Catholic Culture Solidarity
Catholic Culture Solidarity

The Demon of Distraction

by Wolfgang Smith


This article discusses the passive condition of chronic distractedness and the role that today’s society, especially the mass media, has played in contributing to this special hazard of our time.

Larger Work

Orthodoxy of the Catholic Doctrine



Publisher & Date

Fr. Milan Mikulich, OFM, STD, April - June 1981

Chronic distractedness -- one of the special hazards of our time -- might be characterized as a passive condition wherein one habitually feeds upon external stimuli, as if this alone could constitute a sufficient end for human existence. It is a state which violates a fundamental principle: the obligation, that is, both to limit and to assimilate one's mental food through the exercise of a certain power -- the very power, in fact, which makes us human.

What is astonishing is not that this condition of mental gluttony and dyspepsia should be unsalutary, but that it can frequently be tolerated with such comparative ease. The explanation for this apparent lack of discomfort must lie in the fact that distractedness leads in time to a dissipation of mental energies and a resultant reduction in levels of concentration, so that the process itself creates the requisite insensitivity. First to disappear along the way, are the finer perceptions, those glimpses into realms transcending the narrow confines of our conventional universe. More and more the sheen upon things fades into the grey tones of mundane existence, until at last, without our becoming aware of what has happened, the doors have closed. Far from being a mere impoverishment, this unheralded event actually signifies the forfeit of our higher intelligence, of our real freedom, and in a sense, of our humanity.

Among the numerous factors within contemporary civilization, which tend to aggravate this problem, first rank must be accorded to the mass media, and especially to television, whose impact upon the life and mental disposition of the public at large is virtually beyond calculation. One needs only to consider the profusion of entertainment, news, propaganda, tragedy, vulgarity and plain gossip which this veritable Pandora's box releases at random into the home, to marvel that, on the whole, the public has been able to stand up under these continued incursions without suffering a complete loss of sanity! Plants can be killed by an overdose of rock music, we are told, and one may presume that if an animal could somehow be induced to interest itself in a comparable barrage of disharmonious stimuli, it would presently collapse. Yet men thrive on such provender, or so it seems.

In view of the grave dangers, especially to the spiritual life, resulting from this unprecedented domination of our society by the media, one is surprised to find how little has been done on the part of Christian leadership to forewarn the faithful. Granting that the act of ingesting TV programs at the rate of twenty three hours per week may not in itself constitute, let us say, venial sin, it would nonetheless require a monumental lack of acumen to conclude that such a life style is compatible with even a modicum of spirituality! Leaving aside the actual content of these programs -- a matter to which we shall recur in the last section -- we would like to point out in this article that dispersion itself is categorically opposed to the Christian ethos. So much so, that the problem confronting us touches in fact upon the very heart of Christian doctrine.

Let us consider the words of Christ in Matthew 12:30: he that gathereth not with me scattereth. Now, according to one traditional interpretation, he that gathereth not with me signifies Satan, and what is being scattered is a collectivity of human souls. As sheep are dispersed by a marauding wolf, so also souls are scattered into the numberless byways of error diverging in all directions from the unique central truth. But there is also another interpretation, more directly related to our topic, according to which he that gathereth not with me is man himself, insofar as he has diverged from the way of salvation, and what is scattered is his soul, or better said, the multiple powers of his soul. In the pathways of this world, these powers come to be dispersed a thousandfold, as a handful of dust when it is cast into the air.

In this perspective, he that gathers with Christ is also the one who enters at the straight gate (Matt. 7:13), the same who passes along the narrow way, which leadeth unto life. Indeed, the narrow way and the straight gate both suggest the idea of concentration, or of gathering many things into one, even as the wide gate and the broad way are suggestive of expansion or scattering. The adjectives narrow and broad may therefore bear reference not simply to the respective scarcity or abundance of travelers, but also to the condition of the soul as it travels by either of these paths. To substantiate this interpretation, let us observe that the straight gate corresponds evidently to the eye of the needle in the parable concerning the rich man, who found it difficult to enter the kingdom of heaven. Now, who is this rich man, and what is the nature of those possessions, which obstruct his entry? The answer is given, by the Lord Himself when He says, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." For we are hereby instructed that the poverty through which one is enabled to enter by the narrow gate -- to pass through the eye of the needle, as it were -- is a spiritual poverty, a poverty pertaining to the condition of the soul. In fact, there can be no doubt at all that our soul, in its present state, is eminently comparable to the rich man. So also, upon hearing this parable, the disciples of Jesus were exceedingly amazed, saying, "Who then can be saved?" They were deeply troubled, for presumably they understood in their heart that what we are called upon to achieve is humanly impossible. Therefore our Lord comforted them, and us, adding that with God all things are possible. By way of further encouragement, He gave us to understand that those inward possessions, which all who would follow Christ must set aside, are in truth a burden unto the soul. By this we labor and are heavy laden, and from this we are relieved when we walk in the footsteps of Christ. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matt. 11:30).

