The whole landscape, unified by the church and its heavenward spire, seemed to say: this is the meaning of all created things: we have been made for no other purpose than that men may use us in raising themselves to God, and in proclaiming the glory of God. We have been fashioned, in all our perfection, each according to his own nature, and all our natures ordered and harmonized together, that man’s reason and his love might fit in this one last element, this God-given key to the meaning of the whole.
Oh, what a thing it is, to live in a place that is so constructed that you are forced, in spite of yourself, to be at least a virtual contemplative! Where all day long your eyes must turn, again and again, to the House that hides the Sacramental Christ!
Distraction is today’s default status
Modern culture is not designed to facilitate meaningful lives if a meaningful life includes time and space for contemplation, reflection, and meaningful relationships.
For example, my iPhone told me I had a billion hours of screen time last week.
Okay I exaggerate, but the total number of hours is pretty high across all my screens
I’m not reading deep, meaningful material either. I browse websites that while fun to read, offer little benefit to me. It is the same with the Netflix/Hulu/HBO/Peacock/all the streaming services. I’m not watching educational documentaries or anything.
I can go on about how harried modern life is but there is nothing fundamentally new about it. Thoreau felt that way in in the 19th century. And most of us aren’t going to build a cabin on Walden pond anyway (I checked home prices in that area…not affordable).
You must be (even more) deliberate about creating a deep life today
In this post’s opening passage it is notable that Merton made a point of writing about this small French town built around the church. Even in the 1920s it wasn’t a given that your environment would support a contemplative live.
But the distractions are orders of magnitude more significant today. To combat these distractions, you must be even more deliberate about creating time and space for contemplation.
When I was going through my Catholic month, going to Mass on a regular basis helped me think about the deeper things in life. Being in a nice church was helpful for that and having a priest guide the parishioners was great.
It changed the fixation from “what is wrong with me and how can I improve it” to “what does God want from me and how can I contribute to his vision?”
Just showing up to this type of ritual helped improve the quality of my thoughts.
During my Judaism month, I learned that the rules of Shabbat are actually pretty strict if you choose to follow them. Not working means not turning lights on, using elevators, cooking, writing, watching TV etc.
It requires significant preparation.
But the result of doing so is that your attention is drawn to the friends and family you are spending that time with.
I admit that sometimes, when I take my daughter to the playground, I put her in a swing and browse my phone while I push her. This would not be allowed during Shabbat.
I think Judaism is on to something…
The alternative is an uncomfortable, shallow life
If we aren’t deliberate about regularly creating time and space for the deep life, we will adopt the life modern culture pushes on us.
Spend too much time on Facebook and your mind will be cluttered with thoughts of dumb products with slick advertising and your aunt’s crazy political views.
Let your weekends be consumed with work and you become obsessed with pleasing your boss and moving up the ladder, all while burning out.
The effects aren’t immediately noticeable. But over time you’ll feel that something does not sit right. You’ll feel … off.
That is your soul telling you to read a few more books and watch fewer episodes of The Bachelor.