By Martin Smith
Getting used to having a smartphone-easier for some than for others. I have to take it slowly, partly because I am temperamentally wary of gadgets. But I also have to take time to figure out how it can be a holy thing. Holy things are friends to our souls, we have an intimacy with them, they become part of the meaningfulness of our lives. To use a holy thing is to know that God is present in the handling of it. In his great Rule for monks, St. Benedict states with his usual directness that the monastery officer responsible for tools and utensils ‘should regard them as if they were the holy vessels of the altar.’ The division between sacred and secular is mainly a figment of our lack of imagination, or a symptom of our fear of letting religion out of its safe compartment.
The holiness of my smartphone ‘heated up’ the other day when I was getting ready to lead a Lent retreat in a house on the Hudson. I was walking by a beautiful pond in a little nature reserve up in the hills, and found myself groping for the source of a saying that kept going through my head, “To my mind it is a marvel who was on the cross: he whose eyes are as a flame of fire piercing through heaven and earth at the same moment unable to see his creatures, the work of his hands.” Ah, it was a line in one of the letters of the Welsh mystic and poet Ann Griffiths, I remembered.
Then I remembered my smartphone and within a few minutes I had found the Ann Griffiths website created by the University of Cardiff, tracked down the letter and found the sentence. It was almost as if I had just been texted by a saint! And then I sat on the rocks overlooking the pond and read through her wonderful hymns one by one until there were tears in my eyes. A connection had been made not just with the past-Ann died in 1805-but through the present to eternity where the saints are alive to us because they are alive in God.
It is taking time to get used to the reality that the vast riches of spiritual writings that until just recently were accessible only in specialized libraries, and hardly known outside circles of the devout and the learned, are now available at our fingertips almost anywhere. I was in Hartford airport the other day reading a magazine article about the virtual certainty that intelligent life in fantastic abundance has already evolved or will emerge eventually throughout the billions of galaxies. Something rang a bell in my mind and I remembered that Alice Meynell had written a poem a hundred years ago in which she imagined us in eternity learning how God had been manifest to other creatures in distant part of the cosmos, as in turn we show to them Christ, God’s self- expression as a human being. A few keystrokes as I sipped my Starbuck’s tea, and there it was: the poem Christ in the Universe:
But in the eternities,
Doubtless we shall compare together, hear
A million alien Gospels, in what guise
He trod the Pleiades, the Lyre, the Bear.
O, be prepared, my soul! To read the inconceivable, to scan The myriad forms of God those star
unroll When, in our turn, we show to them a
A poet of Edwardian England speaks to me in the Gate area of Hartford airport and eternity opens up for both of us, lost in wonder at the certainty that the phrase, “God so loved the world” cannot possibly be restricted just to this planet, but must mean that God reaches out in saving love to all creatures who attain consciousness in this vast universe. When my flight was called and I switched off my smartphone, this new utensil of mine, did seem every bit as holy as any vessel of the altar: a medium not just of communication but of communion.
Martin L. Smith is a well-known spiritual writer and priest. He is the senior associate rector at St. Columba’s, D.C.