Here is a section from Thomas Merton’s 1961 New Seeds of Contemplation. It originally dealt with the media and culture of that era, but I have made changes by putting it – I trust without too much violence to the author’s intent – into the current era’s language regarding gender and technology. I believe this chapter (12) to be one of the most useful in that excellent book.
As a pastor, I find an ever-increasing connection between how much / what type of internet use a person has and the state of the soul. This is shaping up to be one of the great spiritual issues of our era. Like you, I wrestle with this issue almost daily. The point that we keep wrestling.
You will never find interior solitude unless you make some conscious effort to deliver yourself form the desires and the cares and the attachments of an existence in time and in the world.
Do everything you can to avoid the noise and the business of society. Keep as far away as you can from the places where people gather to cheat and insult on another, to exploit one another, to laugh at one another, or to mock one another with their false gestures of friendship. Be glad if you can keep beyond the reach of their radios, videos, and websites. Do not bother with their unearthly songs, tweets, and memes. Do not read their advertisements.
The contemplative life certainly does not demand a self-righteous contempt for the habits and diversions of ordinary people. But nevertheless, no one who seeks liberation and light in solitude, no one who seeks spiritual freedom, can afford to yield passively to all the appeals of a society of salespeople, advertisers, and consumers. There is no doubt that life cannot be lived on a human level without certain legitimate pleasures. But to say that all the pleasures which offer themselves to us as necessities are now “legitimate” is quite another story. A natural pleasure is one thing; and unnatural pleasure, forced upon the satiated mind by the importunity of a salesperson is quite another.
It should be accepted as a most elementary human and moral truth that no one can live a fully sane and decent life unless able to say “no” on occasion to natural bodily appetites. No one who simply eats and drinks, whenever feeling like eating and drinking…who gratifies curiosity and sensuality whenever they are stimulated, can be considered a free person….You aren’t “sinning” but simply making an ass of yourself, deluding yourself that you are real when your compulsions have reduced you to a shadow of a genuine person.
In general, it can be said that no contemplative life is possible without ascetic self-discipline. One must learn to survive without the habit-forming luxuries which get such a hold on people today. I do not say that to a be a contemplative one has to go without alcohol or a computer, but certainly one must be able to use these things without being dominated by an uncontrolled need for them. There can be no doubt that surfing the internet and drinking are obvious areas for the elementary self-denial without which a life of prayer would be a pure illusion.
I am certainly no judge of the internet, since I have never used it. All I know is that there is a sufficiently general agreement, among people whose judgment I respect, that much of the internet is degraded, meretricious, and absurd. Certainly it would seem that it could become a kind of unnatural surrogate for contemplation: a completely inert subjection to vulgar images, a descent to a sub-natural passivity rathe than an ascent to a supremely active passivity in understanding and love. It would seem that the internet should be used with extreme care and discrimination by anyone who might hope to take interior life seriously.
Keep your eyes clean and your ears quiet and your mind serene. Breathe God’s air. Work, if you can, under His sky.
But if you have to live in a city and work among machines and ride in the subways and eat in a place where the radio makes you deaf with spurious news and where the food destroys your life and the sentiments of those arounds you poisons your heart with boredom, do not be impatient, but accept it as the love of God and as a seed of solitude planted in your soul. If you are appalled by these things, you will keep your appetite for the healing silence of recollection. But meanwhile—keep your sense of compassion for the people who have forgotten the very concept of solitude. You, at least, know that it exists, and that it is the source of peace and joy. You can still hope for such joy. They do not even hope for it any more.