Put down the phone. Pray.

Monday, July 15, 2019 - Updated: 2:25 pm

By David Mills

Sometimes you had to stop my parents’ car by pulling off the road and slamming on the brakes. It would keep accelerating until you did. You had to rev down the engine so you could drive away at the right speed. The mechanic couldn’t fix it. One of those big boxy cars popular way back then, it was the car I learned to drive on.

Which, looking back, was kind of dangerous. I have no idea what my dad was thinking. But it gave me a good symbol for the spiritual life. Your life just speeds up and speeds up and speeds up, and you can only stop it by slamming on the brakes. You have to come to a dead stop.

Life is like that anyway, between jobs and friends and church and hobbies and ministries and shopping and cooking and getting the car fixed and everything else. Add children to that and your feet don’t stop. Some of us add parents, too.

And now we have something to keep us moving even when we’re not moving. Social media. On phones you have with you all the time.

Not everyone has a problem with social media. But lots of people do. Get in even a short line at the grocery store and watch how many people pull out their phones. Husbands and wives will be on their phones rather than talking with each other. Parents and kids will each be off in their own world. It looks automatic. They stop for a few seconds, out come their phones.

“More and more, it feels like life is becoming an indecipherable blur,” said Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt, writing on the website Vox. She works as a full-time journalist, raises two children and does all the things a rabbi’s wife has to do.

She grew up in a religious home, she said, and used to love to pray from her prayer book. Now, not so much. “I’m a slave to my inbox, to my group texts and my need to be ‘up to date.’ This takes time and mental space, and the first thing to go was my daily prayers. My phone quickly displaced my prayer book as daily reading.”

That had an effect. A bad one. “Though I had been raised to be idealistic, reverent even, I found myself increasingly cynical, angry. I explained it as part of the state of adulthood. My main priority right now is my family, my work and my community, I would console myself. God understands.”

He does, of course. But even though God understands why we don’t talk to him, we’re still not talking to him. We lose out. One night, feeling sick and overwhelmed, Chizhik-Goldschmidt saw her prayer book. “I sat down, opened it and felt the mayhem of modernity disappear. I could breathe again.”

She has learned a lot, getting back to praying regularly. “As an adult, as a millennial, as a working mother, making time to whisper ancient words has taken on a whole other nature. It feels like a radical act of resistance.”

She continued: “Prayer is the ability to say no to the demands of technology; to silence my devices, close my office door and recite the afternoon service. It is a brief taste of sabbath slipped into the frenzy of the day-to-day; it allows me to put everything aside and turn away from screens to paper.”

Prayer guides you when you need it, she explained. “It fills your lips with words, even when your heart has none.”

The Hebrew prayer book is called a “siddur.” The name comes from the Hebrew word seder, meaning “order.” The simple reason for the name is that it’s the book that holds the orders for prayer. It’s like our Divine Office, only a lot smaller.

Chizhik-Goldschmidt gave it a second meaning. “Perhaps, more significantly, it is called siddur because the act of prayer offers order to the chaos of our lives. Rather than letting life slide by in an undefined haze, prayer punctuates our hours, our days and our weeks. It is an exercise that consistently demands a revolutionary sort of intentionality.”

She learned from praying to an order “that God wasn’t the one who needed my prayers. It was I who needed them more.” She learned to slam on the brakes, rev down her life and start over at the right speed.


Mills is writing a book on death and dying for Sophia Institute Press.

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