The Thirty-First Day of Great Lent. “. . . BUT BY PRAYER AND FASTING” (Part V)
Everyone will no doubt agree that the whole style of family existence has been radically altered by radio and television. These media of “mass communication” permeate today our whole life. One does not have to “go out” in order to “be out.” The whole world is permanently here within my reach. And, little by little, the elementary experience of living within an inner world, of the beauty of that “interiority,” simply disappears from our modern culture. If it is not television, it is music. Music has ceased to be something one listens to; it is fast becoming a kind of “background sound” for conversation, reading, writing, etc. In fact, this need for permanent music reveals the incapacity of modern man to enjoy silence, to understand it not as something negative, as a mere absence, but precisely as a presence and the condition for all real presence.
If the Christian of the past lived in great measure in a silent world, giving him ample opportunity for concentration and inner life, today’s Christian has to make a special effort to recover that essential dimension of silence which alone can put us in contact with higher realities. Thus the problem of radio and TV during Lent is not a marginal one but in many ways a matter of spiritual life or death. One must realize that it is impossible simply to split our life between the “bright sadness” of Lent and “The Late Show.” Those two experiences are incompatible and one eventually kills the other. It is very likely, however, that unless a special effort is made “The Late Show” has a greater chance against the “bright sadness” than vice versa.
A first “custom” to be suggested, therefore, is that the use of TV and radio be drastically reduced during Lent. We do not dare to hope here for a “total” fast but only for an “ascetical” one which, as we know, means first of all a change of diet and its reduction. There is nothing wrong, for example, with continuing to watch the news or selecting serious, interesting, and intellectually or spiritually enriching programs. What must be stopped during Lent is the “addiction” to TV—the transformation of man into a vegetable in an armchair, glued to the screen and passively accepting anything coming from it.
When I was a child (this was the pre-TV era) my mother used to lock the piano during the first, fourth, and seventh weeks of Lent. I remember this more vividly than the long lenten services, and even today a radio playing during Lent shocks me as almost a blasphemy. This personal recollection is only an illustration of the impact some very external decisions can have on a child’s soul. And what is involved here is not a mere isolated custom or rule but the experience of Lent as a special time, as something which is constantly present and must not be lost, mutilated, or destroyed. Here also however, as with fasting, a mere absence or abstinence is not sufficient; it must have its positive counterpart.
The silence created by the absence of the world’s noises made available by the media of mass communication is to be filled with positive content. If prayer feeds our soul, our intellect also needs its food for it is precisely the intellect of man which is being destroyed today by the ceaseless hammering of TV, radio, newspapers, pictorial magazines, etc. What we suggest then, in addition to the purely spiritual effort, is an intellectual effort. How many masterpieces, how many wonderful fruits of human thought, imagination, and creativity we neglect in our life simply because it is so much easier returning home from work in a state of physical and mental fatigue to push the TV button or to plunge into the perfect vacuum of an illustrated magazine.
But suppose we plan our Lent? Suppose we make in advance a reasonable list of books to be read during Lent? Not all of them must necessarily be religious books; not all people are called to be theologians. Yet there is so much implicit “theology” in certain literary masterpieces, and everything which enriches our intellect, every fruit of true human creativity, is blessed by the Church and, properly used, acquires a spiritual value. In the preceding chapter I have mentioned that the fourth and fifth Sundays of Lent are dedicated to the commemoration of two great teachers of Christian spirituality: St. John of the Ladder and St. Mary of Egypt. Let us understand this as a broad indication that what the Church wants us to do during Lent is to seek the enrichment of our spiritual and intellectual inner world, to read and to meditate upon those things which are most likely to help us recover that inner world and its joy. Of that joy, of the true vocation of man, the one that is fulfilled inside and not outside, the “modern world” gives us no taste today; yet without it, without the understanding of Lent as a journey into the depth of our humanity, Lent loses its meaning.
~Adapted from Alexander Schmemann, Great Lent