acquire the habits of mental and emotional self-discipline in the area of media use.  How times have changed!  The internet and the multitudinous clever devices that can activate it, any time, any place, has introduced a kind of Copernican Revolution in such media availability.  The conditions my parents’ system worked in have multiplied, mutated, and expanded outward (inward? upward? where is the Internet?!) in an almost impossible-to-contain complexity.  One generally must have an e-mail account to get along in the contemporary world.  Cell phones—save for very select groups like Dominican students in formation—are generally expected for normal participants in human society.  The entire gaping abyss of the world-wide-web, filled with infinite amounts of useful and edifying material, alongside much foolish and even dangerous content, lies at most people’s finger-tips 24-7.

 

Much has been and continues to be said on how this new media milieu has radically altered the way our society is structured and how human interaction and relationships are conducted.  Here I point to one simple way it challenges our spiritual—and with it our psychological and emotional—health.  Put simply, “sitting quietly in our room” is the foundation for knowing God and thus for being happy.  Insofar as our media use engenders in us a restless and agitated spirit that is incapable of this, it is compromising our spiritual life, as well as our psychological and emotional health.

 

Reginald Garrigou LaGrange masterfully formulates the basic human need for quiet in his magisterial Three Ages of the Spiritual Life.  Contemplation and an “interior life” begins, LaGrange says, when a person is alone and begins to talk to himself.  If amidst this inward self-reflectiveness, which opens itself only in silence, one begins to seek truth and goodness, “this intimate conversation with himself tends to become conversation with God.”  An interior depth opens up in the person where important matters rise to the surface, unimportant matters fade, and we begin to gaze on the “whole” pattern of life, its meaning, origin, and end.  The “one necessary thing”—knowing God and sitting at the Lord’s feet—becomes for us a salve for our personal wounds, a strength for our weakness, and the life-breath and due nourishment of our soul (see Luke 10.39-42).  We begin to see more clearly the contours of our lives and their ultimate foundation in God, thus welling up with an inward thankfulness to the Almighty for His blessings and ever-present help.

 

The challenge is not to let our media use snuff out this inner-reflective depth.  A noted psychologist once actually connected the way modern technology affects us with a tendency to produce schizoid-like mental habits.  In the 1960s, Rollo May identified the constant barrage of television, media, and other modern technological forms as inducing a kind of social fragmentation where the individual becomes easily disconnected from others, losing the capacity to empathize and preserve inwardly a vital center of self-awareness (the excellent book is Love and Will).  The phenomena is counter-intuitive: though technology has connected human society in myriad ways previously unthinkable, it can simultaneously disconnect individuals and uproot the interior life precisely because external stimuli are so relentless.  Such overstimulation indulged in for long periods actually begins to scramble our brains, acting virtually as a narcotic drug in its attraction and potentially addictive qualities.

 

I am accused by my Dominican brethren of being  “Luddite”—one who spurns the use of technology on principle.  There is truth in the accusation (insert me smiling), but when it comes down to it I realize that social media, like all technology, is a tool that can be used well or ill.  Perpetually available internet access is in some ways the culmination of an increasingly dominant place technology has come to play in modern life since the Industrial Revolution began in the 19th century.  Amidst this milieu, the Christian today must develop a discipline respecting the internet and media use.  If the “marble system” is not effective anymore, since the internet is a repository not only for entertainment but many necessary things, we can still establish set times within our daily and weekly routine to devote to the Lord, to “contemplation,” to reflection on the good and important things of life.

 

I myself have taken to “internet fasts” on Friday—“abstaining,” as it were from all internet use save in instances where charity demands it (like, say, a lunch meeting I had e-mailed someone on and must check again that day).  The rest of the week I try to limit myself to one morning check and one evening check of no more than half an hour; and “sign off” by 9pm every evening from even non-business use.  The classic virtue that applies here is studiositas (“studiousness”), a disposition of healthy and vigorous intellectual inquiry, versus curiositas (“curiosity”), an unmitigated and arbitrary seeking after anything that stimulates.  The latter is the beginning of a soul-sapping road to psychological agitation and spiritual death, the former a healthy and ordered summoning of our natural human desire to know to worthy ends.  (See here for a short and insightful account of studiositas and curiositas by one of my Eastern Province confreres.)

