Asceticism has always been a key component of Catholic spirituality. Following the example of its founder, Jesus Christ, Catholicism has always inspired holy men and women to lay aside the pleasures of this world to the benefit of their immortal souls. This can involve fasting, giving away wealth and possessions or stepping away from the chaos of ordinary life to go on a silent retreat. Our modern, screen-dominated world offers us another form of asceticism: a digital retreat.
A digital retreat is an opportunity to step away from your electronic life for a predetermined length of time. This can be a few days, a few weeks or longer. A good starting point is a 30-day retreat. This is enough time to become detached from the constant buzz of social media notifications and the never-ending scroll of Facebook and Twitter. It gives our brains a chance to reset and frees up our time for spiritual practices.
With so much of our lives happening online, the key to a successful digital retreat is proper planning.
One option is to disable all notifications from social media apps and platforms. However, this will not prevent you from aimlessly scrolling on your phone in bed or whenever you have a moment of downtime. You can also delete these apps from your smartphone and other devices, so that you can only access these platforms from your browser.
To disconnect fully from social media, the best strategy is to temporarily disable your accounts.
All major social media platforms offer you the ability to shut down your accounts when you need a break. The only exception is LinkedIn, but nobody turns to LinkedIn for a cure to boredom.
There are nuances to keep in mind when disabling your profile on each platform. Instagram makes the process very simple: you can temporarily disable your account at any time and it will simply disappear. When you are ready to return to Instagram, just log back into your account and all of your photos, likes, and followers will return just the way you left them.
Twitter and Snapchat also allow you to disable your accounts, but both platforms have an important limitation: you must reactivate within 30 days or your account will be permanently deleted. If your digital retreat will be longer than 30 days, pick a day to reset the clock by reactivating your account, waiting a few hours, and deactivating again.
Leaving Facebook can be more challenging because the platform is so ubiquitous.
If your friends use Facebook’s “events” feature to plan social activities, be sure to notify a few people to keep you in the loop on any invitations you might miss. You should also jot down any birthdays that will take place while you’re off Facebook, to avoid the awkwardness of forgetting one.
Some people also rely heavily on Facebook’s Messenger app for one-to-one conversations. Thankfully, Facebook allows you to continue using Messenger even when you deactivate your profile. Once you are ready, simply login to Facebook from your browser and deactivate your account. You can disable your profile for as long as you want, and logging into Facebook Messenger will not reactive your profile.
The next step is to evaluate your other digital services. Streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu are easy to cancel for a few months. Be sure to warn any friends, family members or former roommates who use your account, so they have time to borrow somebody else’s password. When you reactivate your account, your viewing history will be intact, and the platform may even offer you a returning-customer discount. You will also want to remove any news apps from your devices and disable any intrusive push-notifications. Don’t worry: if anything truly newsworthy happens, you will hear about it one way or another.
You probably cannot entirely avoid email. The key is to restrict the time you spend in your inbox. Choose a specific time to check your email each day – or less frequently, if possible – and stick to that time. If you are worried about missing anything urgent, simply set up an auto-reply to inform the sender of when and how often you check your inbox.
The first few days of your digital retreat are likely to be the most frustrating. Whenever you find yourself in line at the grocery store, in a doctor’s waiting room or bored somewhere, your inability to scroll on your phone will become obvious. The silence may be deafening if you are used to constantly feeding your mind new information throughout the day. If you frequently update your social media, you may start to wonder what to do when you think of a joke, feel like ranting or eat something exotic. But once you get past this initial phase, you will begin to appreciate the stillness of your digital retreat.
The other aspects of your digital retreat are entirely up to you. You can spend time praying the rosary, engaging in mental prayer or meditation, reading books written by the saints or interacting with your friends and family. Giovanni di Pietro di Bernardone did not have a detailed agenda of how he would spend his time after renouncing his earthly wealth in the 13th century, and he went on to become St Francis of Assisi.
When your retreat ends, be intentional about reintroducing the various digital platforms and services that you have been avoiding. The best way to enjoy these technologies is to decide for yourself why, when and how you will use them. You can also make this practice a regular part of your spiritual life.
Lent, Advent and Ember Weeks can all be great times to make another digital retreat. No matter how long or how often you choose to sign off, the internet will always be there when you return.
Zac Mabry is the co-host of the Roman Circus Podcast and a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald
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