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.

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.