Throughout the pandemic, work, school, worship, family celebrations, and mourning have been made possible by technologies like Zoom; they allowed some semblance of normal communal life to continue while hundreds of millions of humans were confined to discrete places for extended periods of time.
Yet in many ways it seems as if technology has created not an age of human flourishing but an age of anxiety. The rise of the smart phone has been tied to a rise in a bevy of mental health problems in young people, for example, and there is preliminary evidence that mental health has suffered mightily during the pandemic. As helpful as it is, technology cannot make up for the absence of physical community.
Thankfully, when it comes to living well, modern man is not without guidance. We propose The Rule of St. Benedict as a tool that can help us remedy the condition in which we find ourselves. While it might sound strange for a modern, secular society to seek advice regarding technology from medieval monks, those monks were tempted by the very same vice as we are: acedia. Acedia can be defined as a disquietude that distracts us from our duties.
For this vice, Benedict suggested a cure involving several components, such as submission to authority, regular work and prayer, and a life spent in community. Even though few of us are called to monastic life, Benedict’s Rule provides us with a guide for a more fulfilling, contented life that mitigates the acedia of an anxious age.
Technopoly and Acedia
Let us take a moment to describe some of the problems that plague our era of technopoly, which Neil Postman defined as “the submission of all forms of cultural life to the sovereignty of technique and technology.” Here are just a few examples of the ways that the exaltation of the technological undermines human happiness and encourages the vice of acedia.
Nicholas Carr has documented how regular use of GPS units may cause a diminution of human memory, bringing about early-Alzheimer’s-like symptoms. Our reliance on technology is so pervasive that we often literally don’t know where we are. Further, notes Carr, the omnipresence of technology in our lives serves as a constant distraction. Use of technology makes it harder for us to concentrate, to focus on a task at hand, and to work our experiences from short-term to long-term memory. Most Americans by now have had the experience of needing to perform some task that requires lengthy concentration and fighting the urge to check e-mail, texts, or Twitter. The ease and proximity of distraction adds to temptation. You might be fighting that temptation as you try to concentrate long enough to read this article.
In terms of our connections with others, Sherry Turkle documents the manner in which technology places a roadblock in the way of effective conversation, which is essential for building real community and becoming emotionally healthy humans. Turkle finds in her research that video meetings, for example, are ineffective in forming coherent communities, because the temptation to distraction and multitasking during those meetings is nearly overwhelming. “[D]espite research that show that multitasking is bad for learning,” writes Turkle, “the myth of the moment is still that multitasking is a good idea.” At one company “it is assumed that when you are on a conference call, you are available for e-mail and messaging on the side.” As Turkle puts it, these meetings “give the illusion of collaboration with all the drawbacks of distraction.”
The pathologies Turkle and Carr identify track well with the vice of acedia, a condition noted by early monastic fathers such as Evagrius of Pontus. While the concept of acedia became embedded in the vice of sloth, it does not mean listlessness or laziness. One of our finest modern commentators on this vice, Jean-Charles Nault, argues that acedia is an “uneasiness,” “restlessness,” “curiosity,” or “instability” that drives us not to care about fulfilling our duties, spiritual and otherwise. Nault uses channel-surfing as a model of how acedia manifests itself: “Besides the simple desire to see everything at once, hopping from one program to another is the manifestation of a radical instability of the human being, who is always tempted by easy access . . . to goods that are immediately available.” As Jerry Seinfeld once joked, men are not interested in what is on television; they are interested in what else is on television.
In R. J. Snell’s words, acedia “rejects the burden of order, choosing instead the breezy lightness of freedom. Loving self more than relation, and autonomy more than the good, in sloth one rejects the weight and density of living in an ordered creation.” The temptation to distraction, to engage in the lie of the “multitask,” is prodigious. It may even be embedded in the nature of the technology. Snell points out that technology is a kind of trap, in that it holds out the promise—always just out of reach—that we can be liberated from work. In the monastic language, technology allows us to easily escape our cell, holding out the hope that there is something more exciting out there than the mundane work before us. The liturgies of technopoly encourage the vice of acedia.
The Rule of St. Benedict and the Intentional Life
There is, however, an alternative liturgy. Those seeking relief from the vices stemming from technopoly can turn to the sixth-century Rule of St. Benedict for help. There are five specific lessons that one can draw from of the Rule. The Rule encourages (1) the taming of desires, (2) the habit of attention, (3) the disciplined life, (4) the good of work, and (5) the need for embodied community.
