A scholar on Christian spirituality argues that prayers are meant to bring together a community of faith – something apps are unlikely to achieve. [4 min read]
Prayer apps can help guide spiritual practices and encourage people to set goals and stay on track. (Image source: iStock.)
Hallow, a Catholic prayer and meditation app that claims more than one million downloads, has raised more than $ 52 million in investments.
Prayer apps are not new. Silicon Valley startups popularized mindfulness and meditation apps as early as 2010, though many have criticized these apps for their lack of spiritual depth. The young founders of Hallow – staunch Catholic lay Catholics of the millennium – are among those who felt that mindfulness apps did not meet their religious needs and decided to create theirs.
Hallow’s accessible language features different methods of prayer, along with inspiring lectures, spiritual practice guides, and notifications to encourage users to set goals and stay on track.
As a priest, I know it is important to help people develop healthy prayer habits. But both as a specialist in Christian spirituality and as a person who provides spiritual direction to others, I see limits to what prayer apps can achieve.
Technology and faith
Churches have long enthusiastically embraced communication technologies to spread their message. The Reformation initiated by Martin Luther and his followers in 16th-century Germany quickly spread through the use of Gutenberg’s printing press.
Currently, Catholic faith-based media includes the Eternal Word television network, founded by Catholic nun Mother Angelica, which provides information, radio programs, live services, and religious instruction on the web to an estimated audience of over 250. 000,000 viewers.
Applications are also used for something. As several surveys have shown, the number of active members of a religious community is declining. People without religious affiliation, who are mostly young, make up about a quarter of the American population. At the same time, many of them yearn for a sense of religious belonging, and these apps seem to help build a faith community.
What kind of community technology fosters is an important spiritual question to consider, however. Evidence suggests that the unstoppable reach of technology in all aspects of our lives shapes the way people think and relate to each other. Research has shown that if people have much more access to information, their attention span is reduced. Since prayer involves both the mind and the emotions, it has spiritual implications.
Seeing how addicted people have become to their phones and other devices, I sometimes urge them to regain some spiritual freedom by ditching social media during Lent.
Prayer as a community
Collective identity is rooted in many religious traditions, including Islam and Buddhism.
Community involvement is also deeply rooted in the Jewish roots of Christianity. Eastern Orthodox Christianity and Catholicism attach particular importance to the community aspect of prayer. The gathered prayer community is at the heart of their faith and identity.
An Embodied Community asks people to show up regularly in real time and get together with those they may not know well or even like. Time-consuming inconvenience and lack of choice are actually spiritual riches because they involve the needs of others. This kind of sacrifice is not what prayer apps make it easy.
In the Catholic tradition, prayer is not primarily about finding peace, joy, or reducing stress. These can be achieved, but they are not always present or necessary. Deepening your prayer is often a slow process that involves going through times of boredom, distraction, or frustration.
People with excellent intentions can sometimes end up being confused as to what they are experiencing in prayer, especially if it is unfamiliar to them. As a priest, I tell people that a good rule of thumb is that growth in prayer leads to greater kindness to others and less focus on oneself.
Many religious traditions, inside and outside of Christianity, insist that healthy spiritual growth can be facilitated by the personal direction of people more experienced in prayer.[3 media outlets, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP and RNS.]
The “spiritual father” in monasticism is a prayer teacher. Within Catholicism, spiritual directors, who may be lay or ordained, listen to people talk about their prayer experiences, helping them relate their prayer to their daily lives. While this tradition of spiritual guidance can help guide, each person’s prayer is always unique to them.
Even the best-designed algorithms are unlikely to deal with the human soul adequately.
Measure the impact
Hallow’s many enthusiastic reviews insist that this prayer app is a force for good. The same goes for the many users of other applications.
From my perspective, the measure of a prayer app’s success isn’t the number of downloads. Jesus insists on looking at the fruit of good intentions. If an app helps people be more patient, humble, righteous and caring for the poor, that’s a good thing. But being an active member of a real community is probably also necessary.
Dorian Llywelyn, President, Institute for Advanced Catholic Studies, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.