The Only App You Really Need

A new word has entered our everyday vocabulary: “app.”  Short for “computer application,” typically installed on “smart” phones – phones that are often too smart for those of us who use them. An app was recently developed to record the user’s heartbeat and bodily movement at every moment of the day. The purpose is to monitor “caloric intake” (formerly called “food”) against calories burned, with detailed reports available for periodic scrutiny. It’s a remarkable app and an extremely useful guide to proper food and exercise, for good health and long life.

But imagine living with this device strapped to your wrist. Not only is it necessary to enter the type and quantity of food consumed, it requires constant evaluation and adjustment of exercise, eating, and sleeping patterns. The more I think about it, the more it seems a form of technological slavery, unnecessary unless you need serious medical care. An exaggeration, you say? Get with it, padre? Let me tell you a story.

As a young businessman in the 1970s, I subscribed to and actually read the Wall Street Journal. I recall reading a very interesting health study in England. For many years, the researchers tracked the lives of people who described themselves as very attentive to healthy eating and exercise. The control group (for purposes of comparison) included a random selection of ordinary people who were not particularly interested in “health food.”  The results were surprising:  The death rate for the “health food” group was higher than the “ordinary people” group by a significant margin. The researchers were at a loss for an explanation.

Here’s my theory:  “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and that of the gospel will save it.” (Mark 8:35) Is it possible to be excessive about preserving one’s life? Is there too much stress associated with an obsession on consuming only “healthy” food (according to the latest fashions) and making time for exercise? Does the stress of the obsession over time tend to dangerously raise blood pressure? And is it possible that those who are relatively inattentive – or periodically attentive according to the ebb and flow of the usual signs of personal health – tend to have less stress?

Further, are they more inclined to be serenely attentive to the life to come precisely because they had more quality time to consider the “higher gifts” (1 Cor. 12:31), leaving less room for more mundane and worrisome physical health fixations? There is no way to test my hypothesis in this life, of course. But it’s fun – in a culturally iconoclastic way – to raise the questions.

Dissatisfied?  Want to “fight fire with fire” with a concrete technological alternative? Rather than “cursing the darkness” of technological slavery, do you think it’s time to “light a candle” of a technological alternative? (I’ve run out of clichés.)

Pope Francis greeted in Manila.

OK, Here’s the app I would like to see developed by the geniuses in Silicon Valley. Call it the “Examination of Conscience” app (EOC app). In the morning, the EOC app will help you make resolutions for the day, entered in by voice recognition: I will try to be pleasant and loving to my wife and kids; serene as I drive to work; diligent at my office; attentive to the needs of my coworkers; patient with my boss; unmoved by the temptations and pomps of the Internet. And so on.

Whenever there is a failure, it would be carefully recorded on the EOC app. It would then remind you to make renewed resolutions at midday, warning of patterns of sin in need of repentance, lest they develop into bad habits or outright vices. At night, you consult the EOC app a final time, for detailed information about lapses, with smart phone reminders of future choices that would lead to better ends.

The EOC app could even be used in the confessional. The priest would be able to ask, “Any additions, deletions or updates? Nature and number, and don’t bore me with the details.”

Well, maybe not that.

If the aging 1970s English researchers were called in to conduct a sociological/spiritual study of my EOC users, what would they conclude? Would the EOCers be so obsessed with their own petty peccadilloes that they failed to make time for a proper prayer and social life – thanksgiving, adoration, joy in the presence of the Lord? Might the EOC devotees become so turned in upon their own scrupulosity that they actually ended up spiritually dead? And could it be those who are relatively inattentive to the minutiae of their moral failings and only periodically attentive to the signs of their failures in response to God’s grace – with true virtue – would actually end up more spiritually healthy?

Technology is useful, but it cannot save. Salvation comes through a personal encounter with Christ – in Confession, with one another at Mass and the Sacraments, including our personal relations with one another. Get together with family and friends for fun. Hike a trail with a small group. Provoke a water balloon fight with the kids. And turn off your cell phone every now and then. “All things have their season, and in their times all things pass under heaven” (Eccles. 3:1).

Seriously, spend less time with electronic devices, and more time in prayer, examination of conscience,  the life of the sacraments, a life of conscious virtue and joyously living with one another. For “if you be risen with Christ, seek the things that are above; where Christ is sitting at the right hand of God.” (Col. 3:1)

Do this and you won’t just live long. You will live forever.

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky

Rev. Jerry J. Pokorsky

Father Jerry J. Pokorsky is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington. He is pastor of St. Catherine of Siena parish in Great Falls, Virginia.

