Prayer in the Digital Age: a review

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Prayer in the Digital Age by Matt Swaim.
Copyright 2001, Liguori Publications. 138 pages.

Matt Swaim’s Prayer in the Digital Age has some solid advice for users of digital media who want to improve their spiritual lives. At the same time, it gives a conflicting message about the importance of setting time aside daily to devote to mental prayer. Due to this significant shortcoming, I give the book 3 stars.

First, the positive.

Silence versus sensory overload

Swaim begins his book with good–but not earth-shattering–insight into the problems of the digital era regarding our relationship with God. The first two chapters are “The Silence of Humanity” and “The Silence of God.” Here he talks about our fear of, but need for, silence. He details how an insatiable appetite for temporal pleasure encourages overdosing on digital media.

Daily examen spread throughout the day

The section where I gleaned the most was borrowed from Randy Hain of The Integrated Catholic Life e-magazine. He breaks down St. Ignatius of Loyola’s daily examen into five parts to reflect on at different times of the day. Swaim relates this to the monastic bell that calls monks and nuns to prayer. This correlation led to my reflection and an addition to our school day, which I wrote about in Domestic monastery: living by the bell.

At the same time, this chapter (“Disciplined, but Principled”) demonstrates the problem that I found with the book.

How important is mental prayer?

Swaim writes, “[W}ere we to count the minutes that we waste checking and rechecking progress on work- and social media-related items that we cannot meaningfully do anything about, we would find a wealth of opportunities for prayer.” I absolutely agree. In an earlier chapter, he had already stated that the problem is not really time, but our priorities.

But soon after, we read, “An overly ambitious plan to incorporate prayer into one’s routine will almost certainly be destined to failure… [S]etting lofty goals for spiritual improvement inevitably can only lead to short-term disappointment… [emphasis mine].” Evidently, he means lofty in the sense of “over-the-top,” not just “high.” For how can having high goals for your spiritual life always lead to disappointment? Didn’t the saints have high spiritual goals? How can we grow holy, if we are always to aim low?

How much is “too much?”

And what does Swaim consider too lofty a goal for prayer? He never says. I would say trying to pray two hours a day is too much for beginners. Even one hour is more than most beginners should start with, although some may truly be ready to give God that much time.  I would follow the advice of Jacques Philippe’s Time for God: “A quarter of an hour is the absolute minimum…” Philippe means time set aside in one block.

Ironically, Swaim also states that 15 minutes a day should be possible for everyone–but he is talking about 15 minutes broken down into little chunks of three minutes or so throughout the day. As my husband pointed out, it often takes three minutes just to set aside one’s distractions and truly focus on God. I fail to see how short bursts of prayer can be very efficacious for someone who does not also set aside time exclusively for God.

The author anticipated this argument and tries to counter it. His response boils down to any prayer being better than no prayer. I can’t argue with that. You could also say venial sin is better than mortal sin. But should we be satisfied with it?

In sum, if you already have a steady mental prayer time and are looking for something more, Swaim’s “living by the bell” could help you. If you are struggling to discern how digital media may hurt your relationship with God, you might find much to reflect on as well. But if you want a recent book on how prayer should fit into our lives, read Time for God.

Connie Rossini

For a more positive take on Prayer in the Digital Age, read the review by Brandon Vogt.

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