"Phone fast": Catholic archdiocese launches toughest Lenten observance yet

Today is Ash Wednesday, the Christian day of observance and atonement for sin that starts Lent and the march toward Holy Week. Traditionally, most Catholics and other observant Christians have already had the “what are you giving up for Lent” discussion (more on that in a moment), but Catholics in Hartford, Connecticut may get the toughest challenge of all. The archdiocese wants the laity to consider a truly significant sacrifice this year … putting the cellphone away.

They have a very good explanation why this makes sense — and they’ll need it:

As part of a new campaign launched by the Archdiocese of Hartford, the next generation of Catholics is embracing the challenge of “fasting” from their phones on two important holy days: Ash Wednesday – March 1 – and on Good Friday, April 14.

“Lent is about making time for God and making time for each other,” Clara Mund, a junior at East Catholic High School in Manchester, said Tuesday. “Disconnecting … is probably going to be hard for a lot of people, but I think it’s important because sometimes we’re too reliant on technology and we have to remember there’s other ways of communicating with people.”

All 648 students at East Catholic High School in Manchester will be encouraged to participate this year. Students will receive a purple sticker with the phrase, “I Phone Fast! Will u?” before the 9:30 a.m. Mass Wednesday, said interim principal and chief administrator Thomas E. Maynard, and again before Good Friday.

Could be worse, of course. Could be coffee. At least it’s only for two days in Lent, and not the whole forty-plus. It does serve a specific spiritual purpose too, which is to get people to disconnect from the virtual world long enough to connect with each other. It’s not that being in a connected digital world is sinful in and of itself; the problem comes when it takes over our lives and we lose perspective on those around us and focus too much on ourselves.

This is the reason that I chose to take a hiatus from Twitter for Lent this year as my discipline. While I need to keep the news feed and DMs open for work purposes, I have turned off my timeline, notifications, and mentions until April 16th.  I enjoy the social aspects of Twitter, but it becomes very seductive and begins to take over more and more of life. A few years ago, I made the same choice and found myself astounded at how difficult it was to stay away from it. It has been less than 24 hours, and I’ve already backslid once.

Why give up anything at all? Catholics don’t do it as a form of sacrifice in the sense of worship, but as a means of penance for sins and discipline to avoid it in the future. That can be anything that creates a sense of something missing, as a way to reflect on our attachment to sin, or it can be something one should give up permanently too, as a means of offering that up in a more sacramental manner. The choice should prompt us to think about our attachment to sin and to free us up for a better prayer life. For me, Twitter can transform from a platform of positive human connection to a silent addiction — the impulse to share every thought and be part of every conversation. That feeds into a kind of narcissism that distorts reality and distracts us from God and our true place in the world.

So for the next few weeks, I’m off of Twitter, and plan to use the time productively — in prayer, hopefully, or study of scriptures, rather than clinging to the computer all day long. As it is also a platform for our business, I will have my posts tweeting out (on Facebook as well), but will not see them go out or watch for responses. I wish all of my many friends on Twitter a blessed Ash Wednesday and Lent, and look forward to reconnecting with a refreshed perspective on or after Easter.

I’ll, um, get back to you on the cellphone thing, though.