A couple years ago, my friend Jean told me about a book she was reading: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. According to the description, the author, Nicholas Carr, shows how "the technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways." And the effects are not all positive: "We are becoming ever more adept at scanning and skimming, but what we are losing is our capacity for concentration, contemplation, and reflection."
Of course, the Internet is not the only challenge to deep thinking; a daily to-do list provides sufficient distraction. Back in the '50s, long before the Internet, Fr. Philip Dion wrote of the ease with which people can avoid ever thinking below the surface level.
There's a problem with that, and it's not just intellectual.
As Fr. Dion puts it: "We judge of things chiefly by their effects on our material welfare and our physical well-being. In other words, it is possible to live practically without thinking; it is possible to live a most superficial kind of animal existence without ever really tapping the resources of our spiritual mind, without ever becoming familiar with the whole thrilling world of spirit within us."
The world of the spirit—though more important—can easily take a backseat in our lives because it's invisible. Ironically, the things that last can't be seen, and we're distracted by the countless things we can see. But none of them last: "All shall pass," St. Teresa of Avila reminds us; "all shall pass."
Only people pass into eternity, but their appearance then would amaze us now. C.S. Lewis wrote that if we could see each others' souls, some would fill us with horror, while the beauty and holiness of others would incline us to fall down in worship.
Because there are so many other things competing for our attention, we can easily forget the things we say we know or believe. We may know that someday we will die, but we don't often think about it or act on the fact that it could happen any day. We may believe that we will have to render an account of our lives to our Creator on that day, but we don't prepare for it. We say we understand that our actions and attitudes are not always pleasing to Him, but we don't try to change them. Instead, we act as if we're guaranteed another fifty or sixty years and can work on that later.
What we assent to intellectually, what we know in our minds, has not made its way down to our hearts. This is why we can say we love God but neglect to spend time with Him—even on the only day He commanded it. Or if we go to church, this why we can sit there like we're waiting for the bus instead of feeling the joy of our salvation. Or why, if we're Catholics, we can say we believe in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist, yet file up to receive Him with as much excitement as if we're in line at the grocery store.
But how can we realize—that is, make real to ourselves—what we know and believe?
It is in taking the time to think deeply about these things—and not alone, but asking for the help of the Holy Spirit—that they sink into our hearts. It is in pondering these truths in prayer that they take root in our lives and grow and bear fruit.
If someone asks you, "Why do you pray?" Archbishop Fulton Sheen said to ask them, "Why do you breathe?"
Use it or lose it, the gym advertisers warn. The same could be said for the powers of our mind and, even more frighteningly, of our spirit too.
Not sure how to do it? Check out one of my earlier posts: How to Meditate.