Increasingly, society is depending on electronic devices to consume information. Real newspapers are falling prey to online news, which is instant and includes live streaming of breaking events. Hard copy books are being replaced by e-books. Even textbooks and children’s books are going digital.
In many ways, this is great. I love my Kindle. The ability to download the collected works of a favorite author for $0.99, or many times, even free, is simply amazing. I also have reading apps on my phone and on my tablet. While I always prefer a physical book (I have an ever growing library of them), the advantages of e-readers compel me to e-books more and more frequently. And I’m OK with that.
But what about praying with an electronic device? If you have any kind of smart phone or tablet, you know that there are a number of high-quality apps that provide the daily mass readings, libraries of familiar prayers, and even interactive missals and breviaries. Let’s examine some of the benefits and drawbacks of using these apps.
The biggest benefit is convenience. Obviously, carrying around a fat daily missal or Bible is more inconvenient than having iMissal on your iPhone. If you have a smart phone, it is always with you. If you have a tablet, it is probably with you most of the time. Books, on the other hand, are usually out of reach when you need them.
Another advantage is interactivity. Many Catholic apps include beautiful artistic visuals, music, or narration. Daily mass readings update every day, and you can instantly download the profile of the day’s saint. These are excellent features that are impossible to replicate with physical books.
While digital prayer books can be great, there are definitely downsides as well. The primary drawback I see is distraction. If you have a phone or tablet, you aren’t just using it to pray. Chances are you, have Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, email, and Angry Birds installed on it too. The likelihood of getting a notification from one of these apps while you are trying to pray is high. “Our Father, who art in…Tanya liked your photo on Facebook!” You get the idea.
Additionally, if you are using the same device to chat on Twitter or look at photos on Facebook, your brain will probably begin to pulse with the infamous FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) the minute you turn it on. Which leads me to my next point.
To enter into deep prayer, we need a quiet heart. We cannot truly pray if our brains are a swirling storm of distractions and anxiousness. Because the next “hit” of information is always only a click away, electronic devices by nature create a restlessness of heart and an impatience for the next new thing. Studies have shown that screens stimulate our brains rather than calm them, and that’s why many sleep specialists recommend avoiding technology for at least an hour before bed.
In short, your iPhone does not facilitate the deep concentration needed for communion with God.
To Pray or Not to Pray…
Considering the benefits and drawbacks of electronic prayer apps, should we use them? My answer is yes and no.
Yes, in the sense that prayer apps can be a great way to “sanctify” your phone. If it isn’t possible for you to carry around a missal or a prayer book, by all means, use an app. Reading the life of a saint or stopping to pray with an app is certainly preferable to not praying at all.
But that said, I contend that electronic devices should never be our first choice for the reasons mentioned above. Prayer, if it at all possible, should be unplugged.
If we want to pray, really pray, we need to calm our hearts and minds and fight distractions. I do not believe electronic devices help us do that. If the saints complained of distractions at prayer in peaceful, cloistered monasteries (which most of us would find highly conducive to prayer), it is certainly much harder to pray with the same iPad we use to check the news and browse Facebook.
I have a leather bag I carry with me most places, and it always contains my two favorite prayer books. If I am caught without them, I use an app, but that is very rarely. These books are becoming old friends that I turn to frequently. I miss them when I don’t have them.
What about you? Do you prefer praying with electronic devices? Do you find them distracting?
PS: I recently spoke to a Bishop who said that electronic altar missals are not allowed during mass. Can anyone confirm this?