I’d been behind on many things, including my biweekly blog. Then restaurants and gyms closed, church services were cancelled for the foreseeable future, and everyone has become more isolated and homebound to varying degrees. I’m wrestling with what all of this means in the context of Great Lent. So, I decided to publish more frequent posts about observing Lent in our new circumstances. I chose “Contemplatives in Confinement” as a goal for all of us, not as a description of my reality. My thoughts tend toward worry and a desire for distraction rather than prayer and communion with God. Maybe you’re stuck in your own head right now too. I hope you’ll find this series helpful. — Lynnette
A few months ago, with a new year unfolding, I blogged about limiting digital input and my realization that I waste a lot of time online with mindless fluff. My hubby Rob and I set digital fences around our bad habits: He avoided Reddit entirely and quit scrolling during spare moments. I perused my news apps only morning and evening and stayed away from Facebook long enough that, like a sugar addict sworn off white flour and sweets, over time I didn’t miss it anymore.
Then pandemic entered our lives—something I never envisioned during the lofty goal-setting season of New Year’s resolutions. Companies mandated working from home for those who could. Restaurants and gyms closed. Libraries closed. (What?!) Worst of all, church buildings closed.
And suddenly the digital world became a blessing. Our church, and many others, started livestreaming our beautiful Lenten services in audio and video. This morning my parish’s Bible study began videoconferencing through Google Meet.
And just as suddenly the digital world became a temptation again. I am back on Facebook. I am scrolling news stories obsessively. I have Tivo. And Netflix. And Amazon Prime.
Locked movie theaters meant nothing to me—I rarely find anything on the big screen that’s worth my time and money. I don’t go bar-hopping, so closed bars didn’t affect me. I shrugged (and, okay, chuckled a bit) at the long lines outside Denver’s marijuana dispensaries.
But giving me a stay-at-home order with unlimited digital distractions? It’s like locking an alcoholic inside one of those shuttered liquor stores. This is temptation for me. This is an invitation to spiritual struggle.
I’m not even referring to the usual suspects: pornography, graphic violence, and extremism of all sorts on the internet. Instead, the endless fluff that I am again streaming into my mind is now served with a generous side helping of anxiety.
Reintroducing Order to My Digital Chaos
You know, the upside of blogging about my digital fast in January was accountability. And the downside of blogging about my failed digital fast now is accountability. But maybe it’s actually a good thing, because I need to construct some new goals, digitally and otherwise, in a world that is very different than it was three months ago.
Here are some of the habits I’m struggling to implement. I invite you to join me and to establish your own. Maybe we can check up on each other, digitally.
Limiting News Consumption. Again.
I will not fast completely from the news. I want to know the statistics. I want to know what the World Health Organization and our local healthcare experts are saying. But not at every moment of the day.
In my January blog I noted a phenomenon of the 24-hour news cycle: “new, ‘updated’ news stories are a repeat of the old, with a new sentence or two of speculation added.” Well, nothing has changed. In just one of many examples, a news show on public radio today featured interviews with nurses talking about the shortage in personal protection equipment and the dangers of being in daily, close contact with COVID-19 patients.
Was this news true? Yes. Do I care? Yes. I have friends who are doctors and nurses, and I pray for their safety. BUT this was the same basic story that I’ve watched/heard/read for the past five days. The only difference was the identity of the people being interviewed.
Oh, and loss of the senses of smell and taste can be a sign of coronavirus. The Tokyo Olympics have been postponed. And Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson are doing well.
I have consumed each of these factoids in various media formats about five times. I do not need to relearn the same thing. My time is more profitably spent in silence, knitting while listening to a podcast from Ancient Faith Radio, or praying for the sick.
Applying the Church’s Recipe for Lent in New Ways
The recipe for spiritual growth during Great Lent—prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—has not changed. But this year, some of the ingredients have. And so, like a mom who runs out of flour on her daughter’s birthday and whips up a flourless cake, we make do with our changed circumstances.
Corporate prayer looks different this year. I expected to attend more services during Lent, but now there are none. I looked forward to unhurried conversations at potluck meals after Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesdays, but now I see my fellow parishioners only on Facebook. I looked forward to the togetherness of the Lenten journey, but now we are together alone.
Yes, in this new Lenten reality of isolation, we all feel a bit unmoored. So we can thank God for online services and, as much as our schedules permit, pray and worship together/alone. This is technology as blessing.
No one is passing a collection plate in our homes. But we can still practice almsgiving. More than ever, our donations are needed to bring the love of God to others in practical ways. Our now-empty churches still need our tithes. The disaster-relief work of IOCC and the mission work of OCMC need our financial help in order to bring faith, hope, and love around the world during this pandemic. Many people have lost their jobs, and food pantries and homeless ministries need us to give and help meet these critical needs.
I am thankful for all the farmers, truckers, and grocery store employees in our food supply chain. Food is still available—maybe not every item on our lists, but more than enough to feed our families. This year we won’t be sampling all those yummy Lenten potluck dishes, but we can still continue fasting.
Everything has changed—and yet nothing has changed.
Protecting My Relationship with Christ through Digital Minimalism
For me, all of the above items are doable with just a little intentionality and planning. But the greatest digital danger with all of our devices is their ability to keep me from prayer and from profitable spiritual reading. It is too easy to fill the silence with noise.
St. John of Kronstadt is worth quoting again on this subject. Simply add “online content” to “worldly magazines and newspapers”:
If you read worldly magazines and newspapers, and derive some profit from them, as a citizen, a Christian, and a member of a family, then you ought still more and still oftener to read the Gospel and the writings of the Holy Fathers; for it would be sinful for a Christian, who reads worldly writings, not to read divinely-inspired ones. — My Life in Christ, p.388
I say I want to pray more, and I think I mean it, but too often I place time with God—beyond quick, on-the-go prayers—on the back burner. Because after I finish this assignment, I need to dig in the garden while the afternoon is still warm, then I need to make dinner, and—oh, the kitchen is a mess. I’ll pray the Akathist at our icon corner tonight, after I’ve cleaned the dishes and wiped down the countertops. Oh, wait, I need to tackle my email inbox…
By the time “tonight” comes, I am too tired to pray. But tomorrow, after lunch, I am definitely taking ten minutes of silence for the Jesus Prayer and to pray for the needs of people I know.
But I don’t have tomorrow. I have only now, and in the now I neglect God. Knowing that He is “everywhere present and filling all things,” I take Him for granted and fail to nurture my relationship with Him. Yet in this era of coronavirus my errands are limited, with no travel time to and from church. I have an opportunity—an opportunity to use this time of limitation and confinement for spiritual profit. To pray more. To serve others more. To embrace the silence and commune with God.
Will I fritter away this gift of time and solitude, or will I seek first His Kingdom, “redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Eph. 5:16)? With God’s grace, I hope I will seek Him first.
Let’s pray for each other.