The shedding of all that is extraneous to the essence of the soul is not only a purification or catharsis, but it is also, at the same time, an act of recollection and concentration, whereby the scattered powers of the soul are withdrawn from every direction, to be reintegrated into that luminous center whence they have radiated forth. This center is the mystic heart of which the prophets and saints have told, the inner temple where God resides in secret, and it is ultimately the oratory to which Christ alludes in Matthew 6:6, when He bids us to enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret. Finally, this innermost recess of our soul is also the straight gate leading into the Kingdom of God. For as St. Isaac of Syria has written, "Try to enter your inner treasure-house and you will see the treasure-house of heaven. For both the one and the other are the same, and one and the same entrance reveals them both."

Yet the context of Matthew 6:6 leaves no doubt that the idea of entering into the inner sanctuary must admit of degrees, so that long before the full perfection of sainthood has been attained, we, who are still subject to the corruption of worldliness, can experience a partial recollection, and some moments of spiritual repose. "We may make an oratory of our heart," writes Brother Lawrence in his sweet and simple way, "wherein to retire from time to time to converse with Him in meekness, humility and love. Everyone is capable of such familiar conversation with God, some more, some less." The deeper and more habitual this conversation becomes, the more harmonious and fruitful will be our outer life as well. Indeed, the great secret is to bring the peace and inwardness of contemplation down into the active life, so that wherever we may be, or whatever task we may be called upon to perform, we will remain undistracted, and keep our inward gaze fixed upon Christ. It is in this state, when his eye is single (Luke 11:34), that a man performs his greatest work, or better, it is in this state that our work becomes blessed, for then it is that we work the works of God (John 6:28). Having lighted a candle by igniting our soul with the love of God, we are bidden by Christ Himself to place this burning candle upon a candlestick, that they, which come in may see the light (Luke 11:33).

It emerges from these reflections upon the teachings of our Lord that the Christian life is necessarily inimical to all that scatters or dissipates the powers of the soul, to everything, in other words, that lures a man away from his center and renders him oblivious of God. What is really in question here, let it be said, goes far beyond "sin" or "the concupiscence of the flesh," as these terms are ordinarily understood. For there is a kind of sinful tendency, a subtle mode of concupiscence, inherent to our imagination and sensory nature, which like a clamorous voice disturbs and agitates with its ceaseless chatter. For all its deceptive innocence, this inner "demon of distraction" pertains nonetheless to that infernal heritage that has come down to us in consequence of original sin. "What else is iniquity," St. Augustine declares, "but a swerving of the will away from You, O God, who art the Supreme Substance: so that it casts away what is most inward and swells greedily for outward things." How very expressive, this phrase "swells greedily," for in truth the passion for outward things does bloat the soul exceedingly, as one can learn from the camel in the Gospel parable.

This increase in "bulk" is at the same time a scattering of psychic energies, as has already been pointed out, even as an increase of spatial magnitudes in the case of centrifugal expansion involves a concomitant dispersion of the concentric radii. According to this analogy, the movement characteristic of spiritual life is contractive and centripetal, an ingathering into the central point, which, having no magnitude, is indeed like to a grain of mustard seed (Matt. 13:31). Here, in this least of all seeds, lies concealed the eternal reality of all that is to be found throughout the vastness of cosmic space, and indeed, of all that ever was and ever shall be. Truly, all these things shall be added unto you, and nothing shall be impossible for you Matt. 6:33, 17:20).

