"Since the electronic age is introducing new components that provide unprecedented challenges to human integration, it is essential for formators of seminarians, religious and Catholic laity to develop new strategies to help persons achieve personal integration so crucial to living their vocation well."
"...How can formators make the virtuous life attractive when electronic media are frequently used for relaxation or recreation? To begin, persons need to rediscover the dynamic gift of conscience through which the practical intellect evaluates responses to the moral quality of the sensate expressions generated by media.The Catechism teaches that "moral virtues grow through education, deliberate acts, and perseverance in struggle. Divine grace purifies and elevates them."
The virtue of justice renders to God what is due to him. Through the virtue of temperance, a person can moderate both how much electronic media is used and how he or she engages with it when it is used. The struggle to live the virtuous life is difficult. The virtue of fortitude helps when suffering or difficulty is experienced in exercising responsibility by purifying the senses.
Practical wisdom, or the virtue of prudence, is the "perfected ability to make right decisions." Dom Lorenzo Scupoli, in The Spiritual Combat, suggests a way to develop practical wisdom: "When an agreeable object is presented to the senses, do not become absorbed in its material elements, but let the understanding judge it."
The virtue of charity can be developed by offering difficult acts of electronic fasting for the good of others. Formators cannot anticipate all the future situations that will face a person being formed, but they can help the person to a true integration of the principles taught and encourage practice of virtues so that he or she will make good decisions as situations arise.
Forms of electronic media and the senses
Marshall McLuhan, a convert to Catholicism, is credited with first bringing to the world's attention the effects of electronic technology on the unsuspecting viewer. He was inspired in 1950 by Pope Pius XII, who encouraged a serious study of media, including "techniques of communication and the capacity of the individual's own reaction." While communications media such as the printed book, cable, or telephone extended outwards the powers of sight, hearing, or touch, electronic media implode (explode inwards) on the same senses. As McLuhan summarizes it: "After three thousand years of explosion, by means of fragmentary and mechanical technologies, the Western world is imploding." McLuhan observes: "In television, images are projected at you. You are the screen. The images wrap around you. You are the vanishing point." Mary Timothy Prokes, FSE, describes immersion virtual reality head-mounted displays, which increase self-centered experience and "cut off visual and audio sensations from the real world outside in order to replace them with computer-generated sensations."
Excessive use of media for individual relaxation or communal recreation can foster fatigue and dullness in the life of the person. A study in Scientific American reported that "the sense of relaxation ends when the set is turned off, but the feelings of passivity and lowered alertness continue. Survey participants commonly reflect that television has somehow absorbed or sucked out their energy, leaving them depleted." Marshall McLuhan noted that the tendency toward excessive use of electronic media appeared to follow from the forms of electronic media themselves: "The urge to continuous use is quite independent of the "content" of public programs or of the private sense life."
In addition to the constant demand for more time for relaxation, fatigue and dullness may follow a law identified by McLuhan: "because there is equilibrium in sensibility, when one area of experience is heightened or intensified, another is diminished or numbed." McLuhan's law explains reduced capacities in other powers of the soul as well: "Present communication technologies supplant man's external senses, and more recently, the internal senses of imagination and the most important, the central or common sense, which brings the various data of the external senses together into a cohesive unity . . . This involves a process . . . called auto-amputation."
High-tech television screens and powerful amplification systems now produce such vivid colors and loud sounds that all attention is drawn to a medium by the effect of its over-powering impact on sight, hearing or touch. McLuhan describes how this anesthetizes other internal powers: "If a technology . . . gives new stress or ascendancy to one or another of our senses, the ratio among all of our senses is altered . . . But any sense when stepped up to high intensity can act as an anesthetic for the other senses."
A viewer's effort to provide continuity to what is discontinuous contributes to fatigue. McLuhan observes that: "when things change at very high speeds, a need for continuity develops. You see, you're in such a complete discontinuity at high speed. Everything you're looking at now is gone in a second . . . " Consider contemporary news programs with its screen divided into segments which themselves are in constant contrary motions. When both the form of the television or computer screen and its content are in constant motion, the need to establish spatial continuity becomes ever more pronounced, unless the viewer simply gives up and leaves the discontinuities in place.
Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J. in "Catholics and the World of Mass Media," observes: "Accustomed to surfing, we lose our ability to focus on anything in particular. We switch from one perspective to another rather than consistently following up any one point of view. Having more choices at our finger tips that we can seriously appraise, we lose our capacity for profound and permanent commitments and our taste for sustained analysis." In addition, a place in which the television is permanently left on as background noise has an impact on concentration and reflection, and thus interferes with prayer.
Distinguishing sense stimuli from spiritual realities
Formators can teach how to distinguish between sense and spiritual realities. Several classical sources come to mind. St. Ignatius of Loyola developed criteria for discerning the difference between sense experiences, which gave immediate pleasure, but left him feeling empty afterwards, and spiritual experiences, which also gave him initial pleasure, but remained filling him with joy.
