S. David’s Day is overtaken by Ash Wednesday this year. This, of course, is the beginning of Lent and a time to take spiritual stock. We live in an amazingly complex world – very different to when I was ordained. Occasionally, I boor young people with stories about walking to a friend’s house two miles away, only to find that he had gone out. I would happily trudge back home or go somewhere else. His family didn’t have a telephone. We didn’t have one. Apart from the telephone box at the end of the road, I only had access to one phone. A relative who was an electrician. A “business phone”. In those days there were dial-less phones and the operator would “try to connect you”. Wonderful!
Now we have a report of people suffering measurable stress because their mobile phone is more than arms-length away. Apparently there is some connection with mice and rewards – and fruit machines. (Keep up!) Being an insomniac, I regularly listen to the World Service at about 3am. A recent science programme informed me that mice, trained to get their food by pressing a button, only pressed the button when hungry. When the food box only delivered after several attempts at button-pressing, the mice became obsessed with the task. Addiction to fruit machines is caused, apparently, by the randomness of receiving a prize. (Solitaire or Patience is equally addictive because of the chance of winning/losing.) So too with mobile phones. The constant checking for e-mails etc. The inability to cope with not having the phone at hand. The fear of “missing something”.
Some years ago I went on holiday, alone, without my phone. I didn’t realise it until a day later. (It was in the early days – for me – of such machines.) I can only describe the effect as a mini panic attack. There was nothing I could do. No possibility of turning back. By day three I realised that I was on proper holiday. It wasn’t so much the missing others ringing me, more the fact that the sense that I ought to contact people was removed. Now people ask, “But what if something had happened?” I can only reply that things “happened” (or didn’t) since the beginning of human history until about twenty years ago and we mostly survived.
Given that the majority of people turn their phones off when they are in church (and the concert hall – but not the cinema) I suspect that it is one of the few places where people are relatively undistracted. Year by year I recommend that Christians come to church more regularly and faithfully during Lent. Year by year I have tried to get to church in time for Morning/Evening Prayer and the half hour of prayer before the Blessed Sacrament. Busyness and distraction get in the way, not least because they are demanding gods. This year I am going to try and do better. (Famous last words.) The purpose of the exercise is the put distraction (the mobile phone etc.) to one side and to “rest in the Lord”. For this reason I would like to emphasise these times of prayer (half-an-hour before all masses). I would also like to revisit the Daily Office, the prayer book that some of the congregation use in order to learn from those who use it and encourage others to do so. This “re-visiting” will take place after mass on Tuesdays and alternate Wednesdays.
Can I also recommend the early mass on Thursdays? In the (good) old days there were no evening masses. Feast days were celebrated at 6am or thereabouts. Fasting before mass started at midnight. This meant that people came to mass before the clutter of the day took over. (I used to attend mass Tuesdays and Fridays at 7am when I was a school boy.) To arrive at church and sit in the quiet before mass began gave a whiff of monastic calm and recollection.
We need to do that on Sundays as well. Please don’t stand in the porch chatting. Not only does it disturb those who are praying in church, it means that the opportunity for prayer, the opportunity for the adoration of the Lord who gives Himself in the Eucharist, is lost or curtailed.
Have a good Lent.