Today’s information technologies (the internet, email, software programs like Facebook, mobile phones, IPhones, pocket computers, and the like) have made us the most informed, efficient, and communicative people ever. We now have the capability, all day, every day, of accessing world events, world news, whole libraries of information, and detailed accounts of what our families and friends are doing at any moment. That’s the positive side of the equation.
Less wonderful is what this is doing to our lives, how it is changing our expectations, and robbing us of the simple capacity to stop, shut off the machines, and rest. As we get wrapped up more and more in mobile phones, texting, email, Facebook, and the internet in general, we are beginning to live with the expectation that we must be attentive all the time to everything that’s happening in the world and within the lives of our families and friends. The spoken and unspoken expectation is that we be available always – and so too others. We used to send each other notes and letters and expect a reply within days, weeks, or months. Now the expectation for a reply is minutes or hours, and we feel impatient with others when this expectation is not met and guilty inside of ourselves when we can’t meet it.
And so we are, daily, becoming more enslaved to and more compulsive in our use of mobile phones and the internet. For many of us it is now existentially impossible to take off a day, let alone several weeks off, and be on a genuine holiday or vacation. Rather the pressure is on us to constantly check for texts, emails, phone messages, and the like; and the expectation from our families, friends, and colleagues is precisely that we are checking these regularly. The sin-du-jour is to be, at any time, unavailable, unreachable, or non-communicative.
But the rhythm of time as God designed it is meant to give us, regularly, weekly, some time off the wheel, some “Sabbath-time” when ordinary life, ordinary pressures, ordinary work, and ordinary expectations are bracketed and we give ourselves permission to stop, to shut things down, and to rest. Today, nowhere is this more appropriate and urgent than in regards to our use of phones, notebooks, and computers. They, more than anything else, constitute regular time, servile work, and the occupations and preoccupations from which the commandment to keep holy the Sabbath ask us to refrain.
I know a woman who works for her church, as does her husband. Since they are both in ministry, they need to work on Sunday mornings and often into the afternoon as well. So they begin celebrating the Sabbath late afternoon on Sunday. Here is how she describes what they do: We start our celebration of the Sabbath at 4:00 PM (1600 hours) on Sunday and we begin it symbolically by unplugging our computers, turning off our mobile phones, disconnecting our house phone, and turning off every information gadget that we own. For the next 29 hours we don’t receive any calls and we don’t make any. We are on a cyber-fast, non-contactable, off the wheel, unavailable. At 9:00 PM (2100 hours) on Monday night we end our Sabbath we began it, symbolically: We break our cyber-fast and fire up again our phones and our computers and begin answering our messages. We get back on the wheel for another week. Sometimes making ourselves unavailable like this irritates our families and friends, but if we are to celebrate Sabbath, given our pressured lives, this pulling away is the most important single thing that we have to do. It’s either that – or working 7 days a week!
When I was young both our churches and our culture still took the concept of Sabbath (for Christians, especially the idea of not working on Sunday) more seriously. A popular question was always: What are you allowed to do on a Sunday and what are you not allowed to do? Mostly this focused on different kinds of physical labor: May you work in your garden on a Sunday? May you harvest your apples tree on a Sunday? Today, I worry less about gardening or picking apples on a Sunday. The more important issue is: Can we step off the treadmill of phones and computers on Sundays and be genuinely available to celebrate Sabbath?
Sabbath, as Wayne Muller tells us, is time off the wheel, time when we take our hand from the plough and let God and the earth care of things, while we drink, if only for a few moments, for the fountain of rest and delight. Today that plough looks a lot like a mobile phone or a computer.
Centuries ago, the mystic poet, Rumi, wrote: I have lived too long where I can be reached!” Haven’t we all!
Ronald Rolheiser, a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas. He is a community-builder, lecturer and writer. His books are popular throughout the English-speaking world and his weekly column is carried by more than seventy newspapers worldwide.