 

Beyond the healthy ways to use media, nothing can take the place of the portion of our lives that each of us needs to carve out for the deeper contemplation in which God comes to us as a friend, “makes his dwelling within us,” whereby we become more aware of his Presence in our souls and the exceeding mercy and grace by which he would lead us to eternal life.  To sit quietly in one’s room is the beginning, an idea Pascal probably learned from one far greater: “Go into your room, shut the door and pray to your Father in heaven...”  This is a different task and graver obligation, I daresay, than seeing what one of my 500 friends on Facebook has happened to have thought worthy to post within the last five minutes.

 

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In this spirit, see here for a quick and informational video on how internet use affects our intellectual capability.  For a longer but thought-provoking recent interview of a Stanford psychologist on similar issues and the "myth of multi-tasking," see here.

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Fr. Gabriel Mosher, O.P.'s picture

The Kraken

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I’ve always feared deep waters. It doesn’t matter if it’s a lake, or an ocean. I don’t like how you can’t see the bottom. Regardless, I’ve ventured out. I’ve fished the rivers and lakes of New Mexico. I’ve swum in backyard ponds in the Midwest. I’ve even treaded water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. But no matter how many times I drown my fear of some slimy, creepy, crawly aquatic animal nibbling on my toes or making a lunch of my limbs I remain terrified. Just the thought of tipping one little toe in murky water makes me cringe. My breathing becomes labored. My skin gets clammy. I squint my eyes at the crazy person who’s asking me to put (literally!) my life and limbs in danger. I cautiously dismiss the thought that my friend, family, or fellow religious brother is trying to feed me to the Kraken.

I have a lot of these irrational fears. And, make no mistake, they are irrational (well many of them). But, unlike some people I rarely allow my fears to paralyze me. I’m always willing to try something new. Why? Well, unless my suspicions about being fed to the Kraken are correct, nothing, i.e., nobody, is going to eat me.[1] While this may be true, I still experience fear. I think it’s because there’s always the one rational fear that keeps me shaking. Sometimes, I’m really good at sabotaging myself.

As I get closer to professing Solemn Vows I’ve been thinking more and more about this shortcoming.[2] As I get closer to completing my Master’s studies, as I get closer to the reception of Holy Orders, I fear that I’ll continue to perpetuate this recurring pattern. I’m afraid that I’ll gnaw off my own limbs.

I’ve never experienced fear quite like this. But I know what’s likely at its root. I’m afraid of sabotaging myself because I really care a lot about my life as a Dominican. I don’t want to muck it all up. I want to get this right! I want to call this fear the result of love combined with enough self-knowledge to know how bad I can mess something up. But the reality is: this fear is the unruly child of pride.

I’ve been looking at this whole problem the wrong way. I have the audacity to think that my success in these things is a function of my own genius. On the contrary, success will only be attained when my heart and mind cling firmly and exclusively to God’s will. I need a stronger, more radical trust in God.

It’s become my prayer that God grant me (and each of us) this gift. I desperately need God’s help to trust in him. But, as you know, sometimes it’s hard to believe that he actually cares. My hope is that this little gift of trust will result in nothing less than a stronger love and a deeper capacity to love. I’m confident that as my trust in God increases, and as my love for God increases, my pride and fear will slink away into the depth. They’ll lose their parking space in my heart.

God will it be so! I’m just so tired of being afraid.


  1. Thank’s to Merlin Mann for this turn of phrase.  ↩

  2. As of the writing of this post there is less than one week till I profess my vows usque ad mortem.  ↩

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Br. Andrew Dominic Yang, O.P.'s picture

On The Road

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In the Introduction to “Early Dominicans,” a compilation book of early Dominican writings, Simon Tugwell, O.P tells us that St. Dominic had a vision of his brethren going out, two by two, into the whole world to preach the Gospel. In the Middle Ages, this was actually quite the scandal –religious men wandering around in public without the safety and stability of the monastery enclosure. Furthermore, the obligation of preaching and teaching belonged solely to the Bishop of each diocese. So it is not surprising that upon hearing St. Dominic’s plan to form an entire Order of Preachers, Pope Innocent III would wonder “Who is this man, who wants to found an Order consisting entirely of bishops?”

