This Sunday, the last in September, is annually commemorated as Social Justice Sunday in the Church in Australia. We focus this year on Communications with the publication of Making it Real: Genuine Human Encounter in our Digital World. It raises the question of how we genuinely connect with one another. As Bishop Brady highlights in the Foreword to the Statement, “People of all generations hunger for friendship and genuine human encounter because we are made for community. Our digital world enables us to be more connected than ever before, but sadly it can also be a place of manipulation, exploitation and violence.”
This indeed is one of the great paradoxes of the time in which we live. With the communication revolution, never before have we been so connected to one another. Yet, if we are as connected to one another as never before, how can we be suffering from the isolation that seems also to mark our time? For I am coming more and more to the conclusion that we live in an age of isolation, especially in our modern Western and brilliantly technological societies.
Somehow, we have confused connection with communication. The two are not the same thing. It’s not surprising to learn of the new anxiety disorders:
• Twitter rage,
• Social network exclusion anxiety,
• Nomophobia (a fear of not having a functional mobile phone).
• Textaphrenia (hearing texts of feeling mobile phones vibrate when it hasn’t, constantly checking mobile phones to see if a message has arrived),
• Textiety (the anxiety teenagers feel with we haven’t received a text or when we are unable to send texts such that we feel like we have no friends and over-analyze why people don’t reply)
• Post-traumatic text disorder (physical and mental injuries sustained while texting and feelings of depression when no one contacts us).
Include also the mobile phone applications which allow one to keep track of the exact whereabouts of the contacts in one’s phone. Why would we be so concerned to know the exact whereabouts of all our friends all of the time if we were not desperately concerned about being abandoned, left out, isolated?
Yes, even though we live in a time of great riches, there can also be a great poverty. The split between Dives and Lazarus that we hear of in today’s gospel can be as real as ever. As Pope Francis commented several years ago,
. . . Because of the changes of our globalized world, some material and spiritual poverties have multiplied . . . Requested of us, therefore, is to remain vigilant as watchmen, so that it will not happen that, in face of the poverties produced by the culture of wellbeing, the eyes of Christians are weakened and become incapable of looking at the essential.
This is the problem for Dives in the Gospel parable of today. He has become blind to what is essential. We, too, become blind to the essential when we confuse the breadth of connection with the depth of communication. To be connected without genuine communication is a real danger for us. For the result is always one of creeping isolation.
As I have shared before, one of my small claims to fame is that I was in correspondence with the late Princess of Wales. The full extent of the correspondence between us was a mass produced card of gratitude from Kensington Palace in response to my rather lengthy epistle to Diana in which I had expressed gratitude for a comment she made during her famous – or infamous – 1995 television interview with Martin Bashir. In that much publicized exchange I was remarkably struck by the explanation of Diana’s struggle with royal politics which had rendered her particularly vulnerable. Diana put forward, “there’s no better way to dismantle a personality than to isolate it.” I thought this an extraordinarily accurate statement. I heard its clarity, and I wrote to her to share how accurately she had given expression to one of the deepest truths we know about ourselves, one so clearly obvious but one we often overlook.
Yet, in a time when people can so easily experience a great sense of isolation, the experience of community especially emerges as important and part of what is essential for us. Knowing we are part of a community, belonging to a community, participating in a community and constructing a community can be one of the most powerful anti-dotes to the experience of isolation. This is why it is important to value and to give thanks for the community of which we are part. We might not have a great deal to do personally with our parish ordinarily but by our coming along we are reminded in many different ways that there is a community to which we do belong. We do not need to be alone. There is a group of people to welcome us. And this particular group of people being Church, the community of the friends of Jesus, can remind us in often hidden ways the most important truth we will ever learn – which is that happiness is always shared, and that we are never more alive when we find ourselves in relationship with others. We are reminded that we come to the truth of who we are never alone but always in companionship with others.
In this lies our true riches. Let us not be like Dives in today’s Gospel, and miss the opportunity that is in front of us.
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