For the last few years, there has been a distinct trend in my online social networks. As Ash Wednesday approaches, it becomes clear that there are a few people preparing to give social media up for Lent. Last year, I puzzled that I may be one of the few remaining Catholics on social media who hasn’t given up the medium for Lent at some point in the last five years.
Many of these friends have had a “last post” during Mardi Gras, the one where they declare their spiritual commitment and prepare their friends and followers that they will unavailable for the next six weeks. These posts inevitably become an amazing evangelization tool as the individual’s non-Catholic friends and followers chime into conversation. What is Lent again? Why exactly are you doing this? I think my all-time favorite comment has been this train of thought. Isn’t that the thing where you stop eating chocolate? Wait, is this related to why there are chocolate Easter eggs? Very simply, social media is ordinarily a secular space, appropriate for cat videos, anguished political statements and filtered photos. Such proud declarations of one’s faith over social media will instantaneously make others take notice. You can almost hear the proverbially record scratch.
This year, I am noticing a movement away from abstaining from social media. Many speculate that as COVID-19 continues to inhibit in-person ministry, social media maintains a critical role in offering a forum through which to discuss and share faith. Heidi A. Campbell, author of Networked Theology: Negotiating Faith in Digital Culture, explains that that refraining from social media is often based on the false assumption that newer media technologies are shaping how societies and individuals act, particularly in selfish or dehumanizing ways. Campbell wants to remind her audience that everyone has the ability to make choices about how and why to use social media – including for furthering spiritual goals.
Since I agree with all the sentiment above, it begs the question. Why am I finally choosing to give up social media for Lent?
Every year I ask myself the same question before Lent. What do I need to do (or not do) to cultivate virtue and to better open my heart to Jesus? More often than not, I don’t “give up” anything. Rather, I add certain things into my routine like more intentional prayer time or spiritual reading.
This year my Lenten discernment aligned with, of all things, a notification beep on my phone. This particular beep offered me my weekly screen time report – 4 hours and 20 minutes, up 6% from the previous week.
I stared blankly at my phone. Obviously, not all of that screen time is devoted to social media but wow… 4 hours. 20 minutes. That is more than the window I get each evening between when my children go to bed and when I go to bed; the only time of the day where I actually get anything done. To put another way, that is more than 30 minutes a day when I could be doing something else.
What if instead I offered that time to God?
I started reflecting on how those minutes on social media add up throughout the day. There are many times when I habitually scroll through my phone, including during tough parenting moments when I just want to “check out” from the tantrum raging down the hallway or the recently spilled milk dripping off the counter. Do I really want to avoid my children and their needs even briefly, out of mere habit?
When I started reflecting on all of this, I realized that the virtue that I most want to cultivate this Lenten season is presence.
I want to be present. I want to be attentive. All of this requires allowing the space and time for God to speak to me through my own voice.
Giving up social media, like any of our Lenten “sacrifices” is hardly the equivalent of waving a spiritual magic wand. It will not guarantee me prayerful presence or even intentionality. Yet, cultivating virtue…always leads us towards Jesus. Deepening our relationship with Jesus channels us towards cultivating more virtues. In essence, this becomes a self-perpetuating faith cycle. Virtue. Jesus. Jesus. Virtue. Repeat.
What virtues will you be cultivating this Lent?