A couple of months ago, I was on my annual retreat in Chicago at Mundelein Seminary. There were about 70 priests together on this silent, self-directed time to rest and pray. The only conversation we had was about an hour a day with the spiritual director to whom we were assigned. To truly enter into this time of prayer and reflection, the retreat leaders strongly encouraged us to “unplug” and avoid any use of our cell phones or other electronics. Before the opening conference, as I put my phone on airplane mode, I had a nervous feeling in the pit of my stomach. Could I really go five days without checking emails, call and texts? What about social media? Before leaving for retreat, I let some people know where I was going to be and gave them the number of the seminary to call in case of emergency but still I was nervous. Yet the sense that I got as I began this time away was that nothing was so important that I had to compromise my time on retreat by checking my phone. If something of great importance were to happen, surely I would find out about it some other way.
As the week went on, I began to appreciate this time of silence and seclusion. I would sometimes lift my phone or tap it expecting to see something even though I knew it was off, but I began to understand just how much time is wasted on these devices and how easy it can be to spend far too much time scrolling through news stories or playing a game and before realizing it, how much time had just been wasted that could have been spent doing something productive. This is not to say that reading the news or enjoying some leisure are bad things. Certainly they are not, but it is far too easy to spend such an inordinate amount of time on our devices. This obviously has major implications for discernment and trying to understand the will of God in our lives. The more time we spend with the unimportant and distracting aspects of our phone and technology, the less time we make for prayer and reflection to understand God's plan for us.
During this beautiful season of Advent, this idea of unplugging many be a challenging one, but even more important. In many ways, Advent has become pre-Christmas, with the frenetic pace of last minute shopping, cards to get out and parties to attend. Lost in all of this is the time to prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord. Ultimately, in discerning a vocation, what we are doing is welcoming Jesus even more into our hearts and life. If we can find time this Advent, if only for a few minutes a day, to put down the phone and spend some time with the Lord, what a gift this will be for us and can become a practice we embrace in the new year.
At the end of my retreat, it was time to again put the phone on and get back to the reality of daily life. After five days of no contact with the outside I could only imagine what would be waiting for me once the power button was pressed. I took a deep breath, made the sign of the cross and turned on the phone. Immediately, I was flooded with 200 emails, a dozen texts and several voicemails. The amazing thing is that the majority of the emails were junk and easily deleted, the texts could be quickly responded to and the voicemails answered with a brief phone call. By the time we arrived at the airport, most of what I needed to catch up on was already finished. How grateful I was that I resisted the temptation throughout the week to put the phone on to check and see what was happening. It wasn't easy, but during those days of retreat and thinking about it afterward, I learned the real value of being able, if only for a little while, to unplug.
Father Argano is director of vocations for the archdiocese.