Andrew Sullivan: I Used to Be a Human


Now here is a hard-hitting and deeply inspiring piece to read on the Lord’s Day or on any day: “I Used to Be a Human” by Andrew Sullivan.

I followed Alan Hommerding’s advice on FB and printed the piece out so I could sit in a quiet place and read it with concentration, unplugged from any social media.

Sullivan tells of his arrival at a mediation center (a converted novitiate) to work on his addiction to social media. Along with withdrawal pains come insights, such as this:

Things that usually escaped me began to intrigue me. On a meditative walk through the forest on my second day, I began to notice not just the quality of the autumnal light through the leaves but the splotchy multicolors of the newly fallen, the texture of the lichen on the bark, the way in which tree roots had come to entangle and overcome old stone walls. The immediate impulse — to grab my phone and photograph it — was foiled by an empty pocket. So I simply looked. At one point, I got lost and had to rely on my sense of direction to find my way back. I heard birdsong for the first time in years. Well, of course, I had always heard it, but it had been so long since I listened.

It’s a long piece, but worth every syllable. I’m tempted to excerpt every paragraph – but I’ll limit myself to this gem:

Millennia ago, as the historian Diarmaid MacCulloch has argued, the unnameable, often inscrutably silent God of the Jewish Scriptures intersected with Plato’s concept of a divinity so beyond human understanding and imperfection that no words could accurately describe it. The hidden God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures spoke often by not speaking. And Jesus, like the Buddha, revealed as much by his silences as by his words. He was a preacher who yet wandered for 40 days in the desert; a prisoner who refused to defend himself at his trial. At the converted novitiate at the retreat, they had left two stained-glass windows depicting Jesus. In one, he is in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating blood in terror, alone before his execution. In the other, he is seated at the Last Supper, with the disciple John the Beloved resting his head on Jesus’s chest. He is speaking in neither.

That Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination.

Okay, one more. I can’t resist, for this bit on Christian mysticism speaks so directly to the mission of this blog:

If the churches came to understand that the greatest threat to faith today is not hedonism but distraction, perhaps they might begin to appeal anew to a frazzled digital generation. Christian leaders seem to think that they need more distraction to counter the distraction. Their services have degenerated into emotional spasms, their spaces drowned with light and noise and locked shut throughout the day, when their darkness and silence might actually draw those whose minds and souls have grown web-weary. But the mysticism of Catholic meditation — of the Rosary, of Benediction, or simple contemplative prayer — is a tradition in search of rediscovery. The monasteries — opened up to more lay visitors — could try to answer to the same needs that the booming yoga movement has increasingly met.

Go. Read the piece.




  1. I read this piece a few days ago and was deeply moved by it. Sullivan is a gifted writer, and, when I used to hold a subscription to Time magazine, I always made a point of reading his pieces (mostly on politics at that time, still excellent). This article is arguably the most profound and beautiful he has written, and deserves several readings. It is also well-known that Sullivan is a devout Catholic, which comes across in the article in a way that is more like faith sharing than preaching. Every person of faith, and every person who is feeling the great crushing weight of of the increasingly intrusive Internet can find something worthwhile to take away from this EXCELLENT piece.

  2. A number of people took my FB advice, and several wrote back to me that they were startled by how difficult they found it to sit still and actually read the article all the way through. An example of how the medium IS the message, and how it can form, or mis-form us.
    I am saddened and amazed (especially after Triduum) by the number of video clips of liturgies (especially music) I see posted online. This shows that we, the Church, are increasingly incapable of experiencing life – mostly we only are documenting it. I do not believe that we can stay connected to our full, conscious, active, participation in the prayer of the liturgy, while simultaneously documenting it to show off to others.
    Neuroscientists tell us that we delude ourselves into believing we can multi-task. But our brains “brown out” while they toggle between tasks—and this is why texting and driving is so dangerous. With different consequences, I think that attempting to document and pray is similar, also with a price to pay.
    I am fond of observing that the “carn” in the middle of “incarnate” means that Christians believe in a God *con carne*, a truly enfleshed divinity still found in the members of Christ’s Body—the Church—around us. I think that churches that are uncritically adding to the distractions via the web, etc. are actually de-carnating the lives of the church’s members. Perhaps another service churches can provide is to help people into silence, and quiet, and into re-incarnating their lives.

  3. I’m in agreement about the problem with the impulse to “document” life. That said, I can appreciate the desire to hold on to something. Are our good experiences so relatively rare that we are afraid of them being taken away? Can we utilize the practice of memory (or anamnesis) in our prayer to keep holding important encounters with Christ? How does liturgy encourage the use of a holy memory?

  4. My first reaction was amused irony, in that it took the author many words to say how important silence is. This illustrates how dependent we all are on word-based communication, whether or not it’s of the electronic variety. The paintings included with the article were a nice counter-balance.

    Beyond that, I found many insightful lines of thought. In particular, his comment about “hedonism” vs. “distraction” deserved additional emphasis. More and more parishes seem to be succumbing to a mentality of “we have to out-compete the other local churches” with more flash and more fuss, but less time to think about and absorb in quiet stillness what was just heard or said or experienced. Shouldn’t church be a refuge from the hectic pace we regularly set for ourselves and each other rather than just another place for it? Shouldn’t the atmosphere at Mass reinforce the concept that we are “in the world, but not of it”? How will we ever raise our children with a love for the Mass and what it offers without teaching the value of stillness, silence, and direct interaction with other human beings–more specifically, NOT “human-doings”? How do we as adults model this appropriately when cell phones are constantly going off during Mass? There are so many good questions worthy of reflection if we take some time for silent meditation with God, ask him, and then wait in silence for an answer. Other religions seem to understand this concept even now, but we seem to have lost it somewhere.

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