It is, however, the tragedy of fallen man that he has not "faith as a grain of mustard seed, for as St. Augustine laments, our faith is in "outward things". This is the deplorable and perverse condition, from which we must liberate ourselves, with the help of Almighty God. "The soul's perfection," declares Meister Eckhart, "consists in liberation from the life which is in part and admission to the life which is whole. All that is scattered in nether things is gathered together when the soul climbs up into life where there are no opposites." What we presently know by experience is that "life which is in part", a life scattered, as it were, over an infinitude of temporal moments, and bounded at every point by the inscrutable opposites of past and future. The other life we know not, for it doth not yet appear what we shall be (1 John 3:2). Between the two there is a bridge, and this bridge is Jesus Christ. It is He that gathers together all that is scattered in nether things, and it is by Him that the soul climbs up into life eternal. But let us also remember this: he that gathereth not with me scattereth.

Ideally, this conception of gathering with Christ implies nothing less than a total integration of our life through ceaseless recollection of God. Like the Thessalonians, we too are called to pray without ceasing, and this notwithstanding the enormity of our incapacities. Let us never forget, with God all things are possible -and even if it be admitted that the goal is all but unattainable, still this would not legitimize the kind of comfortable "part-time" Christianity which is so much in demand, no more than St. John's affirmation to the effect that all men are sinners could be said to legitimize sin. However, anyone may feel about the matter, the fact remains that it will scarcely suffice, after the manner of Penelope, to gather with Christ on special occasions, only to scatter with the world the rest of the time. For glimpses of what it means in actual practice to follow Christ, we need to consult the lives and teachings of the saints, not forgetting that -- so far from being "abnormal" -- the saints are in truth the only fully sane people on this earth. Despite our democratic sentiments, one is forced to admit that the opinions of the majority carry little weight when it comes to the Kingdom of God, for as the Lord Himself has declared, it is the few, and not the many, who know the narrow way, that leadeth unto life. Let us therefore not be misled by watered-down teachings, however vociferously proclaimed, but keep in mind that it's far better to aim high and fall short, than to deny the ideal from the outset by lowering it. In spite of endless talk on the subject of "reform", Christian ideals remain what they are, and if it happens that these ideals do not conform to the spirit of the times, so much the worse for that civilization!

In point of fact, nothing could be more certain, or more self-evident, than that the spirit of this world is opposed to Christianity, even as Christianity itself is opposed to the spirit of this world. Indeed, who could read the Gospel according to St. John, for instance, and yet remain in doubt on that score? For surely Christ was speaking to all of us--to all who would be true Christians -- and not just to His immediate disciples, when He said: If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own; but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. One cannot but wonder, sometimes, whether these words are still being read, or whether they are taken seriously. Perhaps some erudite scholar, under the inspiration of a Teilhard de Chardin or a Hans Kueng, has persuaded his peers and students that these words belong to an earlier phase of "salvation history", or that perchance they do not meet the exacting criteria of modern textual criticism! What else, indeed, could have paved the way for so-called theologies, in which the inspiration of Darwin, Freud or Marx, let us say, can be savored more than the teaching of Christ.

One of the principal sources of authority upon which these "progress theologies" are supposed to rest is modern science, beginning with physical cosmology. But here, too, one has grounds to wonder. For what science does reveal to us in the most unequivocal terms is a panorama of continuous change, a Heraclitean universe in which all things are irremediably in a state of flux. This holds true, moreover, even for the universe at large, the cosmic space itself, which is said to constitute an expanding hypersphere, a three-dimensional bubble, whose radius is increasing at the speed of light. Although the center of this hypersphere, the central point from which the entire cosmos is falling away at such an incredible speed, is nowhere in physical space, it belongs nevertheless to the mathematical boundary of the four-dimensional space-time. From this perspective, which is essentially the viewpoint of relativistic cosmology, the cosmos resembles an expanding spherical wave racing outwards, away from the primordial center, towards the periphery of being, the ultimate limit or circumference, where existence as such comes to an end.1 A similar picture emerges again in the biological domain, for one sees that life is inevitably associated with assimilation and growth, which are modes of expansion, and every life process moves inexorably towards a periphery, where it terminates in death. Science provides us at least with one great certainty: everything belonging to this world, from elementary particles to cultures and civilizations, will pass away; nothing endures.

