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Praying Using Technology?

Digital Jesus

Cardinal Robert Sarah (Prefect of the Roman Catholic Congregation for Divine Worship) and I often see things differently.

At a recent conference in Rome, celebrating 10 years since Pope Benedict XVI’s loosened restrictions on celebrating Mass in the pre-Vatican II form, Cardinal Sarah attacked using mobile phones and tablets to pray Daily Prayer:

Perhaps it is very practical and convenient to pray the breviary with my own mobile phone or tablet or another electronic device, but it is not worthy: it desacralises prayer. These apparatuses are not instruments consecrated and reserved to God, but we use them for God and also for profane things! Electronic devices must be turned off, or better still they can be left behind at home when we come to worship God.

I totally disagree.

Let me illustrate with an old story – from when smoking was still thought to be OK, from before the time when a Jesuit was running the Roman Catholic Church!

A Franciscan and a Jesuit were friends. They were both smokers who found it difficult to pray for a long period of time without having a cigarette. They decided to go to their superiors and ask permission to smoke.

When they met again, the Franciscan was downcast. He said, “I asked my superior if I could smoke while I pray and he said ‘no.’”

The Jesuit smiled. “I asked if I could pray while I smoke. He said ‘of course.’”

Cardinal Sarah is clearly approaching this from the side: can I use my phone while I pray? It changes if we approach it from the side: can I pray while I use my phone?

What is it about books that make them any more sacred than a phone or a tablet, Cardinal Sarah? Didn’t the rot set in for you, Cardinal Sarah, once people stopped using texts that had been prayerfully hand-copied by dedicated monks?

OK, so the phone or tablet, that is now being used for prayer, might have been used sinfully, but can you be assured that the printing press that produced your breviary was never, ever used for anything desacralised? And can we not turn this around: isn’t it great that the phone or tablet that has drawn me away from God is now drawing me towards God? Maybe, using my phone or tablet prayerfully may encourage a more Godly use of my phone or tablet outside of the time of using it for Daily Prayer.

In any case, I’m going to ask the bigger question: what is this division into sacred and secular? Does not the Incarnation break down this division?

Can we not read the Bible on a digital device? Can we not take advantage of the wonderful digital apps that help unpack the Bible so excellently?

I know people who only got into praying the complexity of the Daily Office because the hard, ribbon-placing-and-flipping-through-options was done for them by a digital app.

I have prayed the Office using digital devices. I have prayed the Office with another priest – he on his phone, me using a book. When I walked the Camino, the only book I carried was the guidebook – the Daily Office, Bible, and the Mass in Spanish/English in parallel, all these were on my iPad mini.

It is a strong hope of mine that Benedictine Daily Prayer will become available digitally. I encourage you to explore the digital Chapel on this site – I am regularly told how it enables people to have a prayer discipline.

What do you think?

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30 Responses to Praying Using Technology?

  1. I pray the Office using my phone, and use versions of Bible and Psalms on phone too – books preferred but would not be without this too

    • Thanks, Audrey. I mostly use Benedictine Daily Prayer – a book not available (Yet! I’m hoping for it) digitally. It is a large (cumbersome) book. I have the most wonderful app for studying the Bible on my iPad mini. And I’ve already said, in my post, times when using a book wasn’t even really an option. Blessings.

  2. Technology makes praying easier for me than ever. I check in to the webcasts on DailyOffice.org and use the site even when not doing the webcast. I do compline via Zoom with my Anamchara Fellowship buddies at least one night a week. I keep my personal prayer list on Google Keep, and I put some of the most urgent prayers on the scrolling feed on my home screen. I often pray for people whlie scrolling social media. I would suggest to the Cardinal that technology allows me to pray in community when I live in a relatively geographically isolated area, and I would insist it all feels just as sacralized to me as using a book. Methinks he doth protest too much.

    • Thanks, Maria. As with the printing press, I hold the same position as you do – technology is a God-given means. Blessings.

  3. Although I strongly disagree with Cardinal Sarah, I don’t think Father B that your counterpoints logically hold water. The Cardinal’s idea of using a book consecrated to sacred use after it has been printed, would in most folks mind neutralize any profainess of the press, even if it had been used to print Playboy prior to the prayer book. And once printed, the prayer book has no other purpose than use to pray. Not so the digital device that could be used back and forth between sacred and secular purposes.

    However, his argument doesn’t sway me away from using my iPad/iPhone/Mac for both sacred and secular purposes. I don’t indulge in the profane!