Karol Wojtyla similarly distinguishes between "excitement [which] as such remains indicative of the sphere of sensuous stimuli or stimulations . . . [and] elation . . . [which is] spiritual in nature." Excitement occurs when vivid images happen in the person. Elation occurs when the person acts in discovering truth with the intellect, encountering the spirit in prayer, or performing an act of charity.
In Philosophy of Psychology and the Humanities, St. Edith Stein also distinguishes two states of consciousness. The first, or feverishness "comes on perhaps with high stimulation . . . and is like a restless geyser that drives the current of experiencing onward"; it "is followed by exhaustion, [and] . . . isn't any beneficial relaxation — something of the restlessness . . . that cannot come to repose." The second, or vigor "is like a steadily flowing fountain from which strong, serene waves of experience are billowing"; and "when it has played for awhile in the flow of experience, goes over into a wholesome tiredness that allows the current to slacken and shut itself off against external influences."
Anyone who has observed the self or others while playing a computer game, watching a dramatic video or breaking news, or surfing the internet, can relate to this description of feverishness that pushes one to play "just one more game," to make "just one more search," to watch "just one more program" before turning back to school work or taking well-needed sleep. Subtly, many software programs encourage the participant to continue.
High sense-stimulation has another dangerous effect according to Stein: "Impressions do not simply glide off; they don't remain flat as they do with tiredness, nor are they picked up effortlessly and joyfully. Rather, they barge into the defenseless consciousness and hurt it." Scientists studying television addiction confirm Stein's observations in recognizing "how easily organisms can be harmed by that which they desire."
...A further danger is habituation to television, internet, headline news, or video games. While not a bio-chemical dependency, habituation to electronic media does share other characteristics of addictive behavior. David Stolinsky describes two: "withdrawal symptoms and tolerance." Robert Kubey describes four noticeable features: "spending a great deal of time using the substance [or media]; using it more often than one intends; thinking about reducing use or making repeated unsuccessful efforts to reduce use; [and] giving up important social, family or occupational activities to use it."
Men or women who are caught in compulsions and/or self-delusions usually believe that they are not harming anyone. Edith Stein agrees: "This enhancement of experiencing can appear to us straight away as a heightening of life, and can delude us about the 'true' condition in which we find ourselves." If persons share with others their compulsion toward electronic media, they may think that they are building relationships. However, they may be simply isolated egos, watching television sitting next to each other, yet actually alienated from their neighbor, alienated from the work of their study and prayer, alienated from the mission of their vocation, alienated from the self, and alienated from God.
Many seminarians, religious, and laypersons today are intrigued by secular entertainment. Communal forms of recreation could be encouraged as an antidote through which several persons work and play together in building up the common good. The key is active participation by persons so that multiple experiences differ from the passive experience of electronic media. Constructing a living area, preparing and sharing meals, singing together or playing musical instruments, making recordings with hi-tech mixing boards, walking, hiking, or producing dramas with technological effects can be excellent forms of common recreation for those who have talents to share. Over time, the skill of good judgment will improve about practical means to achieve a good end for an individual person or community. ..."
...In "Asceticism and the Electronic Media" Hugh McDonald observes: "The most dangerous attitude is that of one who sits in front of a television set or computer terminal without a critical attitude. Since the machine is on, he takes up a passive and receptive stance. The Christian practices of fasting and abstinence are perhaps easy compared with consciously limiting our use of the media, yet that is required for mental and moral health." What strategies could a formator use to encourage someone to take up a critical attitude in relation to his or her own relation to electronic media?
Examination of Conscience: One possible strategy might be to create a new form of examination of consciousness with the following questions about the content of the experience.
1. Am I an electronic "Peeping Tom?" Even though I do not lurk in the shadows looking into the windows in private homes, do I get pleasure by watching scenes that are erotic and by their intimate nature should be private?
2. Am I an electronic "Voyeur?" Do I live through other people's experiences on reality shows as a substitute for the life I should be leading myself?
3. Am I a "Curious Addict?" Do I have to follow every step of a televised trial or media event employing my intellect towards sensible matters that are not useful for my vocation?
4. Am I a "Busy-body?" Do I eagerly listen to gossip on talk shows or in newscasts so that I can pass it onto others?
5. Am I an electronic "Safe-house?" Do I fill my needs for love and friendship by the safety of stimulation detached from relationship?
6. Am I an electronic "Stalker?" Do I have to see every appearance of particular actor or hear every recording of a particular person or group as a way to possess another's identity for myself?
