While addressing the faithful gathered at St. Peter’s Square on the First Sunday of Lent, Pope Francis laid down a challenge that stirred many to self-reflection: Try to check your Bible as often as you would check your cellphone. Pope Francis said:
"What would happen if we turned around when we forgot it: if you forget your cellphone- oh no! I don't have it, I'll go back and find it; what if we read the message of God contained in the Bible the way we read messages on our cellphones?”
Our cellphones? That’s a tall order. Many of us have become conditioned to sink into our phones at any spare moment, especially in public settings. Not surprising—after all, it’s a one-stop shop for emotional, social, and retail excitement.
Recent studies say that Americans check their phones on an aver 50-75 times a day, depending on age. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, 80% say that they sleep with their phones next to their head. Nearly 15% of all Americans say they even use their cellphone in the shower.
Nothing is wrong with cellphones in themselves. New channels for communication always open up new opportunities for both our greatest and worst behavior. And much good has been brought by phones. It is safe to say even that the Holy Spirit has used smart phones to lead a few young men to their religious vocations.
But to engage with a device to the level that it is entering the shower and the bedroom with you…clearly something is wrong here. There is an unease and even a guilt that accompanies checking a phone 50+ times per day, a deep dissatisfaction and avoidance. Even though most Americans recognize that our cellphones are making us more impatient and removing us from the present moment, nevertheless we cannot quite stop ourselves.
At the bottom of our most of our damaging behaviors we usually find a desire that is actually good, healthy, and even Divine. In the case of our obsessive checking of our cell phones, we have a desire to feel a connection, a sense of unity with another person, or a sense of belonging within a community.
These are all good things to want. In fact, unity and community… those are the centerpieces of the Augustinian charism!
Our use of cellphones can be summed up in one word. One, very Augustinian word: Restlessness.
Literally, we are not able to be at rest. Always looking, always checking, always searching. Who is out there? Who loves me? Where else could I be but here?
That’s Restlessness. As Augustinians, we know it when we see it. We are Men of the Restless Heart.
Like technology, restlessness can lead us to both destructive and enriching behavior. Certainly it did for Augustine. For example, Augustine said in his Confessions that when he was a young boy “restlessness” had caused him to…
- spend too much time playing games
- watch too many shows
- imitate scenes from comedies
It is safe to say that the young Augustine would have been a frequent phone checker were it available.
In all of these activities reveal Augustine’s desire to escape, a restless urge that he should be somewhere else. Augustine, like many of us, felt out of place in the world. He felt that there was something more that he longed for. Whatever he consumed or watched, or however he entertained himself, he was not filled.
Later, Augustine was able to realize that this restlessness, which led him into so many useless activities, was also a sign that he was made by God, and that he would only find his rest when he was with God once again. He came to realize that God gave him a Divine Restlessness, actually he calls it “inward prodding that stirred me to find life unendurable.” This life remained unendurable only until his restlessness led him to see that God “was a certainty.”
So we shouldn’t condemn ourselves for constantly looking at our phones. Instead we should try to recognize it as a sign that we are longing for God.
This is why Pope Francis actually encourages us to be restless. When addressing the Augustinian Order in 2013, Francis told the friars:
“Restlessness is also love, always seeking the good of others, of loved ones, with that intensity that also leads to tears . . . The restlessness of the quest for the truth, of the quest for God, becomes the restlessness of always coming to know Him better, and of going out of oneself in order to make Him known to others and this is the restlessness of love”
Following these words, we can try this lent to use our restlessness for good, instead of satisfying it with our phones.