Almost two millennia separates the earliest monks from modern secular Westerners today — and yet the two groups have more in common than you might think.
For one thing, monks had plenty of experience of distraction and inattention — even though, unlike us, they couldn’t blame their unquiet habits of mind on their social media addiction, or tendency to binge-watch TV shows on streaming services.
As it turns out, it wasn’t uncommon for monks to try and find preoccupations instead of their spiritual calling, even though they’d knowingly signed up to a life of contemplation, prayer and service to God.
That’s the contention, at least, of Matthew John Paul Tan, a Catholic author, blogger and adjunct senior lecturer at the University of Notre Dame, Australia.
Dr Tan says that the monk-ish tendency to distraction is what unites the ascetics of old with people today, regardless of how they feel about God.
“We live in a culture right now where distraction is the norm rather than the exception,” he asserts.
He points to our handheld devices, social media posts and always-online lifestyles as examples of our widespread “economy of distraction”.
Anyone who has ever lost an afternoon on YouTube would find it hard to disagree.
But it wasn’t until Dr Tan started digging into the writings of the early church fathers — religious ascetics living in Egypt around the third and fourth centuries — that he found an acute diagnosis of the chronic inattention that afflicts the average 21st century individual.
He points to Evagrius Ponticus from the fourth century, whose handbook to monastic life, the Praktikos, identified the ways that monks would restlessly fidget and seek out pleasant distractions to occupy themselves. Far from our impression of religious types permanently transfixed in otherworldly ecstasy, apparently even professional “holy” people would procrastinate.
“When I see the whole economy of distraction through devices, I see an institutionalisation of the very thing that was identified by the church fathers,” says Dr Tan.
“Even though they lived when there weren’t any of these devices, they nonetheless were able to pick out these basic orientations towards God and the world.”
40 days without Netflix
The effort to overcome, or at least discipline, his own habits of inattention is why Dr Tan is giving up Netflix during Lent.
Traditionally 40 days before Easter, Lent is the period anticipating the death and resurrection of Jesus, the high point of the Christian liturgical calendar.
During that time, believers engage in reflection, prayer and, often, spiritual disciplines of self-denial to refocus their lives and attention on God.
Wine and chocolate have long featured among the goodies being given up, but in recent years abstaining from social media has also proved a popular option among observant Catholics.
Dr Tan said his Lenten fast from Netflix was prompted by his awareness of how numbing it was for him to consume it. He found that scrolling through the menu was itself a deadening activity, and that once he chose something to watch, he even zoned out of the program.
And all of this waylaid Dr Tan from doing what he was meant to do — just like those monks of times past.
“With the time that I lose in mindlessly scrolling through Netflix, I am not actively considering where I stand and where I sit in my relationship with God or my neighbour,” he says.
“It disconnects me from my prayer life, and if my prayer life suffers, the spiritual dimension of my existence suffers with it.”
Take it from this theologian: distraction is bad for the soul.
Is distraction more than laziness?
While we name the phenomenon “distraction” today, theologians in past eras knew it as “sloth”.
Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins, a list of foundational sins from which, it is said, every other sin grew.
The word is often associated with laziness, but Dr Tan says laziness is a side effect of the real problem: our insistence on our freedom from all outside influence — especially the influence of God.
“Before sloth is about laziness, it is actually about autonomy,” he says.
“Laziness, the refusal to do what one is supposed to do, becomes the secondary effect of autonomy.”
Autonomy might sound like a good thing, but Dr Tan says this particular kind isn’t liberating, but rather dehumanising.
“You think that you are asserting your humanity by asserting your freedom, and yet that very thing becomes the means by which you become less than human,” he explains.
“You actually deaden yourself as you lose yourself in this whole smorgasbord of distraction.”
If early monks were prescient in naming the not-so-modern malady of distraction, did they have any solutions?
Dr Tan says Evagrius recommended a kind of monastic mindfulness.
He encouraged monks to retreat into their cell and still their restive minds by deliberating over the psalms (a collection of prayers, poems and laments tracking the highs and lows of the spiritual life).
That kind of activity requires attention and a certain receptivity to the divine.
Being marooned leaves us more open to distraction than if we had a certain sense of direction given to us by someone else, namely God.
But even for people who are less convinced about the God part of that equation, concentrating on a text certainly centres the mind.
Dr Tan says that focusing attention via the psalms is, for the believer at least, a way of focusing attention on the God who is the source of purpose, meaning and direction.
“Without that to act as our guiding star, our anchor, we are actually marooned,” he says.
“Being marooned leaves us more open to distraction than if we had a certain sense of direction given to us by someone else, namely God.”
Justine Toh is Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity. Her three-part Spiritual Lifehack series airs on Soul Search, 6pm Sundays on RN.
This article first appeared at ABC News.