05 December 2008

iPods, Technology, Retreat, and desert Experiences

[[Is it wrong for a person to have iPods and other technological conveniences? How about taking them on retreat? Is that wrong?]]

No, there is nothing wrong with iPods, laptops, or other conveniences in themselves. I hope I didn't give that impression in the posts I wrote on desert experiences! Someone else kidded me about something similar after reading them. Neither is it wrong to bring them on retreat depending on the use one makes of them of course. It is not even wrong to have these things as a hermit, and they can add greatly to the richness of one's prayer life. In the scenarios I drew a post or two ago (assuming your questions come from reading those) I somewhat overstated the differences between the two scenarios. I could have pointed out that the woman in the second scenario had an iPod with her as well, and used it at various points to assist with her prayer for instance. She has Morning and Evening Prayer settings from various artists and monasteries, a number of recordings of psalms and other liturgical or Christian music, and she uses these as appropriate to enhance prayer, but NOT to distract from the silence or from the feelings and sensations that rise up within her in solitude.

For instance, if she uses a laptop for journaling routinely, then that too is completely acceptable and CAN help enhance the desert experience, but if she is linking up to the internet, reading email, shopping on Amazon, etc, then that is another matter entirely. The same is true with a cell phone: it is good to have for emergencies, but otherwise should be left unused or even turned off. I think you understand what I am trying to describe here, right?

Retreats are meant to allow a person to have a desert experience. They are ordinarily designed to let a person sink into the silence and solitude and to listen to all that their hearts give voice to in such an environment. If anxiety and tension occur, bits of "cabin fever," boredom, and the like surface, then retreats invite a person to deal with these in prayer and in other ways one is not really used to (for instance, a quiet walk around the grounds instead of a trip to the mall, or without turning to the usual distractions), as well as to get some spiritual direction if that seems appropriate. Silence and the relative solitude of the retreat are lifegiving realities, as are the ordered days, the time away from ordinary responsibilities, etc. One should simply take advantage of all this as best one can. However, doing so may also mean sleeping a bit more than one is ordinarily able to, reading a bit of fiction here and there, listening to a bit of music, etc. One simply needs to discern what really serves one best here, that is, what allows the retreat to be what one's heart, mind, and body need at the time (and what one needs is what God wills for one, by the way)!

Personally, I would draw the line at bringing along a TV set (I am mainly kidding here since I doubt anyone actually would, but the example in my story included an RV with a TV set, so I am mentioning that -- and no movies on CD either for viewing on laptops!!) The rules for retreat are pretty general and simple. Take what you need to be comfortable and travel light. Trust that the retreat house or center generally has what you need (reading material, CD's, etc), and try to believe that God really does provide. Ordinarily that means he provides himself, and retreats are times and spaces set aside so that God may really have access to you he does not get otherwise. He is always knocking, always calling, but ordinarily there is simply too much noise, whether internal or external, for us to listen well. So the general rules of retreat "stuff" basically boil down to, "whatever helps you hearken (listen and respond)" in all the ways you are called.

Again, the scenarios I drew in the last posts were not meant to condemn modern conveniences or technology. However, there is no doubt that these things can and often do mitigate desert experiences. Hence, I will ask directees to put the iPod away more even if they are using it to listen to Christian music. I do the same thing myself and what I see and hear is vastly different when I am listening to an iPod while taking a walk, than when I am not listening to music. Desert experiences come in a variety of depths and intensities. So long as one is doing the will of God (again, taking care of our truest needs), and being sensitive to the retreat environment for others, limited use of technology can enhance the experience rather than detract and distract from it. One caveat however, since it is easy to rationalize and fool ourselves in this matter, one would do better to err on the side of caution and forego whatever one can.

At bottom desert experiences are about taking time with God to consolidate and deepen our identities as daughters and sons --- just as Jesus did, and, in becoming the People of God, just as Israel did in their extended time there. We do this by attending to God and our relationship with him in a way which makes us heirs and prophets of HIS Kingdom instead of the others at hand. If technology assists in this to some limited extent, then well and good. Otherwise, leave it at home! (The very fact that you do this is an act of renunciation and trust (because that is really what renunciation is about at bottom) which will help initiate you into a true desert experience long before you arrive on retreat.)