One of the most striking qualities of the souls of the damned in the great Italian poet Dante’s Inferno is that, while they can see the past and future with great clarity, they are incapable of seeing the present. Those in Hell suffer torment because they cannot rest in the present moment. The Tuscan bard’s poetic vision on this point is pregnant with spiritual meaning for those who make their pilgrim way through this vale of tears in the twenty-first century. Perhaps one of the reasons that Christianity in the West is so anemic is due the particularly post-modern difficultly Christians currently face in quieting their minds and resting in the present moment.
In western monotheism, God reveals Himself as Presence. On Sinai, the Lord God tells Moses His mysterious name, “I AM WHO I AM.” The Bible’s description of God’s revelation to Elijah in a “still small voice” translates the theophany to Moses using different language, but the point is practically identical. It is impossible to experience the Presence any way but in the present moment.
The fragmentation that is the almost universal experience of post-modern life makes it very difficult to experience communion with God. Noise saturates almost every moment of the day. Smart phones, laptop computers, car radios and televisions have made silent stillness, the natural human habitat, into an exotic locale. Those who seek to be prayerful people while living in the land of a thousand distractions must labor mightily just to slow things down long enough to become present to themselves, which adds difficulties to experiencing actual union with God in prayer. Obsessive thinking has always been a challenge for Christian prayer. It is even more of a stumbling block today because of the veritable torrent of information that bombards a passenger on the information superhighway.
Traditionally, Christians practice Lenten disciplines to re-order what is disordered in their lives. Almsgiving and restricting the amount of food that one eats seek to give freedom from inordinate attachments to food and money, for example. The end of these exercises is not spiritual athleticism but deeper engagement with God. In light of contemporary challenges Christians today would do well to examine the extent to which their use of electronic media is closing them off from experiencing the God who they profess to give the eternal rest they one day hope to enjoy.