Have we sacrificed once traditional courtesies at this altar, asks Fr David Watt, and if so, is Satan involved?
Have you ever been with someone and had your conversation interrupted by a phone call? If a third person is present, courtesy dictates he wait for a break in the conversation before saying his piece, but someone who isn’t even there can just barge ahead.
Or have you ever been talking on the phone and been left high and dry while your interlocutor attends to ‘call-waiting’? Another example of how moderns will sacrifice traditional courtesies at the altar of instant communication – of whatever quality.
Despite the drawbacks of the phone, I can generally be reached that way. Furthermore, I have an answering machine but my critics still murmur. For yes, it is true, there are times I can’t be reached by phone. Here, we find one of the numerous paradoxes in modern thought.
If a priest becomes incommunicado for a month because he is on holidays, no one objects. Well, in over four years as a priest, I have never been absent for more than a few days at a time to help at a retreat.
Yet, if I sometimes block out incoming calls, usually for less than a day, so as not to fall behind with work (eg answering of phone messages) I am ‘unavailable’ even though, unlike many priests, I have no clerical or lay help with the phone.
We are the children of an instant-coffee age. We want what we want, and by yesterday at the latest. If someone cannot be contacted right now, he cannot be contacted at all.
Why don’t I have an email? Because I cling to the absurdly antiquated notion I should provide some feedback on correspondence I receive. This will not always be necessary eg if what arrives is itself an answer and raises no further issues.
Often, however, courtesy will demand some response or acknowledgement. Difficult, if, like a priest-friend of mine, you receive 160 emails in one week.
Yes, I freely admit it – my ego is so bloated I actually think I’m worth a stamp. But, in self-defence, I should add I think others are worth this too. Here, we find another of those contradictions in contemporary thinking.
Moderns complain about the time, trouble and expense involved in putting a stamp on an envelope. One might therefore expect that when they are the object of this heroic sacrifice they would be correspondingly appreciative.
Such, however, does not appear to be so. Many or even most letters I send never score any response or acknowledgement unless I subsequently enquire and sometimes not even then. We have reached such a pass that no one now sees this as rude.
What a contrast with the level of courtesy formerly obtained, even between total strangers. If a businessman eg foresaw a delay in answering a letter he would send out an immediate acknowledgement so as to assure the correspondent his letter had arrived and was under consideration.
The multiplication of communication-media seems to have been attended with a proportionate devaluing of the currency. Amid the contemporary cacophony, an individual voice is, on average, worth less. Hence we must work harder to achieve the same result or less. That is why I must perform a song and dance in order to have my letters answered.
If, on a particular day, I receive both letters and phone messages, then, ceteris paribus, I will deal with letters first because the correspondents have been to more trouble, and earlier too since posting must have occurred by yesterday at the latest. I think, however, the average modern would deal with phone messages first.
The craze for ‘instant’ media – phones, faxes, email etc – has vastly increased the volume of communication but has it also improved its quality? It seems to me our English is much inferior to that of the Challoner Bible, for instance.
But let us take a more basic criterion – typographical errors. Are there fewer now than, say, in the 19th century? Certainly, my own reading does not bear this out. A priori, you might think moderns would trounce all comers, equipped as we are with automatically-correcting word processors, spell check programs etc.
But counteracting and perhaps overbalancing this factor is today’s phrenesy which stops people from sitting down to get it right. And a large contributing factor to this phrenesy is de facto the proliferation of ‘instant’ communications media.
Of course, the pace of communication was stepped up well before the invention of these media. Take the whole news industry: by a certain time there must be produced a paper of a certain thickness, whether or not there is that amount of noteworthy material to print. All the more credit, then, to the journalist who succeeds in transcending this in-built limitation by writing a piece which is both genuinely newsworthy and error-free.
Have the press and later media served more to unite than to divide? Nowadays, people are sometimes reluctant to give not only an address but even a phone number. Or take a different example: the sign ‘No Junk Mail.’ Although I disapprove of this phrase on account of its rudeness, I can understand the reaction. Faced with an endless barrage of words, people feel the need to protect their privacy.
Even in today’s world, however, vestiges of traditional courtesies remain. For example, wedding invitations still arrive by the ‘snail mail’ and give notification many weeks in advance. Often, however, the modern penchant for instant communication seems to result in mental laziness and lack of planning. Events are arranged in slipshod fashion at the last minute, all of which adds to pressure on people.
Have you noticed how ‘stressed-out’ everyone is nowadays? Surely the mania for instant communication must bear part of the blame. Likewise, the fact that despite our washing-machines and other time-saving devices, no one seems to have any time.
Sadly, modern ideas on communication have infected the Church to a considerable degree. The good priest is one who, armed with a mobile phone, charges from one meeting to the next. Whereas it has been well said that when a priest has finished his Mass and Office, he has completed 80 per cent of his work for the day.
And, I would add, if he has prayed his rosary and fasted when appropriate, he has completed 95 per cent.
Could Satan be using modern means of communication to provide us with ‘busy work’, thus retrenching ‘time out’ to reflect, take stock of ourselves and, above all, to pray? Solus cum Solo.
I am confident that with the Triumph of the Immaculate Heart I will not see what I see now, viz, people walking past Catholic churches while talking on their mobile phones. If they still have their phones they will be switched off and a visit will be paid to the Blessed Sacrament.