Earlier this summer, I spent a week at Mustard Seed Communities in Nicaragua with 20 teens and adults from the Lowcountry.
On our first full day there, we attended Mass in the morning and then visited an orphanage in the afternoon. When we arrived, the children were still asleep, so we spent about an hour chatting over lunch, waiting for them to wake up.
That evening, I asked our teens what they thought about their first day and I was really surprised by 18-year-old Justin's answer: "It was great to spend an hour at lunch talking to the people next to me. It had been such a long time since I'd done that."
Recalling the day's events, I realized that not only that hour, but also the entire day had been full of lively conversations, uninterrupted by incoming calls, texts or emails. Even I, a confessed Twitter junkie, gave the people sitting next to me on the bus and at the table my undivided attention.
This is certainly not a rant against technology. Cellphones and the Internet serve an important role in helping us to communicate with loved ones who are far away. For example, I went to school in Ohio, and after graduation my friends and I were scattered around the world. Logging into Facebook for the first time, I was elated to connect with those I hadn't seen in years.
Everyone has his or her own story of reuniting with old friends or starting new relationships thanks to social networking. Even Pope Benedict XVI has acknowledged these benefits, stating, "The new technologies allow people to meet each other beyond the confines of space and of their own culture, creating in this way an entirely new world of potential friendships."
Trouble creeps in when we fail to prioritize our relationships, though, instead paying more attention to the incoming text messages blowing up our phones than to the person sitting right in front of us.
You know the feeling. You're having a perfectly good conversation when suddenly your phone lights up or starts to vibrate in your purse. If you can continue, unfazed, you have more self-control than I do. I find myself instantly distracted, compelled to read the "hey wat r u doing" text and respond with "not much u?" before resuming my conversation.
Can we, as people living with unlimited data plans in our pockets, ever hope to find the rewarding simplicity that Justin discovered while chatting for an hour over lunch? Pope Benedict XVI advises that we must ask, "Who is my 'neighbor' in this new world? ... It is important to always remember that virtual contact cannot and must not take the place of direct human contact with people at every level of our lives." We must be intentional in our contact with others -- and not be forced to just because our batteries need to be recharged.
A good place to begin is the same place we did in Nicaragua -- around the table at meal times. Throughout the Gospels, we see that this is the place Christ chose to build relationships with his friends. Visiting Mary and Martha (Luke 10:38-42), the Last Supper (Matthew 26, Mark 14, Luke 22, John 13), encountering the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-25) or serving them breakfast after his resurrection (John 21).
The rewards of this are not only better relationships with those around us, but with Christ himself. In "Mere Christianity," C.S. Lewis explains that Christ "works on us in all sorts of ways ... but above all, he works on us through each other."
Resolve not to let technology prevent you from encountering Christ in others.
Follow columnist Alison Griswold at twitter.com/alisongriz. Read her blog at www.teamcatholic.blogspot.com.