Silicon Valley venture seeks to fill a spiritual need in a tech-driven world.
It’s probably safe to say that far more Catholics nowadays carry a smart phone around with them than a prayer book. And although there are many ways to access prayer websites on your phone, it’s also safe to say that for many people, new technology has provided so much distraction that prayer time suffers.
There’s a new app being launched today that promises to teach people to pray better, facilitate group prayer among people connecting with one another through digital devices, and spur people to spend more and better time in prayer, yes, without their cell phones around.
The app is called "Abide," and it was created by a small group of Christians in Silicon Valley. It differs from most other prayer apps and websites in that, rather than merely providing prayer texts, it allows people to hear prayers recorded by real people–often people in their own circle of friends praying for them.
"We now have a whole team that has left Google to work on prayer, and now we’ve found a powerful way for people to add purpose and depth to their prayer life through short audio guided prayers," said Neil Ahlsten, a former Google business development manager. "This format combines God’s truth in scripture with prompts and pauses to help people learn how to pray more deeply. We also want to match prayers to the users’ life stages (e.g., marriage, parenting, healing, depression, finances). Our goal is to give people daily prayer retreats in the space of their everyday life.
"With Abide," Ahlsten continued, "one can request prayer and send that request to one or more people on the requestor’s contact list. Those receiving the request can record a prayer and email their prayer back to the requestor.
The goal is to let people share conversations with God for the edification of others."
Ahlsten also felt that there is an experience in prayer that many people might be missing. "There is something incredibly powerful about spoken prayer. It is an entirerly unique experience; it is entirely different from other forms of human communication," he said. "We found out that when you have a spoken prayer and someone else is listening, the person who speaks the prayer is talking to an invisible, all powerful third person party, the Holy Spirit, who we believe is present in transforming, shaping, guidling… When someone is listening to a prayer, they also experience that same power and presence of the Holy Spirit. God is present there. … People actually had an experience where they said ‘I really talked to God, I experience the presence of the Holy Spirit. I had an experience with God, and I was changed, I was transformed, I received guidance from God.’
"After that, I thought, ‘I’m going to have to leave Google to do this.’ Because this has to work. We have to have a platform that’s better at bringing people into a state of experiencing the presence of the Holy Spirit,” Ahlsten said.
He’s well aware that many people’s lives are so busy that prayer doesn’t fit in the way it ought. "In the early Church, believers lived together, ate together, and prayed together every day," he said. "Now many of us go days or weeks without getting on our knees to pray with the people we love…. We are so busy and overwhelmed. People have too much distraction in order to easily start praying."
So Abide offers interactive guided prayer. "We have different spiritual formation leaders, priests, pastors, who guide people on how to pray," he said. "We have a priest who guides users on how to do confessions…He can guide you through an examination of conscience, then go into a confession and have the assurance of God’s love and grace that comes with that."
Granted, it’s not a sacramental confession, but Abide encourages users to not stop with the app. "We say, ‘If you need to confess in front of a [live] priest, this should just be an entree. If it’s on your heart, go find a priest right now, if you have more need to go deeper, put away your phone and go talk to a real priest," said Ahlsten, a UC Berkeley alum who identifies himself as a "charismatic evangelical Catholic" and who once served in parts of Africa for Food for the Hungry.
"So I think there’s lots of cause to say a lot of times we say, ‘Okay, you’ve finished this prayer. This is just a start on a digital platform. Now turn it off, put it away, go for a walk with God, go fast, go do these that are deeper and richer," said Ahlsten. "And hopefully…this will help people as a supplement that will help people in the busy-ness of their daily lives get even closer to God so that they can also break away and have those great retreats and those prayer times."
John Burger is news editor for Aleteia’s English edition.