Against this background, in the sharpest conceivable contrast to this seemingly inexorable law, stands Christianity with its momentous claim, the claim of religion: the great law of this world can be broken, its relentless tendency can be overcome, death itself can be swallowed up in victory! But the way leading to this conquest is narrow and hard to cross -- like the edge of a razor, declares an ancient Oriental text! -- for it is the way, not of riches, but of poverty; not of pleasure -- but of the Cross. As the very word indicates, religion (< re + ligare) is indeed a "binding back"; back, that is, to the lost Center, to the lost Origin, back to God.

Fundamentally, the spirit of our times, or what may also be referred to as "the modern world", is nothing but the world, in the afore-mentioned Biblical sense, but now come into its own. It is the world glorying at last in its own possibility, disencumbered of any intellectual scruples about transcendence, or of any lingering nostalgia for the lost paradise. It is worldliness feeding upon itself, organized and marshalled; in fact, it is worldliness with a vengeance, preparing for its final assault against the last remaining bastions of authentic religion -- against Him who dared to say, I have overcome the world.

In conclusion, we would like to touch once more upon the subject of the media, if only because the media impact upon our lives are assumed such gargantuan proportions. Even the bare statistics tell us so: for TV alone, twenty three hours per week in the U.S., and according to a British survey, eight years of waking life. Eight years, that is, taken out of that precious remnant of our life left over from the treadmill of office or factory, or out of that potential aggregate of leisure which could be dedicated to finer things, and above all, to spiritual growth!

In this connection we would like to point to a penetrating and quite brilliant book, published in 1977 under the significant title "Christ and the Media", by Malcolm Muggeridge, veteran journalist and BBC television celebrity.2 The book is based upon three lectures delivered in London, and here is how Muggeridge began: "It is a truism to say that the media in general, and TV in particular, and BBC television especially, are incomparably the greatest single influence in our society today, exerted at all social, economic, and cultural levels. The influence, I should add, is, in my opinion, largely exerted irresponsibly, arbitrarily, and without reference to any moral, or intellectual, still less spiritual, guidelines whatsoever. Furthermore, if it is the case, as I believe, that what we still call Western civilization is fast disintegrating, then the media are playing a major role in the process by carrying out, albeit for the most part unconsciously, a mighty brainwashing operation, whereby all traditional standards and values are being denigrated to the point of disappearing, leaving a moral vacuum in which the very concepts of Good and Evil have ceased to have any validity."

The media reflects the mentality of our age. This is what it feeds upon, what it amplifies a thousandfold with the aid of an incredible technology, and eventually beams back to a watching and listening world. Having lent electronic body and voice to the collective mind, so to speak, it proceeds to impose this mentality upon the public with unprecedented force and fury. Surely Muggeridge is not exaggerating when he remarks that future historians will see us "as having created in the media a Frankenstein monster which no one knows how to control and direct, and marvel that we should have so meekly subjected ourselves to its destructive and often malign influence."

It is interesting that Muggeridge perceives the media largely as a fabricator of fantasies. Through the TV tube we flee, as it were, into a contrived realm, a land of make-belief, which more and more usurps the place of reality in our lives. "The prevailing impression I have come to have of the contemporary scene is of an ever-widening chasm between the fantasy in terms of which the media induce us to live, and the reality of our existence as made in the image of God, as sojourners in time whose true habitat is eternity." As an astute observer, who has spent much of his life behind the media scenes, and has himself innumerable times crossed and recrossed this "chasm", Muggeridge knows his subject.3 The chasm is there, and it is widening at an accelerating rate as a result of that "mighty brainwashing operation, whereby all traditional standards and values are being denigrated to the point of disappearing. . ." This constitutes one of the greatest problems confronting Christianity today, all the more so for being insufficiently recognized.


1 Despite its validity for certain illustrative purposes, this picture is oversimplified in several important respects. For example, the "actual space" in which a physical system finds itself at some given moment (i.e. the particular cross-section of space-time which presently acts upon the system, and thereby becomes "visible") is quite different from the abstract "parameter space" represented by our hypershere.

2 An American edition has been published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan, 49503.

3 It should be pointed out that on certain theological and other questions, the views of this author diverge from the mainstream of Christian tradition and call for appropriate reservations.

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