Praying Using Technology?

By Bosco Peters.

Cardinal Robert Sarah (Prefect of the Roman Catholic Congregation for Divine Worship) and I often see things differently.

At a recent conference in Rome, celebrating 10 years since Pope Benedict XVI’s loosened restrictions on celebrating Mass in the pre-Vatican II form, Cardinal Sarah attacked using mobile phones and tablets to pray Daily Prayer:

Perhaps it is very practical and convenient to pray the breviary with my own mobile phone or tablet or another electronic device, but it is not worthy: it desacralises prayer. These apparatuses are not instruments consecrated and reserved to God, but we use them for God and also for profane things! Electronic devices must be turned off, or better still they can be left behind at home when we come to worship God.

I totally disagree.

Let me illustrate with an old story – from when smoking was still thought to be OK, from before the time when a Jesuit was running the Roman Catholic Church!

A Franciscan and a Jesuit were friends. They were both smokers who found it difficult to pray for a long period of time without having a cigarette. They decided to go to their superiors and ask permission to smoke.

When they met again, the Franciscan was downcast. He said, “I asked my superior if I could smoke while I pray and he said ‘no.’”

The Jesuit smiled. “I asked if I could pray while I smoke. He said ‘of course.’”

Cardinal Sarah is clearly approaching this from the side: can I use my phone while I pray? It changes if we approach it from the side: can I pray while I use my phone?

What is it about books that make them any more sacred than a phone or a tablet, Cardinal Sarah? Didn’t the rot set in for you, Cardinal Sarah, once people stopped using texts that had been prayerfully hand-copied by dedicated monks?

OK, so the phone or tablet, that is now being used for prayer, might have been used sinfully, but can you be assured that the printing press that produced your breviary was never, ever used for anything desacralised? And can we not turn this around: isn’t it great that the phone or tablet that has drawn me away from God is now drawing me towards God? Maybe, using my phone or tablet prayerfully may encourage a more Godly use of my phone or tablet outside of the time of using it for Daily Prayer.

In any case, I’m going to ask the bigger question: what is this division into sacred and secular? Does not the Incarnation break down this division?

Can we not read the Bible on a digital device? Can we not take advantage of the wonderful digital apps that help unpack the Bible so excellently?

I know people who only got into praying the complexity of the Daily Office because the hard, ribbon-placing-and-flipping-through-options was done for them by a digital app.

I have prayed the Office using digital devices. I have prayed the Office with another priest – he on his phone, me using a book. When I walked the Camino, the only book I carried was the guidebook – the Daily Office, Bible, and the Mass in Spanish/English in parallel, all these were on my iPad mini.

It is a strong hope of mine that Benedictine Daily Prayer will become available digitally. I encourage you to explore the digital Chapel on this site – I am regularly told how it enables people to have a prayer discipline.

What do you think?

Reprinted with permission from the Liturgy Blog.

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5 comments

  1. While there a great many times I agree with the Cardinal’s position this isn’t one of them. I use my phone in adoration to pray the hours, or listen to talks by Bishop Sheen, and my wife uses hers at daily Mass for the antiphons.

  2. So long as a tablet is going to be used as a liturgical book by liturgical ministers is dedicated/restricted to sacred use, there is less of an issue – Cardinal Sarah seems to be assuming such cannot and/or will not be the case.

    While our Lord’s Incarnation did many wonderful things, it didn’t annihilate the concept of sacred and profane – he maintained that distinction.

  3. In my normal daily life I use a book for the Hours (the one-volume Christian Prayer that all deacon candidates and wives are issued by the Chicago Archdiocese during formation). I use an app (DivineOffice, recommended a few years ago on this site) when I find myself in a place without a book – usually, when I’m in an airport.

    In our parish, we often begin meetings with a proclamation of the Gospel passage for the coming Sunday, and I’ve found the usccb.org website, accessed from my smart phone, to be more convenient than having to hunt down a missalette or lectionary.

    If the cardinal’s intuition is that the book itself is a symbol, I don’t think he’s wrong. I would agree with that intuition and believe a sacred book is preferable to a smart phone or a tablet for purposes of public worship. But I also believe that the poster makes some strong points. I don’t think it’s wrong to use a high-tech device for sacred purposes. The device is just a tool. A tool may not be symbolically rich in sacred meaning. But it’s an accessory of our lives, and our lives aren’t wholly profane – in fact they can be windows to grace and holiness.

  4. One advantage of a book, at least when one prays alone, is that one is in charge of the selection of texts for the Hours. The apps I’ve used tend to ignore optional memorials that I’d wish to celebrate; or on days when there is more than one saint to choose from, it chooses the wrong one :-). There is sort of a layer of non-communal editorial imposition there. It’s an interesting aspect of praying with apps – not an aspect of the allegedly-profane tool, but more an aspect of the influence of social media.

  5. It is still the same person using either “sacred book” or “secular electronic doohicky”. In us the sacred and secular are not distinct, we are able to entertain secular thoughts in sacred spaces and sacred thoughts in the secular. Nor are they in anything we use. Printing houses make secular profit from selling our sacred books, we see no dichotomy. Why are we creating it elsewhere?

    What the demand for sacred integrity in all things religious? That our Altar bread come from unpollinated wheat (promiscious plant sex you know), handled only by the transcendently virginal all through all its production phases. We realise that the work of human hands, with all its ambiguity, underpaid workers, cursing millars and sweaty packers, goes into the sacred exchange of Eucharist.

    Hopefully use of a prayer app would also transform the trolls and tweeters of the toxic whose footprints are on our devices, bring peace to the exploited workers who built them and integrity to the designers and marketers of things gadgety.

    PS. Dominican superiors would tell their brothers to smoke less and pray more.

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