Tracy Dereszynski is a busy woman. As the ministry and outreach coordinator for Volunteers of America of Wisconsin, she is often on the road, making pastoral visits to clients with disabilities or mental illness. That's when she's not teaching Catholic school teachers in the Milwaukee archdiocese as part of its Sustaining the Mission catechetical program. Or serving on the archdiocese's Technology and Faith Formation committee.
Yet she still finds time for prayer and spiritual practices -- thanks to her phone.
Yes, her phone. Dereszynski is an avid user of spiritual apps, not only for her own personal practice, but in her ministry and work.
With divineoffice.org, she can do morning prayer from the Liturgy of the Hours while walking her dogs. In the car, she may listen to the 3-Minute Retreat or use Pray as You Go, both Jesuit prayer apps. She ends her day with Compline or evening prayer, again via the Divine Office app.
"It's a wonderful way to relax and be in God's presence," says Dereszynski, a member of St. Joseph Parish in Grafton, Wis.
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Although some still see gadgets as distractions from spiritual or mental well-being, more and more people -- including Catholics -- are using their phones, tablets and other devices to aid them in contemplation and prayer.
Dereszynski finds most of her students and clients are open to the use of spiritual apps. In a recent class she taught, Catholic school teachers loved the idea of using the 3-Minute Retreat app as a prayer before faculty meetings. "It's just long enough to breathe," said Dereszynski, who also uses it to help clients relax and center themselves.
"All I have to do is press play," Dereszynski said, adding that the app's reflection questions help prime her discussions with clients.
And when she wants to pray the rosary with them? There's an app for that too -- actually more than one (see below). "I'm not sure I would know how to pray the rosary otherwise," she said.
Dereszynski may be more tech-savvy than most, but she's part of a growing trend of spiritually minded folks who see technology and spirituality as compatible and even beneficial, rather than archenemies.
Tens of thousands of people have downloaded the 3-Minute Retreat app and receive the Scripture reading, music and reflection questions each day, according to Judine O'Shea, director of marketing at Loyola Press.
"It's very Ignatian in its intent, in that it's relevant to people's daily life, not something removed," O'Shea explained. "We're a Jesuit-owned company, and Jesuits were founded to be amongst the people, in the towns and streets. So we thought a mobile app would be appropriate because it meets people where they are, whether they're on the train or maybe for a few minutes before work."
The 3-Minute Retreat was Loyola's first mobile app, created in-house about five years ago after the success of a similar online retreat on the company's website. It is free and available for Android and iPhone. A second app, My Picture Missal, which corresponds to its religious education curriculum for students with special needs, is available only for iPad and costs $2.99.
But Christian prayer apps are not the only ones helping people with their spiritual and mental health. Apps that aid contemplation, meditation apps, journaling apps, even a phone's timer can help people to pause and attend to their inner lives in the midst of busyness -- paradoxically sometimes created by that same technology.
"It might seem counterintuitive. To me, my phone is not a distraction but a reminder to slow down that's always in my pocket," said Jay Thomas of Aurora, Ill., who used to meditate after going to the gym each morning. But when his gym visits became less frequent, so did his meditation practice. "I realized I could pull out my phone and take 10 minutes out of my day that I thought I didn't have."
He uses Buddhify, which offers guided meditations ranging from five to 20 minutes. The newest version is available for iPhone and iPad for $2.99. The app also includes a timer for unguided meditations and will even keep track of the user's meditation stats.
Thomas uses it once a day, during his lunch break or in the late morning. Although he is a Christian interested in and open to the insights of Buddhism, he says the app is really about mindfulness, not Buddhist philosophy per se. "I wouldn't say it's religious, but it does help you to focus."
Stressed? Need a break from work? Says Thomas: "Regardless of the circumstances, it's always there."
Fitbits for your soul
Counting your steps may be the latest technology-aided fitness phenomenon, but apps also can help with spiritual and mental health. Below is just a sampling:
iRosary: With photos and prayers; pull down "beads" to advance to next prayer (iPhone, iPad, $2.99).
Virtual Rosary: Vibrates after every 10 Hail Marys (Android, free).
Mobile Rosary: Can share cause and intention on Facebook or Twitter (iPhone, iPad, Android; free).
Rosary: Available in Polish, English, German, French, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese and Japanese (Android, free).
3-Minute Retreat: Music, Scripture, meditation and reflection questions (iPhone, free).
Pray as You Go: Music, Scripture, questions for reflection (iPhone, Android; free).
Instapray: Request prayers, pray for others' intentions, share your prayers with others (Android, free).
Pray!: Timer reminds you of things, people, events you scheduled to pray for (iPhone, free).
PrayerMate: Selects a person or topic daily from your prayer categories (iPhone, Android, free).
Mindfulness: Three- to 30-minute guided meditations, plus alarm to remind you (iPhone, Android; $1.99).
Buddhify2: Guided meditations for specific circumstances, keeps stats about user's meditation (iPhone, iPad; $2.99).
Mindfulness Meditation: An introduction to meditation for beginners (iPhone, $1.99; Android, free; extended version available for $16.99).
Breathe2Relax: breathing meditations for stress-reduction (iPhone, Android; free).
Omvana: Can customize meditation sessions with different sounds, quotes, even record your own voice (iPhone, free).
Gratitude Journal: Write what you're thankful for and rate your day based on a five-star system (iPad, 99 cents).
Gratitude 365: Write what you're thankful for and upload photo; calendar displays all photos (iPhone, $1.99).
My Gratitude Journal: Includes alarm to remind you to practice gratitude by writing what you're thankful for (Android, $2.99; free version allows only 30 entries).
Live Happy: Adds goals setting, other information about positive psychology in addition to gratitude journal (iPhone, free).
The Worry Box: Write down your worries (password protected), then listen to exercise about how to manage worry (Android, free).
Relax Melodies: Chinese flutes, thunderstorms, waterfalls and other sounds to help you sleep (iPhone, free).
MINDBODY Connect: Find wellness services in your area, book appointments, write reviews (iPhone, Android; free).
BellyBio Interactive Breathing: Put your phone on your belly and use biofeedback to learn deep breathing (iPhone, free).
[Heidi Schlumpf teaches communication at Aurora University outside Chicago. She is the author of While We Wait: Spiritual and Practice Advice for Those Trying to Adopt (ACTA).]