On a warm Sunday morning, a bird flew through the open doors of my parish church and spent much of the Mass flitting above the heads of the worshippers. We have a terrific priest and wonderful group of musicians who guide us through the liturgy, but they simply could not compete with that bird. For a good 10 or 15 minutes, hundreds of heads swiveled in unison as the bird made its way from window to hanging light and back again until the befuddled creature found its way out the doors it had entered.
I suspect I was not the only worshipper who found it hard to refocus on the Mass afterward. What made concentrating even more difficult for me was the young boy in the pew ahead of mine, playing video games on a phone. The phone screen drew the constant attention of those around him. The ripple effects of his technology extended even further, to two teens sitting nearby, who seemed to take the boy’s behavior as a license to electronic distraction. Not long after the boy’s video game began, they were surreptitiously taking Snapchat photos of themselves on their phones.
Instead of paying attention to the Mass, I was thinking about birds and smartphones and eventually this very topic: distraction in church. I walked out of the building that morning wondering whether I should have bothered to come at all. Wouldn’t I have been better off praying at home, where I could concentrate in peace and quiet?
I am not the only one who has been fretting lately about our increasingly distracted world. I recently had dinner with a man in his 60s who complained that he no longer seemed able to pay attention to things like he used to. “I start reading a novel,” he said, “and I don’t get more than few pages before I put it down and go do something else.” He blamed the problem on the omnipresence of technology in his life, including and especially his phone.
Neuroscientists tell us that, contrary to what modern curmudgeons might like to believe, distraction is our natural state.
The inability of modern humans to fend off distraction and keep their attention focused has become one of the most hotly disputed subjects in psychology and education. Writers and educators lament that our modern devices have decreased our ability to train our attention on one thing at a time. They point to college students texting and watching videos in class, adults sneaking peeks at their phones during dinner dates and children (and adults) becoming unable to entertain themselves or fend off boredom without the help of electronic devices—even in church.
But another group of researchers is less alarmed. They argue that humans have always been a distracted species. Before we had phones and laptops and endless entertainment options on our screens, we still had birds flying around in church. Neuroscientists tell us that, contrary to what modern curmudgeons might like to believe, our brains are not built to sustain attention on any one thing for extended periods of time. Distraction is our natural state.
Human brains evolved to scan our environments for novelty. The next time you are in a restaurant or coffee shop or party, observe the people around you. You are likely to notice that they lift their eyes frequently from their immediate tasks—engaging in conversation, working on a laptop—and take in their surroundings. Unconsciously, they are doing exactly what our brains learned to do over the course of our long evolution: continuously surveying the environment for whatever might be new and evaluating whether it might be dangerous or helpful.
This feature of our brains was an extraordinarily helpful one when we lived in grasslands environments and had the dual responsibility of searching for food sources and avoiding predators who wanted to make us their next meal. The advent of modernity, with our predators tamed and our food in supermarkets, has made this aspect of our minds a frustrating one. We want to focus our attention on our work, our spouse, our children, our God—and we find ourselves unable to resist distraction.
Mass-goers can take solace from the hope that at least some of our distractions have their source in God and have something to teach us.
Undoubtedly our devices have made this problem worse. The designers of phones and apps and screens know that our brains seek novelty, and they have made that search easy for us. Our devices ping, they buzz, they flash; they offer us rewards and faux-friendships and images and cat videos. That is why we can “focus” on our phones for longer periods of time than our conversation partners or writing project; the phones give us the continual bursts of novelty our brains are seeking.
We have some tools that can help mitigate the effects of our distractive technologies. A few years ago, I began to practice mindfulness, a technique of focusing one’s attention on the present moment as fully as possible, often by following the movement of the breath in and out of the body. That focus on the constant presence of the breath—a seemingly simple task that can take months or even years of practice to master—helps to diminish our worries about the past and future and remain open to the gift of the present moment.
In my years of practicing mindfulness, I have felt positive effects on my ability to sustain my attention where I would like it held. But as my recent experience in church taught me, even the most ardent practitioners of mindfulness remain vulnerable to the distractions that beset us from all sides, from birds above and phones below. However much we train our minds in the challenging art of focus, we will always be somewhat constrained by the fundamental architecture of our brains. The mind pines for distraction—especially when we least want it to, including and perhaps especially in church.
Mass-goers can perhaps take solace from the hope that at least some of our distractions have their source in God and have something to teach us. Perhaps that bird, for some of my fellow pew-dwellers, served as a joyful reminder of God’s presence in nature. It might have spurred them to make a point of spending time outside later that day. Perhaps a mother near me saw that phone in the hands of the young boy and resolved to take a walk with her own child that afternoon and to leave the phone behind.
This past Sunday morning, a harried young mother with a toddler and a baby arrived in church just before the service began. Throughout Mass, she held the baby on her shoulder, and he beamed and gurgled in all his slobbering glory at the woman behind him. She spent most of the service smiling back at him and trying to repress her laughter. She was distracted all right, but she was also full of wonder and joy at the beauty of that baby. That seems to me like an experience God would love us to have in church, distracted or not.