By Deacon Charles Rohrbacher

I’m sure that like me (and everybody else who flies in and out of Southeast Alaska) you know by heart the litany that the flight attendants recite before we take off and land: fasten your seatbelts; seatbacks and tray tables in their locked, upright position; and, please turn off all portable electronic devices until we have safely landed.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about that pre-flight speech quite often: not before take-off but before Mass on Sunday. Here’s why:

I’ve started to notice over the last couple of years an increase in distracting behaviors (at least distracting to me) during the celebration of Mass as we try to sit, stand and kneel together in reverence and awe each Sunday.

You might expect that the biggest distraction at Mass would be crying or restless children. But children in the congregation aren’t all that distracting (to me at least). There are two reasons for this. First, as a parent of former infants and toddlers (two, to be exact), I learned early on to block out everybody else’s children but my own. Secondly, parents usually have good pastoral instincts: when their children begin to melt down they know when it’s time to take a break and head for the exit until everybody has had a chance to calm down.

No, the big distraction I’m noticing now is electronic devices. Cell phones, to be exact. In the interest of full disclosure, yes, I too, own a cell phone and yes, my own cell phone has rung right in the middle of Mass. I only remember to keep it turned off because trying to retrieve and switch off an insistently ringing cell phone from underneath a dalmatic and an alb while kneeling during the Eucharistic prayer is pretty much impossible to do with any dignity or grace.

I understand that it’s easy to forget to turn off our cell phones so that they don’t ring (best case scenario) or play “The Ride of Valkyries” (worst case scenario) during Mass. Or, annoyingly buzz and beep to inform their owners that they are being texted.
However, lately I’ve noticed that when the phone rings during Mass some members of the holy people of God actually answer their phones and engage in conversation (my experience a while back trying to proclaim the gospel at a funeral.)

And since that particular conversation was loud enough and protracted enough so that everyone in the congregation could listen, it was also evident that the person who had answered their phone was not an on-call neurosurgeon, a coast guard rescue swimmer, a bomb disposal expert or a plumber (all of whom probably should keep their phones on vibrate even during Mass). No, this person was simply an ordinary member of the assembly who should have already put their seat and tray table into its locked and upright position and turned off their portable electronic devices while waiting for Father to be cleared for take-off.0

But, I’m writing about this not to decry the seeming death-spiral of etiquette at Mass, but instead to suggest that our inability (or unwillingness) to disconnect might actually indicate a spiritual problem that has a spiritual solution that I would suggest can be found in the traditional spiritual disciplines of Lent: prayer, fasting and almsgiving.

In the gospel reading for Ash Wednesday from the gospel of Matthew, Jesus advises his disciples, “… When you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you.”

In this portion of Matthew’s gospel Jesus is directly addressing the problem of hypocrisy in prayer but he is also teaching us something vitally important about the nature and practice of prayer itself.  He speaks of the inner room that is at the center and heart of each person. It is a place of interior silence, a place not so much where we speak but where we listen attentively to the voice of the Lord. Only within that inner room of the heart, free of the distractions and cares that surround us, is it possible to hear God’s still, small voice.

This requirement that we clear away distractions not only applies to the inner room of our hearts, but to the ‘inner room’ which we share with God’s holy people at Mass. The prayerful, undivided attention that we bring to Mass (and especially to the proclamation of the word of God and to eucharistic prayer) is a gift (an alms, as it were) that we give to those with whom we gather in prayer. The personal discipline of interior silence and prayerful concentration that each member of the assembly practices, helps us as a congregation to enter together into the inner room of adoration, praise and thanksgiving that is at the heart of the liturgy.

It is also always a spiritually salutary practice for us to intentionally fast from those things that are in themselves good (but a limited good) in order to deepen our communion with the One who is the ultimate Good.

It is a challenging discipline to turn off our cell phones, and to limit or forego surfing the internet, listening to music or the radio or watching television or movies. But doing so is the first step in creating an interior place in our lives of solitude and silence. We can trust that this discipline will bear good fruit because in that place of interior silence and quiet we will be able to hear the Lord speaking to us.

During this Lent, let’s make time and space in our lives not only to give but to receive. We can begin our retreat together by saying no to the insistent demands of 24/7 connectivity in our lives, as individuals, as families and as a Church, so that we can enter into that inner room of our hearts where in silence and stillness, God can generously give to us.

– Deacon Charles Rohrbacher is the Office of Ministries Director for the Diocese of Juneau. Phone: 907-586-2227 x 23.  Email: charlesr@gci.net