  • Michael Dowd

    Excellent advice Fr. Pokorsky. Somehow it reminded me of Timothy Leary’s slogan: “Turn on, tune in, drop out”. Timothy was talking about escaping our rat race culture by using drugs. He was wrong about the drug part. But we all need to learn to keep our life in perspective by turning on our conscientiousness of how we are living and where we are going, tuning-in to God’s will for us, and dropping out of a mindless and mechanical way of life.

  • John Willson

    Hits home, Fr. Pokorsky. Wonderful homily!

  • pj_re

    Taking the other side, the Church could do a lot better investing in prayer resources. It would be nice to have an app that provides the Divine Office, and access to a library of readings from the Church Fathers, in both original languages and translations to popular languages.

    • Howard Kainz

      The “Laudate” app for smartphones contains the Divine Office in Latin and English, the Mass, the Catechism, the Bible, Vatican documents, etc., etc.

    • Sheila

      They have a site for Divine Office at Univeralis.

    • Maggie Goff

      The app I use for Divine Office is iBreviary. It also has other prayers, rosary, daily readings, Missal, Rites. It’s free and one can get it for Android and iPhone.

  • Gibbons Burke

    Bless me Siri, for I have sinned…

  • Jim M.

    This is great. While reading this very good opinion piece, I periodically would look at my Fitbit watch to see if the accusations of being a health nut raised my heart rate any. Thankfully it didn’t and I’m okay. But I am reminded that I must log in the calories of my morning coffee into the Fitbit App before I forget. (it’s the cream. Why did God make cows so delicious!). Truth is, far from being health-obsessed, this App and watch have raised my awareness of how terribly unhealthy my eating habits are, and how sedentary I’ve become. With the help of these tools I’ve lost twenty pounds. I would therefore heartily endorse such an EOC App. If Fitbit can help drop twenty pounds of dead weight, I’m sure the EOC App would be a great tool for shedding spiritual dead weight. The only problem I foresee is worrying about how the NSA and Obama would use the information against me once I upload into the cyber ether the number times I committed… and… and…

  • grump

    Good uplifting column. I’m old and still remember family dinner time when we spent 2 hours actually eating, talking and laughing. Today when company comes the first things the kids reach for are their headsets and cellphones. One day I said to one of my grandsons in the same room, “If you’re doing OK, just text me.” The sarcasm was lost on him, of course. He replied: “OK, Grump.”

    As for those intrusive machines, Einstein said: “It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.”

    • Sheila

      I hear you!

    • TJPW

      I wonder why all the kids who grew up with dinner table discussions became the parents who now discourage it.

  • Stanley Anderson

    I’m suddenly wondering if we might gather scraped-knee skin samples after the water balloon fight or strands of hair from the collars of the shirts that our friends wore during the hike in order to examine them chemically and analyze the DNA samples so that we might possibly prove scientifically once and for all that Christ was actually present there among th…BZZZZZT! gulp — sorry. The new EOC app version 2.0 with improved advanced warning system is apparently functional.

  • Fr Kloster

    Thank you father. I have found that not a few of the overly “health conscious” people I have known, looked pallid and paradoxically unhealthy. All things in moderation is not just a maxim, they are words that are founded on bedrock truths.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I just shake my head when people insist that there is no way for some people to lose weight. The culture has lost its appetite for self control.

  • There’s actually an app for developing moral excellence based on the program of Benjamin Franklin written in his Autobiography. Even reading the chapter where he discusses how he fares with this system, one can tell that Franklin tends to miss the forest for the trees, learning more how to schedule his time and refrain from excesses and less about the general purpose and meaning of life.

    He claimed to have benefited from the practice of creating a plan even if he didn’t reach true moral perfection. Unfortunately, he seems to come away with a bigger ego–which he admitted was a tough vice for him–than a bigger humanity. Only by the grace of his natural genius and his willingness to accept something less than perfection, he still achieved wonderful things for himself and for our country.

  • lwhite

    My concern about an EOC app would be its developers. If they are of the “Kasperite” theological persuasion, there would certainly be a misformed conscience and the “innovators” given another tool to help them destroy one’s faith.

  • TJPW

    This app already exists, and it is called “Confession: A Roman Catholic App”. I purchased it and have used it once or twice as an examination of conscience (it guides one through the confession process as well) but prefer to use a printout (from a website! Scary!) examination rather than the app. But if it helps people get to confession, I support it 100%!