Catechesis: Another practical strategy might be to use the Catechism of the Catholic Church as a basis for examining how the content of a particular experience of electronic media contravenes one of the Ten Commandments with respect to taking the name of God in vain, killing, adultery, lying, detraction, calumny, and so on. The person could also consider how his or her self-possession is affected by graphic depiction of sexual relations or repeated tactile and visual experiences of violence.
Spiritual Authors: Still another strategy could provide new applications of classical approaches to capital sins. Garrigou-Lagrange states that: "Spiritual sloth, disgust for the spiritual things and for the work of sanctification, because of the effort it demands, is a vice directly opposed to the love of God and to the holy joy that results from it." He continues: "Sloth engenders . . . pusillanimity in the face of duty to be accomplished, discouragement, . . . [and] seeking after forbidden things."37
According to Josef Pieper, sloth or "acedia means that a man renounces the claim implicit in his human dignity. In a word, he does not want to be as God wants him to be, and that ultimately means that he does not wish to be what he really, fundamentally, is." While laziness may be described as doing nothing, Pieper characterizes sloth as "the sense of restlessness," hyperactivity, and frenetic work — often leading to despair. Jean-Charles Nault describes acedia as "aversion to action," and "paralyzing the dynamism of action, [it] impedes communion with the other and the gift of self that enables it."The remedy for this "refusal of one's own greatness," is a renewed opening of the heart to the divine friendship of Jesus Christ, and a recovery of true spiritual joy.
Alternatively, gluttony may be associated with excessive use of electronic media for relaxation or recreation. Garrigou-Lagrange identifies various consequences of leaving this disorder in the soul: "gluttony . . . engenders: improper jokes, buffoonery, impurity, foolish conversation, stupidity."According to Thomas Aquinas, gluttony is an inordinate desire of eating and drinking, this desire for food not being regulated by reason.There are many in formation who have an inordinate desire to use the electronic media for relaxation and recreation. They feed themselves with electronic data while they cannot be satiated. This may be adjoined to a passive lifestyle, lacking moderation in food or drink. This is indeed a new portrait of gluttony.
Christian life has always been a struggle to overcome the tendency towards sin. Classical spiritual writers provide deep principles for this struggle. St. John of the Cross, in Dark Night of the Soul observed how gluttony interferes with the relation between a person and his or her spiritual director, formator, or religious superior: "The fragmented self rises up in many beginners, rebelling against wholeness, heightening sensual cravings, stirring gluttony so that they cannot help but try to escape obedience. Submission becomes so distasteful to them they are compelled to modify or rearrange or add to whatever is required of them."
Another side-effect of gluttony for electronic media is that persons who are consistently used to high levels of sensory stimulation during times of relaxation and recreation, seek for the same kind of experience in spiritual contexts. Analogically, St. John of the Cross observes: "they [gluttonous persons] are so attached to reaping a sensual harvest that when no such feelings come they think they have failed. This is a negative judgment against God. Don't they realize that the sensory benefits are the least of the gifts offered by the divine?" A person in formation can be invited to prayerfully study these classical resources while the formator offers opportunities for more authentic spiritual experiences and provides alternate kinds of recreation and relaxation.
Value of relaxation and recreation
In the Summa Theologica Thomas Aquinas recognizes the value of relaxation: "Now this relaxation of the mind from work consists in playful words or deeds. Therefore, it becomes a wise and virtuous man to have recourse to playful things at times. Moreover, the Philosopher [Aristotle] assigns to games, the virtue of . . . pleasantness." In The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges supports recreational breaks from intense life of study and prayer: "Relaxation is a duty, like hygiene in which it is included, like the conservation of energy . . . The effort cannot be continuous. We must come back to nature and plunge into it in order to recover our energy."
Electronic media can help relaxation and recreation when what is communicated has a meaning that attracts our higher personal faculties of intellect and will. Then media evoke a release of the natural passions through what Aristotle called "its catharsis of such emotions." Then they draw forth laughter by good humor, inspire acts of virtue to build the common good, and increase love for our vocation.
Technology has positive uses in formation. A good video can be a true source of individual relaxation and of communal recreation. A television news program can open the mind and heart to pray for situations in the world, and certain video games may genuinely relax a tired mind. Internet access opens many avenues for research and for continuity of good friendships.
Sertillanges encourages us: "St. Thomas explains that the true rest of the soul is joy, some activity in which we delight." Varieties of activities provide frameworks for much needed relaxation and recreation for seminarians, priests, religious, and lay Catholics: "Games, familiar conversation, friendship, family life, pleasant reading . . . , communion with nature, some art accessible to us, some not tiring manual work, an intelligent stroll . . . , theatrical performances . . . , sport in moderation: these are our means of relaxation."
Considering the radical changes that electronic media have brought into the world in recent years, it is reasonable to expect that equally radical changes will confront persons in times ahead. As Cardinal Newman asks: "Many things are against us, it is plain. Yet is not our future prize worth a struggle?"