Selfies, Smartphones and the Holy Spirit


A Penticost Reflection

Fr. Kurt Zion Pala

What was the first thing you did when you entered the church today? I assume you dipped your finger in the holy water and made the sign of the cross. Making the sign of the cross affirms our faith in the Most Holy Trinity. We say all together in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. But sadly, many of us can admit that we know so little of the Holy Spirit. Can you remember what are some of the images of the Holy Spirit that are depicted in the Bible?

The most common symbol of the Holy Spirit is the dove. We find this in the story of Jesus' baptism in the river Jordan when "the Spirit like a dove descended upon him." Water is a symbol of the Holy Spirit as it signifies birth and life, representing the cleansing and life-giving action of the Holy Spirit at baptism. The cloud is also used as a symbol of the Holy Spirit because clouds provide life-giving water just as in the Old Testament where God often leads his people with a cloud or appears to them in a cloud. In today's Gospel, we find the symbols of fire and wind representing the Holy Spirit. The fire that appeared as described in the Gospel reading is similar to the burning bush on Mt. Sinai. The Hebrew word for Spirit, "ruah," also means wind. The wind felt by the apostles was similar to the wind that blew over the waters at the beginning of Creation. Today we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost. The word Pentecost comes from the Greek word pentecoste which means 50. Today is the 50th day after Easter. The feast commemorates the coming of the Holy Spirit to the Apostles. It is celebrated as the birthday of the Church. It is therefore not just a feast but also an important event in the life of the Church. Sadly, few of us really celebrate it. Few Christians see its relevance to their everyday life.

But who is this Holy Spirit anyway? The Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Trinity, or the eternal Spirit of God. Some people try to explain the Holy Spirit as the power of love and truth that emanates from the Father and the Son. Whenever you feel as if you are being called by God or inspired to do something, it is usually a movement of the Holy Spirit. Fifty days after Jesus died, He fulfills His promise, the promise He made before He ascended into heaven and He sent His Holy Spirit. The events that happened on Mount Sinai are repeated during Pentecost. The Spirit has been poured out on them, establishing a new covenant, a new people of God, a new Israel, the birth of the church we belong to.

Today, let us take out our imaginary phones and take an imaginary selfie. Click the imaginary phone. Can you see your selfie now? Look at it. For some they would see good news. For others maybe bad news. Something you already know. For some, you might want to take another shot. Look at your selfie. Look at those eyes, those ears, look at those wrinkles and white hair. Look at that nice smile. What has a selfie got to do with Pentecost and the Holy Spirit? Let us return to our readings. The first reading describes the coming of the Spirit like tongues of fire that filled the gathered community, allowing them speak in different languages. The second reading tells us that with the coming of the Holy Spirit every member of the community is given all different kinds of gifts from one and the same Spirit. These gifts are not a source of competition but to be used for the service of unity.

The Gospel also illustrates the coming of the Spirit, described as our Helper who will guide and make known the whole truth. First, the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of understanding and communication. It builds unity by turning around the chaos brought about by the Tower of Babel event in the Old Testament. Similarly, technology desires to be like the Tower of Babel; to give one solution to all our problems like the smartphones.

But people are not getting any smarter with their smartphones. They are especially not getting any smarter in their relationships. The danger with selfies and smartphones or our excessive and addictive compulsion towards these gadgets can lead to loss of personal contact/communication and intimacy.

I once ate at a restaurant with a friend. At one table I noticed a family. But they were very silent. I checked and saw each one holding a smartphone including the children who were busy playing with their iPads. People are lost in their own worlds with earphones plugged in all the time. Notice their names iMac, iPhones, iPads. Notice the emphasis on "I." Second, the Spirit is the source of all gifts—a diversity of gifts. Revealing itself in each one with a gift that is also a service.

There is no harm in taking selfies. I believe it allows us to see our own individual giftedness. But excessive or obsessive taking of selfies can make us forget the giftedness of others and focus too much on ourselves. We must learn to look up and not down at our smartphones all the time. We must learn to take less selfies and see the beauty of the other person, so we will see the diversity of the gifts of the Holy Spirit in others. We must then learn to be grateful for these gifts and use them in the service of others.

Do you still have your imaginary selfie? Okay, show it to the next person beside you. When you see the selfie of the other person, tell her or him how beautiful and gifted she or he is. God loves you in whatever selfie you take.

Third, in our Gospel, Jesus leaves us with the Spirit as our help. But with the advent of these gadgets and technology, we think we don't need people. There is no need for help. I can do it on my own without another person. In the old days, people used to ask for help to take pictures of themselves but now no more. We have selfie sticks to do that. We rely so much on these gadgets. We Google almost everything. We even Google ourselves. We rely so much in them that we can lose anything, we can lose our souls but not our smartphones. There seems to be an over-reliance in ourselves and in our gadgets.

Now, let us take out our imaginary smartphones again. For those of us who don't have one, imagine the most advanced smartphone you may have but could never have. Now take a selfie but this time call it a "spiritual selfie." What if we can see what's in our hearts and in our minds? Think and ponder the mind in that selfie—the thoughts, the curiosity, the tears, the fears and the hopes. What will it show you? Whatever you see, God will make use of you. And keep in mind, the Lord's promise of the Holy Spirit—our help, our consoler, our defender.

What is more important is what is inside you, not outside you. In the Gospel today, Jesus said, "When the Helper has come from the Father, He will be my witness and you, too will be my witnesses…" Every time you take a selfie, look at that image on your phone and think, how have I responded to Jesus call to be His witnesses in the world? Do I look more like Jesus?

Here is a prayer to the Holy Spirit: Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.

Fr. Kurt Zion Pala lives and works in Myanmar. 

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