First, the Rule encourages us to tame our desires. One of the main tasks of monastic life is to inspire monks to submit their own will to the will of the community. “Truly, we are forbidden to do our own will,” the Rule teaches, “for Scripture tells us: Turn away from your desires (Sir 18:30). And in the Prayer too we ask God that his will be done in us (Matt 6:10).” The monk cultivates the virtue of humility, putting his own needs second to that of the group and living within the constraints of external limits. The Rule of St. Benedict seeks to replace the liturgy of shopping, consumption, and clicking with the liturgy of prayer, work, and obedience.
This leads to a second good the Rule promotes from its very first line: attentiveness. “Listen carefully, my son,” writes St. Benedict, “to the master’s instructions, and attend to them with the ear of your heart.” To the end of combatting distraction and promoting attention, the Rule puts an imperative on moments of silence, which are rare in our age of constant aural stimulation. The Rule suggests that “there are times when good words are to be left unsaid out of esteem for silence.”
The purpose of silence is to encourage the monks to focus on the task at hand, which at night often means study of Scripture or other sacred works. The Rule encourages monks to do one thing at a time, and to do it well. The Rule even goes so far as to prohibit monks who travel outside the monastery from relating what they have seen on their travels for fear that it will distract their brothers. The Rule admonishes us to be content in our own thoughts rather than distracting ourselves at every moment.
Such concentration requires discipline, the third good promoted by the Rule of St. Benedict. A religious community is often called an “order” for a reason. The community provides an order for the individual and the community as a whole. Much of that order comes from prayer. The monks are called to regular prayer as they go through the Liturgy of the Hours, which defines much of the monastic existence. It is expected that as a monk goes through this routine day after day, year after year, he will begin to memorize the Scripture and prayers he has prayed over and over. Much as today our conversation is sprinkled with references to movies and television shows we’ve seen over and over again, the monk’s mind will be oriented toward prayers that are a regular part of each day’s activities.
The tradition of monastic life is often summarized in the phrase ora et labora, pray and work. Labor or work is the fourth good promoted by the Rule. The monk’s life revolves around these two practices, each of which defines his responsibilities on any given day. “Idleness is the enemy of the soul,” instructs the Rule. “Therefore, the brothers should have specified periods for manual labor as well as for prayerful reading.” The physical labor of the monk integrates his body with his more spiritual pursuits.
Not only does the material world not conform easily or necessarily to our will, neither do other human beings. This is why community, the fifth and final good, is essential to the Benedictine ideal. The Rule prefers “cenobites,” those attached to an actual monastery, along with anchorites and hermits who have previously submitted to communal discipline. In contrast, there are two kinds of monks the Rule condemns: the “sarabaites” and “gyrovagues.” What these two degenerate forms of monks have in common is a kind of spiritual instability, a lack of discipline that comes from failure to live in a specific place within a defined community.
Benedictine Lessons for a Technopoly
Given that today those called to actual monastic life are few, how might we who live in the world apply these five lessons from the Rule to our own acedia? St. Benedict asks us to discipline our desires. He urges us toward attentiveness. A central problem with the habitual distraction of technology is the inattention we give to others and our work. The Rule requires monks to find times for silence and to avoid the temptation to distract themselves with aimless or trivial matters. The temptation to multitask in a technopoly is almost irresistible.
Keeping the phone hidden while in conversation might be a good discipline with which to begin. Similarly, we might turn off e-mail while in a meeting and designate times of day or physical places as technology-free.
Further, the Rule encourages us to cultivate some sort of physical work habit. This can be as simple as using the rake to gather up leaves in the fall rather than using the leaf blower. We might try to grow some of our vegetables or herbs. We can use a map to find our way instead of relying on GPS. The suggestion here is not to do away with all technology. Especially in a strange city, our mapping software comes in quite handy. Rather, it is about taking intentional steps to encounter the real world unmediated.
But the most essential aspect of the Rule is that our efforts be made in community. Ultimately, embodied presence matters because it is the necessary condition for true communion between persons. The finitude of one’s presence makes self-giving possible. Human persons are embodied beings, not disembodied spirits, and a full human life must take into account our bodily existence. The Zoom-world quite literally disembodies us. While there are many things our digital proxies can do on our behalf, self-giving is not among them. That’s why our online “relationships” come at such little cost and redound to such little real social benefit. Such digitally mediated encounters always occur on our own terms, from the remove and safety of our screens. After an hour of Zooming, many have experienced feelings of emptiness and isolation.
The Rule of St. Benedict gives us goals to which we should aspire: controlling our desires, paying attention, submitting to a discipline, taking part in some kind of manual work, and formation of personal communities. How we go about this will vary with circumstance. Still, we need a counter-discipline to the technological habits of modern life. The spirit of our times promises control and efficiency, but leaves us distracted and anxious. Benedict recognized a similar disease in his monks and provided an order by which they could cure this disease. We who now inhabit a Zoom-world can profit from the experiences of the medieval monks.