The Child of Tomorrow

When I was seven, I walked into an empty church and was struck by the silence and peacefulness. There was a Presence in that silence I longed to know. A few years later, my family moved to Germany and the rich silences of the ancient churches and monasteries fed my young spirit.

Today I read a poignant New York Times article called The Joy of Quiet.  It both disturbed me and encouraged me to think about how Christ might respond.

The author began with describing an advertising conference whose focus was on how to market to the children of tomorrow.

I was horrified, though not surprised.

What did surprise me was what the marketers decided would be the needs of tomorrow’s child:

Stillness. Silence. The ability to unplug from ubiquitous virtual connection.

The article described “black hole” resorts where people paid for the privilege of no TV, no internet, to go off-grid and disappear, then went further and discussed internet Sabbaths and monastic retreats. One story was about the  author seeking out a Benedictine monastery to walk and think and unplug.

As a student of both monasticism and contemplative living, the article reminded me of something I first considered a few months ago:

The next wave of desert monasticism will be a technological one.

Rather than thousands leaving the cities to seek God and prayerful community in the desert, as Christians did in the 3rd and 4th centuries, I think that we will begin to see thousands unplug for similar reasons from all but the most critical connective technology.

I’m not judging technology as evil, or denigrating it’s ability to connect people across the miles. I am fully enamored with the latest and greatest apps and productivity tools. I facebook and tweet and blog and skype and pin. But I also feel the seepage of energy and a lessened ability to focus and pray after too long in front of a screen. I feel the compulsive thrill of connection when the reward centers of my brain see a “like”–yet must question whether that is a mark of relationship or simply marketing. I feel ambivalence when I try to reconcile my on-line presence and the call toward a contemplative life.

Connective technology is not only all pervasive, but like the root system of bamboo, it’s nearly impossible to curtail, let alone dig up. It often grows over and around any boundaries against it, and cannot be eradicated.

I find, even living alone, that silence, solitude, and stillness is not a foregone conclusion. I have to actively choose it or every moment can be spent listening, watching, surfing, connecting, doing.

The article also pushed me to ask a question:

How might the children of tomorrow be introduced to the stillness and silence of contemplative life, even monastic life?

I’m reminded of my own childhood experience, encouraged and supported by my parents. How often they took me into the churches and let me wander, unhurried, and soak up the prayerful peace.

I’m reminded of Seattle’s St Mark’s Cathedral Compline service, every Sunday night at 9:30pm. Thirty minutes of ancient sung prayer, the service gathers hundreds of people of all ages,  armed with pillows and blankets, to lie in the aisles and up around the altar. Oh, I would have loved it as a kid.

I’m reminded of Godly Play, a liturgical Sunday school curriculum which invites children into prayer, story, and silence for reflection.

I’m reminded of the awe I’ve see on a young girl’s face during the Eucharist at St Paul’s–when Mother Melissa, in her beautiful robes, lifts the bread and breaks it, pausing for a holy and rich moment of silence.

Here is Mystery. Here is the presence of God.

Children need to run and laugh and play.  Children need to bang on pots and yell and impact their environment. But in a culture that offers non-stop visual and auditory engagement through activities, virtual worlds, TV, radio, music–

How can we balance the noisy and fun running around times with dedicated spaces and experiences of stillness and silence?

How can we give them an experience of a different rhythm, a different decibel level, a different way of spending time, a different way of seeking and experiencing Christ?

Monasteries are not commonly known for being a place of retreat for the whole family–I’ve only visited one which embraced that vision. But I would love more such places to open their doors wide and provide child-friendly experiences alongside their adult-centered retreat offerings.

Have you found child-welcoming contemplative or monastic centers where silence and stillness is part of the experience? I would love to hear about them, and your own thoughts about this topic.