Smartphones at the Nativity: Part I

Our three-and-a-half year old daughter is very observant.

Since before she was born, a large, framed copy of Giorgione’s Adoration of the Shepherds has hung in our family room. She has seen it daily, and we have discussed it often. Although Saint Joseph is here portrayed as an older man (we prefer the Catholic tradition maintaining his “prime age” and virility, as the strong heir of King David), it remains a moving Venetian masterpiece:


Then yesterday, our daughter asked me something about this painting which wrenched my heart.

“Mommy, where’s Joseph?

    “He is there, with the orange cloak.”

“Is he looking at his phone?

His phone.

Is Saint Joseph, Patron of the Universal Church and Guardian of the Redeemer – here at the most intimate moment of delight in the Incarnation, an hour of unsurpassed divine condescension and speechless adoration – looking at his phone.

No, my sweet child, he is praying.

I was deeply unsettled by my daughter’s question, because in her simple inquiry I caught a glimpse of how conditioned her worldview has already become by technology, even despite our efforts to the contrary at home. After she was born, my husband and I became convinced of the importance of not having smartphones in the home. There was something troubling about the hypnotic glow of the little screen, the magnetism it seemed to exert, the compulsive “need to check” (for… whatever); so we swapped them for outdated flip-phones.

It was great.

This grew our desire in the same direction (goodness, after all, begets itself), so we adopted further house rules for laptop use, refused to own a television, and deactivated our social media accounts. Particularly since we made these changes prior to AAP recommendations of reducing screen exposure for children (it appears to pose developmental problems – fancy that), we were and continue to be, by many American standards, “excessive” in shielding our kids from screens and tech-based communications.

We have repeatedly been challenged in explaining such “primitive” standards to friends and family, as though we need to present a compelling enough reason. In truth, we sometimes wonder why the issue doesn’t speak for itself – there seem to be justifications aplenty:

  • We want to foster a contemplative spirit of mindfulness, focused on the present time, space, and (above all) persons with whom we hold converse. This is the natural seedbed for practicing the presence of God, that sacrament of the present moment, the Little Way. In this, we refuse to become restless, distracted, and easily distractible (when was the last time you really waited somewhere like an airport, doctor office, subway, etc., and didn’t use or see others use some sort of device?).
  • We want to grow in the virtue of study and critical thinking by submitting to the discipline of inquiry. This sharpens the natural capacity for spiritual discernment, and the intellectual tools necessary to engage a culture saturated with competing and clamoring truth-claims. In this, we reject the reflexive impulse to “google it” and place our implicit trust in an SEO-based knowledge source (and concomitantly, we shield ourselves from all the various who-knows-what-else made accessible via internet searches).
  • We want to nurture personal and interpersonal creativity. Rather than pay professionals to make even our music and games for us, turning us into nought but observers, we will make our own and make it together, and we will be the better for it. In this, we refuse to feed the chronic boredom of an age cursed by constant access to virtual stimuli (can you believe that there are already rehab clinics for technology addiction?).
  • We want to recall privacy of information as a bastion of right relationship. Just as modesty in dress guards a person from objectification, so modesty in data-sharing protects the person, requiring a certain degree of interpersonal relationship prior to sharing oneself with others. In this, we refuse to join the throngs whose profoundest personal information and idle chatter are mingled together and flung wide into cyberspace for total strangers to consume – we will cherish our pearls instead (these days, anonymous somebodies can see your child’s face before he is even born, thanks to in-utero social media videos… so much for the sanctuary of the home, much less the womb).
  • We want to live simply, and practice true poverty of spirit through interior detachment from things, coupled with a prudent but real reduction of stuff. We refuse to be drawn in by the prevailing atmosphere of casual consumerism and materialism that makes for a “throwaway culture” (we plan to use things and love people – not the other way around).

There are more reasons, and we think they are good. Yet we always feel a struggle to strike at the real heart of the issue. There just seems to be something else there, something deeper – perhaps hidden. It has been difficult to articulate precisely why this seeming dependency upon technological devices just plain bothers us so much.

Then came our daughter’s question.

There, in that most tender, most intimate moment at the birth of our Lord and Savior, she just naturally supposed that Joseph may have been responding to a text, checking an email, snapping a picture. “Smile little buddy, you’re the King of the Universe.”

I looked again at the painting, studying it. And then I got it.

Begin from the halo.

Incarnation vs Antichrist.png

See, Giorgione offers one of those rare classical depictions of the Nativity sans aureoles. He opts instead for natural colors and the setting itself to draw the viewer into the the Revelation of the Son of God come in the flesh. As with the activity of grace itself, “what is essential is invisible to the eye” in Giorgione’s masterpiece: above all, Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds are the ones who visually “set the stage” for this revelation, through their postures of deep recollection in worship. The image holds an invitation to rather than a demonstration of the face of God seen in the little Christ Child.