    I use St Bede’s Breviary set up by Derick Olson on his blog, the St Bede Blog.

    http://breviary.stbedeproductions.com/test/office.html#

    • Yes, I think your point is a good one, David. I know people who use an iPad (even a phone) for their sermon text – I have done so in the past also, but I do fear something going wrong with the digital version. Hence, I have not ventured to use an iPad for, say, the Eucharistic Prayer. Not because of the secular/sacred argument but because of the reliability issue. That’s not an issue (for me) for, say, the Daily Office – I’m fine should there be a pause in the middle of that. Blessings.

      • One of the ministers at our church is an expert using an iPad mini when he preaches. He has a case that puts a strap on the back that he slips his fingers through to make it secure in his hand and off he goes. He occasionally uses the index finger on his other hand to switch the page and never skips a beat.

        I have also seen apps that organists and pianists use for their score so they aren’t trying to play and flip pages.

  4. I sometimes use a digital office when on holiday, but my preference is for books. At the cathedral, one of my colleages prays from her iPad, having bought an online subscription to A Prayer Book for Australia (which, in my mind, should be free). That’s fine, but I feel that the cathedral staff saying the daily office is different from presiding at Communion with a device. At the least, I’d expect a device used in this way to be dedicated to this use so that emails, calls and other notifications don’t pop up. Also, I’ve seen a preacher glowing blue in an evening service (low lighting) because he was illuminated by his digital sermon. I thought that was distracting. Perhaps what would be better than Cardinal Sarah’s draconian pronouncement would be for some prayerful and technically informed people to put forward guidelines for the use of electronic devices in worship. Of course, the missal can be altered to include the optional singing by the subdeacon of ‘balbutiamus’, or ‘let us tweet’.

    • You bring up an important reminder, Gareth, that I had just taken for granted – if using a phone, set it to flight mode; if using an iPad, switch off the wifi. That way, “emails, calls and other notifications don’t pop up”. Blessings.

  5. I side with you. I love books, ribbons, and the idea of flipping back and forth between texts, and I’d like a candle as a focus point if I could keep it lit with all the flipping. I’m afraid if my family caught me, they’d would think I’d gone off the deep end, and I’d never have the time to pray the daily office if it weren’t on my phone.

    • Thanks, Nathan. Sometimes the flipping can be to three or four areas – fine if, like me, people have done it for years (decades). But a real disincentive for many wanting to have a go. Blessings.

  6. I use the “Mary” app on my phone to pray the Rosary (through the car’s radio) on my way to work every day. I’ve also used the “Laudate” app to hear the sung version of the Divine Mercy Chaplet. I still use an actual Rosary when I’m at home.

    • Thanks, Mark. You are the first to mention the value of recordings which can be used in cars and other transport (and times). Blessings.

  7. My last church job they used recorded sermons and projected computer words, the number of times the IT person was messing around right before the service, trying to get things to work, I did not understand why not just go back to the hymnals and printed word.

    I am old-fashioned, I like the atmosphere in church to be special, not just another supermarket/mall-type experience.

    • Thanks, Tracy. Yes, I would struggle to think of a power-point use in church that worked well. My most recent experience was at diocesan worship with a (for us) large congregation – the fonts were too small for me; the contrasts too difficult. There are other posts discussing this. Blessings.

  8. For future musicians it’s de-skilling too, I could read music way before I was ever taught it formally just from using a hymn book every week.

    I never did understand why the sermons weren’t live, there was almost always a minister there who was very good at preaching.

    Your quote from the cardinal reminded me of being in Temple on High Holy days and the rabbi brings around the scroll, people touch it with the hymn book or prayer book with great reverence. I don’t think they would touch it with a kindle or ipad.

  9. Though I have used digital devices to say the Daily Office on occasion and appreciate the range of possibilities offered so compactly, nevertheless I mostly find the Internet a medium which is too “hot” for the recollection and reflectiveness one needs for the practice of prayer. The worst part is receiving the ring of a phone call or the ping of an incoming message in medias res.

    • Yes, James. The issue of messages and phone calls has come up in the discussion above. Technology is agile enough now that you can prevent phone calls and pings from coming through until after your prayer time. Is the internet ‘too “hot”‘ in any other ways? Blessings.

  10. Dear Bosco, as one who hates the whole idea of overhead screens with liturgical or musical texts for use in public worship, I’m perhaps too old to adapt to any intrusion on the prayerful stance that is best encouraged in worship.

    Private use of such devices is quite another matter. Even I use a computer to write sermons and comment on my own and other people’s blogs; which I think is an entirely different matter. There is no corporate worship involved.

    • Thanks, Fr Ron. As repeated in the above discussion, this is quite a separate discussion to overhead screens in communal worship for which I share your concerns. Blessings.

