The essay below, Imitatio Machina, is being re-published with permission. It originally appeared at Return.Life.
I spent nearly five years seriously discerning a religious vocation, several of them in Italy. One year I went on a retreat at a monastery in Umbria, where I got to know the abbot during my five-day stay. One evening he noticed that I entered the chapel to “pray” carrying a large stack of books under my arm — one of them, unironically, was the spiritual tome Difficulties in Mental Prayer.
When I exited the chapel it was almost midnight, so I was surprised to find the abbot pacing up and down the portico outside, hands behind his back, hood of his robe covering his head. When he saw me, he uncovered his head with a flourishing hand, smiled, and said, “Maybe next time, leave the books in your room.”
He explained that in his decades-long stint as abbot, he had noticed something unusual among new novices training to enter the order — something he felt was damaging their development. Beginning in the mid-2000s, he saw them start to haul stacks of books into the chapel to use as prayer-aids. He suspected, he told me, that it had something to do with the widespread use of computers and smartphones. People were beginning to think of themselves — or thinking of prayer — as they do about computers. There seemed to be a fear of self-directed thought: a fear of thinking that it must be “useless” if there is no input, similar to the way that a computer can’t run without a program.
This brief anecdote haunted me. The next time I went to sit in the chapel I went alone, hands empty, and endured a painful and purifying silence. The idea that I was developing a calculating, computer-like mindset that affected me at the deepest levels of my soul was sobering.
The degree to which we humans imitate machines, which are the works of our own hands — things which are necessarily derivative of us, yet which we endow with demigodish status due to their automagical power to perform tricks that we cannot — is the degree to which we will lose our distinctively human faculties. We become like that which we imitate.
Their idols are silver and gold,
the work of human hands.