Reflecting on Our Internal Environment March 15, 2024

Stop Scrolling and Start Strolling:

A Lenten Screen/Media Fast for Creation’s Sake

Over the past several weeks, the Basilica’s Creation Justice Committee (CJC) has encouraged you to reimagine your Lenten fasting as a way to bring you closer to nature and follow Pope Francis’s teachings in his first encyclical, Laudato Si. This week, we are pivoting from our previous suggestions, which focused on the ways everyday consumption habits can have a direct negative impact on the planet. Instead, this week we reflect on our internal environment and offer a way to improve our individual capacity to serve as a steward of Creation. In brief, close your laptop and go outside (perhaps after you read this).

We all know that unbridled ‘screen time’ can negatively impact our wellbeing, yet it can be difficult to put down our phones or close our computers in this digital culture. Before I go any further, rest assured I will not suggest you delete all your social media accounts, never send another email, or completely stop scrolling through Star Tribune online articles. In fact, researchers suggest that ‘modest’ (e.g., 30 minutes/day) time spent with social media, checking in with people you know as opposed to those you’ve never met, can help you feel less lonely and more connected. Connection is good. It can be safely said, though, many who read this post – or written it, for that matter – have at some point compared their respective lives to others’ and felt a sense of not being good enough, or spent a regrettably long period of time doom-scrolling themselves into despair. But both the pope’s encyclical message and our Catholic faith encourage us to be hopeful and focus on how we can apply our own unique gifts to address the environmental crisis. Ask yourself if the way you engage with digital media is inspiring hope within you, or leaving you feeling paralyzed and unable to see a brighter future ahead.

Zooming out for a moment, it is worth noting that our excess use of screens and media is a symptom of a bigger challenge to humanity according to Pope Francis – our indiscriminate use of technology. He identifies the technocratic paradigm – the disproportionate power that comes with technological advances – as a significant reason for our ecological crisis. The Pope is careful to say that technology in and of itself is a good thing. Yet, it becomes problematic when we utilize technology without being mindful of the inherent power derived from being able to manipulate nature, and when we do not embed technology’s use within a strong set of values (Laudato Si, Section 105). He quips that “[n]obody is suggesting a return to the Stone Age, but we do need to slow down and look at reality in a different way, to appropriate the positive and sustainable progress which has been made, but also to recover the values and the great goals swept away by our unrestrained delusions of grandeur [that fuel our technological ‘advancements’] (Laudato Si, Section 114).

Granted, the pope is talking about a broader ‘we’ than just you or me. However, we might apply the old environmental adage “think global, act local” to this message. And so, I ask you: How will you slow down? How will you best position yourself to start seeing reality in a new way? To these questions, I dare to suggest that giving your scrolling thumb a rest and taking a short walk in the woods is a good start. Not just because doing so may help prevent any negative impacts, but also because you will benefit from experiencing the goodness and healing within God’s creation. 

For many, time spent in nature – whether the solitude of wilderness, or the vibrance of a city park – is a time to quietly reflect, pray, and talk with God. This is the case for several of us CJC members, who cherish the opportunity to be present to the revelation of God in nature. Spirituality is but one dimension of human health and well-being positively influenced by nature, however. Research has shown that being present in a natural environment has tangible impacts on our physical and mental health as well. A 2020 study found that students at Cornell University who simply spent 10 minutes per day sitting or walking in a natural setting (on campus) improved their mood and focus, and even experienced physical health impacts like reduced heart rate. 

Nature’s impact on our wellbeing is not a new phenomenon – in a 1984 article published in the prestigious journal Science, Dr. Roger Ulrich famously found that patients recovering from gallbladder surgery who had views of nature outside of their windows went home a day earlier post-surgery, required less pain medication, and had fewer postoperative complications. Myriad subsequent research studies have detailed the vast range of nature’s positive impacts on people. To name just a few, nature can help school children perform better on tests, increase prosocial behavior among children and adults, and reduce the acute symptoms of chronic upper respiratory conditions like asthma. (To learn more about nature’s health impacts, visit the Vibrant Cities Lab.) Nature can also inspire and guide us toward becoming better stewards. But we first need to find the time to encounter nature, particularly in this digital age. 

Screen usage can rob us of our precious time – time we can be spending off screens and in nature, developing our own love of creation and stewardship ethic. For some of you who regularly get outdoors, a Lenten screen/media fast will come easily. Great! Keep going! And for those who struggle to find the time or may not be as comfortable with getting outside, start by making a commitment to a ten-minute pause in your day twice a week. If you are able, step outside and just start walking. Find just one element of nature that arouses a sense of awe, curiosity, beauty, or joy – what Rachel Carson calls a ‘sense of wonder’ in her posthumously published book of the same name. The sense of wonder is foundational to an environmental ethic. For those for whom getting outside might not be an option, the important thing is to engage as many of your senses with elements of nature as possible. Look out your window, consider aromatherapy (lavender is my favorite), and/or play the sounds of birdsong while you think deeply about a nature experience you’ve had, or simply sit in silence. (To access the sounds of nature if not nearby, you may need to bend the rules of the fast to find a digital recording!)

In the Twin Cities, we are blessed to have significant tree canopy cover and access to the Minneapolis Park System, one of the best in the country. Minneapolis Parks offer multiple accessible greenspaces with ample opportunity to immerse yourself in the sanctity of creation. Two of my favorites are Murphy Hanrehan Park Reserve (Three Rivers Parks District) and Lebanon Hills Park  (Dakota County Regional Parks). Both of these parks are a short drive from the Metro area and have wonderful year-round hikes of varying intensity. And of course, there is no shortage of lakes and rivers that will inspire those more comfortable on the water than on land. 

Pope Francis also stressed the value of community in working to address our environmental crisis. As such, the CJC seeks to provide opportunities for shared spiritual enrichment and ecological education to support those interested in deepening their connection to God through engagement with nature. We are preparing to host an inaugural Terra Divina which is a contemplative practice modeled after the Benedictine practice of Lectio Divina but focused on God’s revelation through nature instead of scripture. We look forward to sharing details about this opportunity with the Basilica community later this Spring. 

And now – I thank you for reading this post and for trying this Lenten Fast for Creation, and I invite you to close the lid on your laptop or shut off your phone, and go connect with creation. 

LINKS – in case they don’t copy through in the text:


Rachel Holmes Fargione, an urban forester, is a parish member and on the Creation Justice Committee.