This article was published in the Scottish Catholic Observer on Friday 13th March 2020
I was just thinking about the demise of the postcard. Nobody takes the time to send them anymore. Why bother choosing, writing and posting something that might arrive two weeks after you get home when you can send an instant photo on Twitter or WhatsApp or some such. Communications have changed dramatically in my lifetime. The world I was born into seems like an alien planet to millennials.
The wireless (nobody called it the radio then) was the centrepiece of the living room. Television was a rumour that sprung into life with the Coronation in 1953. The telephone lived in a red painted greenhouse at the corner or in the homes of people with money. You had to lift the phone and listen for the operator who would connect you with the number you required.
I had uncles and aunts in California and I remember my Dad being sent for when Uncle Benny had booked a call from America at eight that night. Yes, you had to book time on the transatlantic cable in those days. The whole family gathered at Uncle Joe’s house; he had a telephone. All the brothers and sisters got a few seconds to exchange greetings. It wasn’t what they said; it was just great to hear their brother’s voice.
The big changes began with Telstar, the first communications satellite that carried TV pictures and ‘phone calls. Other satellites followed and communications exploded. I can dial a call to any place under the sun, even though the dial left the ‘phone years ago. I have a ‘phone in my pocket that lets me call any place from almost any other place. The ‘phone can also send pictures and video of what I’m up to as well as browsing the internet.
It was as a man from this interconnected world that I met a very different kind of man. I was in India, in Tamil Nadu at the bottom of that subcontinent. I was on a mission visit with my boss Fr. Pat and we were staying at a school, or rather a campus of schools that served the poor of the region. I was greeted by an old man (well he looked very old but probably was younger than me) dressed in a simple loincloth.
In the caste system, which was then illegal, the lowest caste was only allowed this garment so that people would recognise that they were untouchable. This man greeted me by putting his hands together with splayed fingers and bowed. I responded with a bow of the head and a smile. I asked Fr. Pat what this greeting was about. His answer was that the man was paying homage to the deity within me.
Here was I, a man of sophisticated communications systems, who might greet you with “Hello” or maybe just “Hi” being greeted by a very simple man who alludes to the essential truth of my being, that I am the creation of a God who resides with me. Who is the simple man now? That meeting forced me to think about the nature of my communications. I could send a picture of myself in India to friends in Scotland but how did I communicate with the Holy Spirit who is never very far from me? Perhaps it is the nature of the communication that stops me.
A trivial comment and a picture are easy to send. They do not require much thought. The result might be a smile or a smart reply. Communicating with God is a different business altogether. The trivia does not go very far with a person who knows you better than you know yourself. And yet the very fact that God knows you so well should make communication much easier. Listening to God makes more sense than taking advice from anyone else. In the silence that quiet voice can be heard but silence is something I avoid.
When I’m alone in the house I play music or switch on the television or radio, anything to fill the place with noise and block out the silence. I’m not listening to the music, not watching the television programmes; I’m not even interested in what they are about. The other day I found that my set top box had recorded a whole series of programmes I’ve never seen. It had noted that this programme was frequently on my TV. It had no way of knowing that I wasn’t watching.
Why do I use all this trivia to stop me communicating with God? Am I aware I’m doing it? Am I afraid to reveal who I am to God? If that’s the case then I’m even more stupid than I had suspected. God knows everything about me. That’s why listening to God would be more valuable than listening to anyone else. I’m not claiming to hear voices in my head, that’s never a good sign. God’s communication is more subtle than that. You don’t get a vision appearing on your wall but you might find a solution to something that has bothered you. You might have a good idea about helping someone or have a sudden urge to speak to someone. God doesn’t make demands but helps us to see things we had never thought of before. He lets us thing it’s our idea.
We are into Lent now and the big question is ‘What will I do for Lent?’. Will I give up chocolate? Will I put more money in the Saint Vincent de Paul box? I decided to get to daily mass more often, get closer to God. Now that I’ve been thinking about the distractions in my life perhaps I should aim for more silence. Perhaps I need to make more space for God to speak to me and that can only happen in silence.
I’m going to try to limit how much time I spend online; using social media, browsing the internet for the latest scandal about Donald Trump. I’ll shut down my computer when I finish working on it and leave that gap in my day, a gap that the silence can fill. What about my ‘phone? Can I trust myself to leave it in my pocket when I go for a coffee or sit on the train? The temptation is always there to click on the ‘phone and see what’s causing all the excitement on Twitter. I’m not too happy about switching off my ‘phone; I could miss that important message from Parkhead telling me to bring my boots, they are a man short. Maybe that would be my biggest sacrifice for Lent, switching off the ‘phone. I wonder?
Whatever you decide to do this Lent, don’t give up. Even if you have a bar of chocolate now and again you can still keep trying. No matter what you do try a bit of silence now and again. You don’t have to do the full silent retreat, just a few minutes here and there when you switch off, like the ‘phone.