This is ever our Lord’s mysterious pedagogy. He does not compel or overwhelm, but rather elicits and invites a response of faith, to constantly make greater room for his Truth. How many times did our Lord withdraw from the crowds, or command those whom he healed not to make him known? Saint Augustine reminds us that by hiding, “God strengthens our desire; through desire he enlarges our soul, and by expanding it he increases its capacity.” God ever bestows sufficient grace and light for the heart that desires to see truly – and he grows that capacity in the soul according to its response of faith, hope, and charity. In this way, the soul is made capable of ever-greater measures of glory. 

And just as the body speaks a language, so this response of faith is expressed exteriorly as well as interiorly. Such a response is exquisitely depicted here in the Adoration.

Thus, when a child (even one with parents who minimize exposure to devices!) can identify such a posture as equally befitting an act of worship and the consulting of a device, this should first speak volumes about our priorities. We lay the charge against conventional American society, and against ourselves – perhaps against your own fair self as well, dear reader. We got ourselves here.

We tell ourselves that tools are only what you make of them, and that they remain tools and we remain users – free to employ them as we please. But every tool shapes the user for good or for ill, and every technology involves a trade-off… and we’ve never had tools like smartphones. If you are a user of such a tool, are you free enough to do without it? Are there any other tools that you consult to such a degree?

“Steady on,” comes the reply, “This is how the world works nowadays. We need the tech because how else will we work at our job, pay our bills, stay connected? Modern communications are made in such ways.”


An illustration: A couple we know gives birth to a healthy baby. Some of the extended family lives close, while others are far away – particularly one of the grandfathers. Imagine that grandfather’s excitement then, to fly in and meet his first grandson! As he enters the room, with his beloved daughter freshly delivered of her healthy child, the grandfather’s breath is stolen away; only those who have had children of their own can know the feeling of this first meeting.

As the father places the little baby in the grandfather’s arms, the grandfather looks deep into those tiny and beautiful eyes – and his phone beeps. He awkwardly shifts the newborn over to one arm in order to grasp at his phone – not to silence it or deactivate it, but to check it. He holds the baby to one side as he examines his text/email/whatever and, satisfied, returns attention to the baby.

Now, I ask you: how free is the user?

If the unspeakable gift of gently cradling a newborn is not enough to contravene the grandfather’s need to check his phone, one wonders if anything could.

One wonders if he checks it during Mass.

Franciscan brothers read prayer requests from cell phones at New Jersey friary

It’s not that I deny the convenience of cell phones – particularly smartphones. I get it. It is “inconvenient” to have to look up and print out directions for my trip; it’s “inconvenient” to have to bring an actual camera to take pictures (besides, that’s a device too, right?); it’s “inconvenient” to have to wait (fifteen minutes?) before I can communicate with somebody far away; it’s “inconvenient” to not have an app for that (deposit a check, monitor my sleep patterns, whatever); it’s “inconvenient” to not immediately know everything about anybody hanging out there in cyberspace for all to see. Furthermore, in many walks of life it would be decidedly difficult to choose other than this constant availability, convenience, and connectedness.

But what is it all for? Is it possible that this connectedness is itself an idol, demanding a posture of worship before it?

Yes. It is very possible.

“By what a man is overcome, by that is he enslaved” (2 Pet 2:19)

My daughter’s question made something terribly clear: in our “need” to be constantly connected to everything and everyone always just because we can, we are failing to be connected to the most important thing of all, the most important moment of all, the most important Person of all. When you are in a room with a group people and your phone is innocently resting in your jeans pocket, or sitting quietly on the table nearby, the honest reality is that you are not completely in the room. The unique nature of the tool you carry, and it’s capacity for universal connection, means you cannot be completely in the room – even if you mean well, even if it’s on silent, even if it’s not on the forefront of your mind: the reality is that your attention is divided.

I’m not accusing, I’m admitting. When my phone is in the room, at a minimum, my subconscious is with it (studies already show people losing sleep when phones are in the bedroom – even on silent). When I am in a room with someone and my phone is on, I tell that person that my attention and presence to them is conditional, for it is also available to others who are not there, who may in fact be judged more important, depending on the situation. I am quite willing to be interrupted. More than that, I choose to be interrupted; or at least, I choose to have that option.

When I sit and read the adventures of Winnie the Pooh with my kids, or enjoy a quiet conversation with my spouse, or relish a long-anticipated visit with extended relatives or out-of-state friends, my phone simultaneously provides me with a clandestine way of doing something else at the same time – something that I might prefer, depending on my mood – something which has mysteriously become a socially acceptable alternative to actively engaging with actually-present company. “I just gotta ____” now holds a defensible seat at any given table.

In fact, we don’t even need to excuse ourselves anymore… we just do it. All the time.


But there is still more insight to be gleaned from my three-year-old’s question about the Adoration, and it is the deepest of all, striking at the real heart of why my husband and I are so bothered by certain tech use.

It’s all about the body.

Check back for Part II of Smartphones at the Nativity.

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