PAINTING: Our Lady of Vladimir (12th century)
“And all the flowers looked up at Him,
And all the stars looked down.”
— G.K. Chesterton
It sounds like fake news, but it’s not: Cell phones affect your brain even when they’re turned off.
And it’s not a good effect. “Even if a phone’s out of sight in a bag, even if it’s set to silent, even if it’s powered off,” writes Robinson Meyer in The Atlantic, “its mere presence will reduce someone’s working memory and problem-solving skills.”
Meyer’s assertion is based on a study conducted at the University of Texas at Austin and written up in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research. Groups of students were given a cognitive task. Those whose phones were physically removed from their presence generally did better than those whose silent phones were close by. Commenting on the study, Daniel Oppenheimer of the University of California notes that it’s not an unexpected result given our growing dependence on such devices. “But this study is the first to actually demonstrate the effect,” he notes, “and given the prevalence of phones in modern society, that has important implications.” I’m thinking about text-addicted drivers who try to do the right thing behind the wheel. Apparently their powered-off phones still clamor for attention, like oblong sirens emitting noiseless seductions from the passenger seat.
Anyway, this is clearly an unanticipated consequence of smart phone ubiquity. Here’s another: Text neck. Our heads, fully developed, weigh in at 10-12 pounds on average. As we hunch over our gizmos, that cranial poundage will stretch and strain our necks in funky ways – the greater the angle, the greater the strain. And when you add in the extended length of time the head is held in a tilted position (whilst texting and surfing, for example, and bingeing on cat videos), you have a recipe for neurological disaster.
Physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons have been complaining about this for years, but the situation is only getting worse. You don’t need a research study to know that; go check it out for yourself. After stowing your own phone (hint, hint), go stand on the sidewalk outside – or maybe visit a park or a large store or any college campus. Then, just watch. You’ll see head after 10-pound-head lunged forward at 45 degrees, 60 degrees, or more, eyes fixated on screen, thumbs flailing.
Of course, our necks are more than capable of supporting our heads in any number of positions as we go about out activities of daily living (“ADLs” in nursing-speak), but we ought not take that flexibility for granted. It’s a topic that comes up early in nursing training, particularly when we discuss range of joint motion (ROM). God designed the human neck to have great fluidity, presumably so that we can adequately train our vision on the world around us and direct our sight toward other sensory cues that grab our attention – like human voices and animal growls. We can move our noggins back and forth, as when we’re shaking our heads “no” (called rotation), and we can bend our ears to our shoulders (lateral flexion). Then there’s the texter’s chin-down head-tip (flexion), and its opposite as the head returns to an upright, neutral position (extension). With the neck joint, there’s even the capacity to hyperextend – as when you throw your head backward to guffaw at a hilarious joke or maybe complain to heaven while shaking a fist.
Regardless of how we intentionally move around our heads on our necks, we’re also continuously and unconsciously responding to subtle prompts with regards to body mechanics and posture. Pain is normally our guide, which means we automatically shift positions – our heads, our legs, our rears – when discomfort rises to the level of our peripheral awareness. Those who are unconscious or weakened by illness can’t respond to those cues, and nurses are trained to aid them in repositioning on a regular basis – and to loosen their idle joints through passive ROM exercise.
Yet, for those who are conscious and capable, not even neck pain will get us to look up straight from time to time if we’re obsessed by our midriff-fixed gadgets. We have to be educated to “take frequent breaks” and “spend some time away from the phone” to avoid injury. It’s a helpful hint that’s necessary only because, without it, we’d keep sitting with the equivalent of a bowling ball dangling from our cervical spines for hours unceasing.
I had these images in mind while traveling to Wisconsin recently to visit the shrine of Our Lady of Good Help in Champion, the only approved Marian apparition site in the USA. It was there that Adele Brise, a young Belgian immigrant, reported a series of encounters with the Blessed Mother in 1859. Mary urged the girl to dedicate her life to the catechetical formation of her countrymen in the surrounding frontier community. Adele did precisely that, drawing others to join her, and her work continued to flourish after her death in 1896. After examining the record of the events, their message, and the life of Adele, Bishop David Ricken of Green Bay officially designated the apparitions as “worthy of belief (although not obligatory)” in 2010.
As I entered the shrine church, my attention was drawn to the statue of our Lady in the sanctuary, and I couldn’t help noticing the slight incline of her head toward the babe cradled in her arms. Later, visiting the basement apparition site below the sanctuary, I noted that the Mary statue there, a representation of Our Lady of Grace, also had the slight neck flexion. A visit to the gift shop drove the pattern home, for most of the holy cards and other Marian sacramentals on display depicted Our Lady’s head bowed, regardless of whether she was holding the infant Jesus.
And why not? It’s a posture of reverence and honor to God (GIRM §275), and, while by no means universal in saintly images, it’s a frequent iconographic device. Maybe it’s a 30 degree angle, maybe less or more, but so often we behold Mary and the host of heaven slightly bending their necks and inclining their heads in deference to the grace that pours out onthem and, in Mary’s case, pours through.
It’s important to point out, however, that there’s nothing of navel-gazing or solipsism in Mary’s head tilt – unlike so much of what I’m afraid infects our collective downward headlock as we get lost in our gadgets. Mary’s iconic gaze is focused on eternity, the incarnate Word in her grasp, or it is bowed in submission to her Father’s will, as at the Annunciation.
That raises a question though: Isn’t a permanently bowing Mary at risk for a spiritual neck injury? Not at all. We have to remember that those Marian statues and holy cards are mere snapshots – moments in hagiographic time that are frozen for our edification. They are artistic renderings of external attitudes that glimpse the Blessed Mother’s constant interior disposition of deference. Yet, as we meet her in Scripture, Mary never lingers in narratively neck-flexed postures for long. Instead, she acts, and in order to act, in order to move and function and respond to grace, she has to look up from what’s below, even when it’s a divine Person.
In real life, this young mother had precious little time to spend gazing on her son. She had rooms to sweep, meals to cook – and pregnant cousins to visit. Recall that immediately after Mary bowed her head and spirit in accepting her role in salvation history – her fiat, her “Yes!” to Gabriel’s invitation to be the Mother of God – she hunched up her frock and hightailed it over to Elizabeth’s to offer aid, with head presumably erect. Once on site, and following Elizabeth’s disarming testimony (“Blessed are you among women!”), we can envision a Mary with head thrown back intoning her Magnificat – “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”
We can imagine a similar progression in Marian postures at other key moments in her life, although in a different order. At the foot of the Cross, Our Lady’s head must’ve drooped in sorrow as she pondered her son’s fate, but then he called on her: “Woman, behold, your son” (Jn 19.26). At that, she must’ve looked up, neck hyperextended, to focus on his face and receive his commission regarding John and, by extension, the whole Church. His next words – “Son, behold your mother!” – would’ve caused her to drop her gaze to look directly at John, her new charge, the Gospel representative of the every Christian who considers himself a devoted child of Mary.
So, contemplation and humility (flexion), witness and service (extension), praise and heavenly reach (hyperextension) – we detect shimmers of all these postures in the life of Mary, and we see them graphically represented for us in sacred art. As always, the Blessed Mother is our template for the Christian life, and our model for bringing balance in our spiritual lives. There’s no reason to risk injury by overemphasis on one posture or another, and especially no need for obeisance or abasement, no cringing with chin perpetually touching chest. Just that slight incline, sometimes just a respectful nod, and then to work, snapping up our heads to carry out the Works of Mercy or craning our necks as we’re swept up in the liturgy. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to attune our souls to the cues he gives us each moment and shift our attention – and our postures – accordingly.