Daily Meditations

Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction, Part 5

October 10th, 2019

By Fr. Maximos (Constas)

Worst of all is the so-called smartphone which I like to call the dumb phone, which is essentially a portable computer. I was with my family for thanksgiving and everyone came into the house with an iPad under his arm, and they literally had them sitting on the table and would check them every now and then. It’s very rude; it’s very divisive and destructive of community. And you might say, “Fr. Maximos you’re just a monk, and you’ve been living in a cave somewhere. Welcome to the real world—this is the way it is.” The news is that there are a growing number of secular psychologists and theorists offering very serious and pointed critiques of this technological culture because it is just so destructive of attention and concentration and human relation. So it’s not just monastic obscurantism saying these things. It’s something deeper and more widespread that we need to be concerned about.

Even in the seminary I see clergy in the altar serving with iPads. This is appalling to me. A liturgical book is a sacred object. An iPad is not, and it’s never going to be. I suppose if someone had a dedicated iPad that was for use at the chanting stand that might be okay if necessary, but this is not the same. These are the same iPads that people watch movies on, and what kinds of movies? These things have multiple uses, very few of which are even remotely sacred, and yet we bring that into the sanctuary? It’s distressing especially because it’s not necessary. If you’re a priest, learn when to come out of the altar and what to say. And if you haven’t memorized it, then open up the book. How odd to see someone in ecclesiastical vestments in the setting of a Byzantine church with this device.

Last year I was at an international conference on St. Maximus the Confessor in Belgrade, and it was a wonderful program. One of the many highlights was the consecration of a brand new church dedicated to St. Maximus. It was the first ever dedicated to him in Serbia. Met. John Zizioulas was there and ten other hierarchs and twenty or thirty clergy. It was a smallish church and it was packed, and a beautiful day. At one point prior to the start of the Liturgy someone came out of the altar and told me that the metropolitan didn’t have his Archeiraticon, so he ran out in a hurry because they needed the prayers for him to read. After a couple of minutes he came running back in because he had found the prayers on the internet and had them on an iPad. This altar was fairly open, by the way, so you could see into the sanctuary. So he came running back in with the iPad, happy that he had found the prayers, and as one body all of the Serbian hierarchs took a step back and said “No! Do not bring that object into this space.” It was done even without thinking. So he left and they printed out the text in the church office. It was a memorable thing to see that visceral response on the part of the hierarchy.

The next thing I wanted to talk about is about ADD/ADHD, because these diagnoses are up 70% in the last decad—for unknown reasons, we’re told. In 2010 there were over 10,000,000 cases reported in children for an illness that didn’t exist until 1987. Of course as a result of these diagnoses, kids at increasingly younger ages are being showered with drugs like Ritalin and Adderall. Brains that have not been fully developed are being bombarded with chemicals. This is certainly not a disease like the flu. It’s not genetic, which means it’s not simply a personal problem but a societal problem. It’s not a condition simply of the self but of the culture as a whole.

As a bridge to the next talk, why are we drawn to surface appearances? Why are we so easily distracted? Why are we addicted to surface appearances? What is it about the depth that frightens us? There’s something about the surface that we obviously love, because we’re forever clinging to it. Are we afraid of something that we might find there? Freud said people walk into a room and put the radio on right away because people don’t want to hear their unconscious impulses. Are we running from something? Or are we afraid that we’ll find nothing? — that we’ve become hollow, vacuous people, living on the surface, and to look into the void of our own nothingness is so terrifying that we welcome the distractions.

Society creates the problem, and then it offers us a supposed cure. You’re lonely, isolated, and fragmented? Well of course, because society has made us that way. But society is very kind so it offers a “cure”—endless television watching, endless distractions. We’ll help you cope with your inner nothingness by giving you these illusions. We have lived most of our life on the surface or outside or far form ourselves in a fruitless search for meaning and fulfillment. There’s a deep disconnectedness from ourselves going on, which means that we’ve become disconnected from neighbor and above all from God, and there are things that unmoored us from that deeper anchoring, be it trauma or something else.

And the final point: this is why the Church has always emphasized the importance of the inner life which is not about surface appearances. We don’t have photographs of the saints in the Church, even though we have saints who have lived in that time. We don’t consider photographs to be suitable for the iconostasis because the photo is the surface, while an icon reveals the depth. The ideal of inner attention, of recalling one’s fragmented and scattered attention, of recollecting oneself within the mind and then following the breath to the heart is the only solution we have for what’s happened to our society over the last ten years—and this serves as the bridge to the next talk.

~ “Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction” delivered by Fr. Maximos (Constas) on Feb. 2014 to the clergy of diocese of LA and the West of Antiochian of N. America at the invitation of His Eminence Metropolitan Joseph. The audio version of this lecture first appeared on Patristic Nectar Publications, and is published here by permission.

Fr. Maximos is the presidential research scholar at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of theology in Brookline, MA. He is an Athonite monk, one-time professor at Harvard Divinity School, accomplished author and translator and lectures internationally in both academic and parochial venues.