Yet, here we are nearly 800 years later, and the Dominican Order has spread throughout the world for the purpose of proclaiming the Gospel in every time and every place.

This summer, with the blessing of our superiors, my classmate Br. Thomas Aquinas Pickett and I have engaged in a humble itinerant preaching mission of our own. Our travels will nearly take us to the borders of the Western Dominican Province – from an ocean view in Palos Verdes, CA to the desert heat of the Mexican border in Holtville, CA. We will be presenting our workshops on Dominican spirituality and prayer in parishes across the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of Orange. We will also accompany a group of High School youth to encounter God at the Steubenville Conference in San Diego. Finally, we will travel to Spokane, WA before reuniting with our brothers again at St. Benedict’s Lodge, our retreat facility on the Mckenzie River.

During this summer apostolate, it is certainly not our message that we seek to spread. St. Paul says that “we do not preach ourselves but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your slaves for the sake of Jesus.” (2 Cor 4:5) Yet, it is hard not to feel the crushing weight of our own inadequacies and shortcomings. I have found solace in the words of the great Dominican preacher Humbert of Romans: “Who ever learned to speak Latin without often speaking bad Latin? Who ever learned to write without frequently writing incorrectly? And the same applies to every art. It is by frequently making mistakes in this way that we eventually master it.” I am constantly trying to remember that we are not the ones who convert hearts to God – it is Christ Himself who does that. If we can simply facilitate an encounter for one person to come closer to God, in spite of the mistakes we will surely make, we will have fulfilled our job.

Please pray that Br. Thomas Aquinas and I receive God’s blessing on our summer ministry, and that God in His infinite mercy might accompany us with his protecting help, working through our efforts to bring many souls into communion with Him.

Br. Michael James Rivera, O.P.'s picture

All in the Family

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Blessed are you, God of our fathers. Blessed is your name in every generation. Let the heavens and all creation praise you. You made Adam, and his wife Eve as a helper and support. From them the human race has sprung. You said, 'It is not good for man to be alone; let us make him a partner.' Now, I take this woman as my wife, not because of lust, but with sincerity. Grant that we may find mercy, and grow old together.  --Tobit 8:7 

When I was younger, I used to imagine what my life would be like as a husband and father. I could see myself buying a house, raising a family, and finally retiring and traveling the world. This lasted for a few years, until I began to discern a call to religious life. Soon the thought of marriage and fatherhood faded into the background, and eventually I realized that God was calling me to a life of celibate chastity. Now as a cooperator brother in solemn vows, my mind only turns to marriage when I think about pursuing a degree in marriage and family counseling. Or when I am preparing to give a talk on the sacrament of marriage, as I've been doing for the last few weeks.

I'm not surprised that God has been inspiring me as I've studied and prayed about what I will say. The first reading at Mass a few weeks ago was from the book of Tobit, and told the story of Tobias and Sarah coming together to pray before consummating their relationship as husband and wife. A few days later, two articles online caught my attention. One included numerous photos of husbands and wives praying together on their wedding day. Then on Father's Day, I read about a poll by the Associated Press and We-tv, conducted in May, which revealed, "8 in 10 men said they have always wanted to be fathers, or think they would like to be someday." Even the new Superman film, Man of Steel, gives me hope in the possibility of happy and healthy families. I won't spoil the movie, but there are some wonderful scenes depicting what it means to be a father and to make sacrifices for the sake of your family.

Today's television shows often portray dads as being immature and foolish, a bumbling doofus or an absentee father-figure. So it's nice to be reminded that there are good fathers out there: responsible men who work hard to take care of their families and make ends meet, who love their wives and offer good advice and encouragement to their children. The traditional nuclear family, so common-place in the 1950s, is not just a thing of the past.