How often have I lived through these weeks without paying much attention to penance, fasting, and prayer? How often have I missed the spiritual fruits of the season without even being aware of it? But how can I ever really celebrate Easter without observing Lent? How can I rejoice fully in your Resurrection when I have avoided participating in your death? Yes, Lord, I have to die – with you, through you, and in you – and thus become ready to recognize you when you appear to me in your Resurrection. There is so much in me that needs to die: false attachments, greed, and anger, impatience, and stinginess…I see clearly now how little I have died with you, really gone your way and been faithful to it. O Lord, make this Lenten season different from the other ones. Let me find you again. Amen.
Henry Nouwen (A Prayer for Lent)
Every year my wife asks me to “give up” something for the season of Lent. While these forty days of fasting that precede the celebration of Easter are a part of the liturgical calendar, they have never played a part in my walk with Christ. As a result, I have never given up anything. This year however, my wife approached my lacklustre view of Lent from a different angle. Instead of asking me to give up something in general, she challenged me to give up one thing in particular: social media. She asked me if I would remove Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram from my phone for 40 days.
Now, if Noah could be on an ark with his family and the majority of earth’s animal population for forty days, I was pretty sure I could manage forty days without Facebook on my phone. Plus, I figured that this digital Lenten experiment might provide excellent fodder for the blog. This was not, perhaps, the best motive for participating in Lent, but I accepted the challenge nonetheless, and deleted all mobile access to my social networks.
Liturgical Life and Habits of a High-Tech Heart
The first week of my Lenten fast made me the most acutely aware of how pervasive my high-tech habits had become since purchasing an iPhone. Waking up at 5 am, my hand instinctively reached out in the dark for the phone on the nightstand. Half awake, I swiped across the screen, opening email, checking weather forecasts, viewing sports highlights, and of course, searching for updates on Facebook or Instagram that I may have missed while sleeping. Additionally, I found myself glancing at my phone while brushing my teeth, making my breakfast, driving to work, and even sitting at home with my wife at night. Although Facebook and Instagram could no longer be the object of these glances, having deleted them from my phone, their absence did not seem powerful enough to crush the habit of staring into my phone.
Time after time I also caught myself breaking up my day with thoughts of potential Facebook or Instagram updates. When a funny situation presented itself in the classroom, I wanted to post about it on Facebook. When I saw a sunset with my wife, I wanted to capture it and share it with friends on Instagram. All I could conclude after my first day of fasting was that my craving to consume information as powerful as my desire to produce and share it.
The next morning, laying in bed, my face illuminated by the dim light of the iPhone screen once again, a series of questions filled my mind.
- What is the first desire in my heart at the beginning of each day?
- How do I embody this desire throughout my day?
- What is gained by giving in to this desire? What is lost?
- Should social media or any other media on my phone, really play such major roles in my daily routines?
Perhaps these are the questions that a Lenten fast is supposed to bring to the surface? In any event, it was clear to me that my waking desire to “connect” to the world of information and updates is embodied in the movements of my day that involve my hand holding a phone in front my face, no matter the time or place.
Gradually, I began to realize me how far I have drifted from the daily routines that defined my upbringing. Now, my parents may not have recognized the season of Lent in our home, or used the words “liturgical calendar,” but in many ways our household was a liturgical one, operating within firmly set routines and rhythms of work and worship.
My friend and former colleague, Lindsey Watson, is a full-time mother and routine blogger who defines the concept of a liturgical home nicely in her thought-provoking 31 day blog series. In the introduction to this series, “What the heck is a Liturgical Home?” she states:
The word “liturgy” carries a lot of baggage and expectation with it; to some it evokes feelings of reverence and tradition, and it reminds others of stale, boring hours sitting on hard wooden pews. But most simply, a liturgy is a collection of routines that order a time of worship. Or, as the always-erudite Wikipedia puts it, “liturgy is a communal response to the sacred through activity reflecting praise, thanksgiving, supplication, or repentance.”
In most of our minds, liturgy is something that happens within the confines of a church building on a Sunday morning. But I’ve recently been intrigued by the idea of developing a liturgy for the home; a way to purposefully “respond to the sacred” in the midst of the laundry, the bills, the kids, the errands.
This is, in many ways, the home in which I grew up, and which I find myself abandoning the more I am dominated by my digital desires. In our home, we routinely sat around the table for meal that began and ended with Scripture and prayer. We gathered together every Sunday in Church and during the six days in between we worked and played hard.
My parents took seriously the Old Testament manual for child-rearing:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
When I re-read these verses in light of my Lenten fast, I am convicted that it is not God’s Word which is on my heart when I lie down and when I rise, nor is it God’s Word which is bound as a sign on my hand. Instead, it is predominantly the words (and images) found in social media that I love with my heart, soul, and mind. The lesson I learned this Lent is that my high-tech habits are constantly shaping (perhaps eroding) the liturgy of my life.
Lent: Understanding Fasting as the Cost of Discipleship
Before you imagine that this Lenten revelation altered my behavior for a season of my life, I will have to confess to you that it did not. Initially, these convictions shook me up enough to avoid my phone for a week or two. I even went on a camping trip with my fourth grade class and was filled with pride that I was not one of the chaperones glued to his phone. Forgetting that this was my habit days earlier, I sat back, content to judge them for an inability to engage with their children.
When we returned from the trip however, I grew lax in my observance of Lent. I uploaded different apps that could connect me to Facebook and as the minutes spent fixated on my phone increased, my concern decreased. As season of Lent culminated with the celebration of Easter, I sat in church considering my first attempt at a season of fasting. What a failure.
During this time I had started reading “The Cost of Discipleship,” by the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. In it he discusses fasting at length in a chapter entitled “The Hiddenness of the Devout Life.” Quoting Matthew 6:16-18 (“But you, when you fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; that you be not seen of men to fast, but of thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which sees in secret, will recompense you.”), Bonhoeffer argues that a critical feature of every Christian life must be the ascetic’s “strict exercise of self-control.” He writes:
“Strict exercise of self-control [has] only one purpose – to make the disciples more ready and cheerful to accomplish those things which God would have done. Fasting helps to discipline the self-indulgent and slothful will which is so reluctant to serve the Lord, and it helps to humiliate and chasten the flesh.”
Self-indulgent certainly describes my will when it comes to digital media and slothful certainly describes my will when it comes to spending time in God’s Word. Throughout Lent I have witnessed how these desires of my flesh have free reign because I do not harness them with self-control.
But even when I did feel myself defeating these habits, didn’t I become proud and critical of others who clung to their phones? My will did not become more Christ-like just because of my attempt at asceticism. Bonhoeffer addresses this reality as well, arguing:
“[W]e are not to imagine that [asceticism] alone will crush the will of the flesh, or that there is any way of mortifying our old man other than by faith in Jesus. [emphasis mine].
Asceticism means voluntary suffering: it is passio activa rather than passiva, and it is just there that the danger lies. There is always a danger that in our asceticism we shall be tempted to imitate the sufferings of Christ. This is a pious but godless ambition, for beneath it there always lurks the notion that it is possible for us to step into Christ’s shoes and suffer as he did and kill the Old Adam.”
In my attempt at observing Lent, I had fallen into the pious, but godless, ambition of hoping to become more holy. (And hoping to have material for the blog…) This was a piety rooted in pride and doomed to fail because it avoided the cross of Christ, the culminating celebration to end the season of Lent. Missing the cross, I mis-understood Lent. Perhaps it took me a season of mis-understanding to finally understand the depths to which I need Christ. There are other ways of remembering this truth, but fasting is one way to be brought low enough really let it sink in.