On being manipulated… and how to get out of it: Musings on Psalm 52

“The world is too much with us…” the great poet Wordsworth was correct in his own time… and how much more so today.  Long have we known that the cares of the world are many and overbearing, but now -as if that weren’t enough- we begin to discern that the manipulations of the world weigh heavily on our simple shoulders.  What do I mean by manipulations. Some are pro-active and some more passive.  Pro-active manipulation might include the use of mundane, even benign data by powerful socio-corporate forces to actively manipulate our shopping patterns, real estate values, political opinions and voting patterns etc. To them we are objects, pawns on their chessboard to be used for increased profit margins and power.  Other manipulations are more passive: the design of smartphone screens, for example, lulls our eyes such that physiologically it gets harder to look away as time goes on.  Algorithms prompt us, “Based on reading article X we think you might like reading article Y.”  Before we know it we’re only reading things we agree with.  Such manipulations result not only in the fracturing of civil society into partisan and identity-based groups… they even result in doing psychological damage.  As Bishop Barron recently reported, studies have shown that there is direct link between smartphone screen time and increases in depression!  “The world is too much with us.”

In the life of the Church the manipulations of the world (active/intentional and passive/unintended) have similar effects, driving wedges between Catholics who ought to see each other as fellow subjects of divine love, and not as problems to be solved.  The faithful begin to murmur about each other in the same way that the crowds/pharisees “murmured” about Jesus… and as a result of digital manipulation we end up blowing things way out of proportion and far from the truth.  A brother or sister in Christ… or a priest… or a bishop suddenly becomes the focus of all our digitally-hyped rage… WE, who should’ve been most immune to it all given the many gifts we’ve received from God in the Church.  It reminds me of the words of Psalm 52 from morning prayer this past week: 

“Why do you glory in what is evil, you who are mighty by the mercy of God?
All day long
you are thinking up intrigues;
your tongue is like a sharpened razor,
you worker of deceit.
You love evil more than good,
lying rather than saying what is right…”

This is a societal epidemic; certainly non-specific to the Church, but as Church we are divinely called to pull ourselves out of it for our good, for the good of our neighbors and for the effective spread of the Gospel throughout the world.  I’ve been a victim of this dynamic; as a priest I often have a target painted on me… ‘comes with the job.  In a few of my assignments I’ve been labeled a “neo-con” or even -in one case- “fascist patriarch,” for teaching Biblical truths.  In other cases I’ve been called “big lib,” or even -and this one I had to chuckle at – and “unwitting dupe of the left.”  I take comfort that folks on both sides of the present divide aim arrows at me, I assume it means I’m doing something right.  BUT… I’ve also given in to the temptations of the world in this regard.  I’ve discovered that my own senses are sometimes tuned by the world and not by Christ.  I might go into a conversation assuming the other person is going to be “a problem,” or automatically assuming that he/she is “coming after me,” when nothing could be further from the truth.  

If this is the challenge, where is our solution?  Psalm 52 gives us a great image of the holy one:

But I, like an olive tree flourishing in the house of God,
I trust in God’s mercy forever and ever.
I will thank you forever
for what you have done.
I will put my hope in your name—for it is good,
—in the presence of those devoted to you.

The olive tree: source of a major life staple for everyone else, itself totally dependent on God for life.  The olive tree lives sometimes over a thousand years.  Gnarled and twisted by all it experiences, it nonetheless perseveres quietly, steadfastly.  It’s entire attention, as the psalmist suggests, is turned toward God… not to a screen, a commentator, or even to its own natural fears/anxieties; it is wholly focused on its Creator and Sustainer, God alone… and in HIM the olive tree finds its peace, its serenity.

Brothers and sisters, if you feel like “the world is too much with you,” if you feel like screen time has taken over, if you feel fear, anger, hurt vis a vis the world, if you feel you are anything other than that olive tree, seek out silence.  Come to Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament (Wed. 5:30-6:30), stop in to the confessional, open up Scripture in a physical book rather than your phone.  Fast from the digital and feast on the divine.  I promise you, you will find peace.  I’ll leave you with just a few words from A Letter to the Corinthians by Pope St. Clement I:

Let us put on the unity of mind, thinking humble thoughts, exercising self-control, keeping ourselves far from all backbiting and slander, being righteous in deed, and not in word only…  It is our duty then to be eager to doo good, for everything is from God.