  11. Well, if I follow Cardinal Sarah’s thinking that these devices shouldn’t be used because they are both used for God and profane things, I find myself in quite a pickle. I confess that both my mind and mouth have been caught in “profane” things, though I try my best. So am I not to use my mind to think a prayer or my mouth to utter one? I am truly in deep.. oops, there I go again. /s :o)

    I would think there are more important concerns.

    Once again, you have captured my attention and caused me to think (and laugh a bit), and learn from you and the other commenters. Thanks!

  12. All the things are allowed, but not all are profitable. It depends on how we use them. Back in the first millennium, the bigger churches had the two choirs, or at least one choir, having a rotative lectern, with, on it: the antiphonary, the psalter, the hymnal, the martyrology; stative lecterns had the epistolary; on the altar the missal for the collects, and the Gospel-book. The other worshippers, in the church, only had a psalter, at best. Every one had hir role in the divine office. (And this is still the practice in Byzantine and Armenian rite abbeys; it is really delightful, especially when people have psalters, and know by heart the ordinary parts.)

    But some pious lay persons found it difficult to have to go to a monastery if they wished the divine office every day. A priest compiled what is known to have been the first breviary. Everything was intended to be READ (not sung) in private houses, by particulars.

    Then the Franciscans and the pope of Rome took the breviary, in order to REPLACE the cathedral/monastic divine office. Then came the council of Trent, who make the breviary the norm. Why bother with such a multitude of books in the choir? I have not seen with mine own eyes any Western choir antiphonary, hymnal, martyrology etc. What we still have is found in libraries, and predates Trent.

    The worst has come, in spite of the easiness of printing. Now we give sometimes the Bible text both to the reader and to the worshipper; half of the readers are unskilled in public reading, and they do not make efforts to improve themselves, as long as the other people already have the text.

    I strongly believe that Abp Cranmer’s compilation of parish-use evensong and mattins is a very good thing. However, we should know how to use them. I believe that, in church, every one should have 1662 prayer-books in hand, and a hymnal, in order to sing the psalms and hymns. However, the choir(s) should sing the antiphons, with no need for the congregation to have them too; the readers should read, without providing texts for the congregation; the priest should use a reach resource of collects, although the mere worshippers only have the BCP. And when the worshipper prays in the bus, at home or at work, the BCP and a Bible should suffice, everything else being omitted, thus distinguishing the corporate VS the private uses of the common prayer. Western Christians should get used, in the corporate prayer, that not everything is in the book, and to stop flipping the pages back and forth. (And Balkanic and Russian Christians should learn that maybe there is something in the book, and to stop private devotions during chuch.)

    So, what about the tablet or computer? It could be useful at home or in the train etc., but only for private prayer. Like you, I have already prayed the Episcopalian 1979 BCP mattins with a person; she had it on a tablet, and I had a real book. From time to times, she made comments like: «Wait a sec», «Just a minute… Got it!», because the text would not have been displayed at once. And that was awkward. I use sometimes the Lynda Howell’s website for private prayer. But I would not dare use it with someone else.

    When I used to be a seminarian, we used to have debates like this: If we could have for the choir a computer program, which should select the proper day in the sanctoral, in the temporal, in the psalter etc., and give us exactly what we had to sing, this would help dull colleagues, who do cannot learn the rubrics, and they would stop making mistakes. I was in favour of such a thing. A colleague made a cartoon with a computer on a table in the middle of the church, and two babooshkas saying: «Helen, come let’s kiss the holy monitor.»

    Today, I am rather glad that such programs are not used in church. The rubrics can be very hard, especially in the Byzantine rite mattins, but a choir is a team, and the rotative lectern is a tool that brings together duller and smarter people.

    • Thanks, George. You raise many important things (not least I wish the gems you often drop here were collected together – is there a particular book{s} in which you find your history, or are you writing such a book?!) I totally agree with your point about readers reading from the Bible badly and people following along in their own copy. I think your distinctions very helpful. Blessings.

      • Generally, former EO seminarians have many stories to tell. One of them/us has made a blog about the seminarian life (laminelaseminar.blogspot.be). Others have made a short film (https://youtu.be/aLSbRv33iek). Ion Creanga was maybe the first who wrote about the seminary life in a book, and many have followed the trend, but their stores are not mine.

        • I love the film, George! About books: I was meaning which history of the church and/or liturgy do you use as an important resource – hopefully in English 🙂 Blessings.

      • I’m just concerned that I might be one of those dullards.

        Perhaps this is a cultural difference, but the thought that one needs to treat people differently based on how one interprets another’s intellect (“dull” vs “smart”) is off-putting.. especially when we are talking about worship.

        This reminds me of when we shut people up in mental homes to avoid them “embarrassing us.”

        I’ll ponder Luke 10:21 today in my prayers to see if this verse has any insights for me. / Blessings.

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