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Chaff which the wind drives away

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Fixation on a smart phone is a matter of distraction rather than engagement; of immersing oneself in the senses rather than being transported beyond them …


The Disney movie "Beauty and the Beast" -- maybe you have watched it as many times with a child as have I -- opens with the beautiful heroine, Belle, walking through the streets of her town with her face buried in a book. Ponder the attractiveness of the image: a beautiful young woman giving herself over to matters of the mind and heart; her being so engaged in a story that she cannot tear herself away; her obliviousness to pedestrian details around her while she is transported away, led by a master to some other place or time.

Now place beside Belle and her book the image, so common from daily life, of people walking with not a book but a smart phone held up before their faces, maybe a businessman in a train station, or a teenager walking along a street. Why does the one image strike us as admirable and marvelous, but the other as distressing? Fixation on a smart phone is a matter of distraction rather than engagement; of immersing oneself in the senses rather than being transported beyond them; of following something merely on your own level, or lower, rather than something higher.

In a word, Belle is contemplative, the smartphone addict is not.

There are many obstacles which keep people from embracing Christianity today. The breakdown of the family and consumerism are often mentioned. But as important is that our way of life and culture are deeply inimical to contemplation, yet the life of Christianity is bound up with contemplation.

The traditional sources of contemplation are now all mainly obscured. What are these? Open up the book of Psalms and see what the divinely inspired author of that book turns to as material for prayer. Above all, nature: mountains, seas, fields, animals, winds, the sky, stars, and (did I say?) mountains. The Canticle of St. Francis reveals whence the contemplation of that great saint took its start. Pope Benedict once observed that, because most of the human race lives in cities, they cannot even see the stars of night because of the glare of manmade lights. The pope, in making this observation, was making a general point about our culture. Of course we see mountains almost as infrequently as stars, and if we see them we do not study them or feel their meaning in our bones, the way farmers and shepherds have felt for centuries.

The human body is a source of contemplation too for the Psalmist: "I thank thee, for I am wonderfully and fearfully made." But the human body can play this role only if it is approached in the right way, with reverence and without any reverberations of lust. Yet the constant pressure of all aspects of our culture is to turn the image of the human body into an object of desire. Earlier I compared bookish Belle to the smart phone addict. To grasp this present point carry out this assignment: watch a music video by Katy Perry, and then look at Michelangelo's Pieta, or (perhaps more of a challenge for us, for working out way back to an attitude of reverence) Titian's Venus of Urbino. Katy Perry's self-presentation is an appeal to the false glamor which derives from the world, or worse. Looking at the images she presents will not naturally lead anyone to a contemplation of higher realities.

Another source which Pope Benedict often spoke about was silence. Let us group along with silence, "time with oneself," by which I mean time when we, as it were, carry on an intelligent dialogue with ourselves, not an incoherent stream of consciousness which James Joyce might love to record, but a pondering which a St. Augustine would turn into a profound sermon or book. Silence in this sense is attacked not simply by sound but also by any distraction which, like a pop-up ad, intrudes, interrupts, and diverts. It would not be quite right to say that our culture attacks silence in this sense; rather, we formed as we are by our culture persistently attack it ourselves.

Holy Writ is another source of contemplation, especially memorized. "Blessed is the man who takes no delight in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers, but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates both day and night. He is like a tree growing beside flowing waters, which yields its fruit in due season, and its leaf never withers." Those are the very first lines in the book of Psalms, placed there as a kind of fundamental axiom of living in covenant with God. "Chaff which the wind drives away" -- the phrase used to describe in contrast the "way of the wicked" -- pretty much sums up the anti-contemplative trends in our culture, and their lack of genuine fruitfulness.

Points for action here -- are there any? The usual remedies, which you and I know, will work here as well, such setting time aside daily for reading Scripture and for prayer, and "mortification of the senses." But let's not spiritualize the problem. A culture problem requires a cultural solution. What becomes the highest priority for Christians is the building up, in households and institutions, of an alternative culture, where wondering at nature, reverence for the human body, and reflective reading cover, as with a mantle, all that we live for and hold good.


Michael Pakaluk is Professor of Ethics and Social Philosophy in the Busch School of Business at The Catholic University of America. His book on the gospel of Mark, ‘‘The Memoirs of St. Peter,’’ is available from Regnery Gateway.

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