Contemplative Apps

Okay all you iPhone lovers out there — I’ve been meaning to do this for a while: list the four apps that I find the most useful for my spiritual practice. I hope you find them useful as well.

If there is one app that I think is the most essential, it would have to be Zen Timer by Spotlight Six. This handy little tool will liberate you from ever having to worry about how much time you have to pray. Easy to use, the app features a variety of sounds from bells and gongs such as those you will find at Zendos or other Buddhist meditation centers. You can select the bell tone you like the best, choose whether it will ring at the beginning or just at the end of your prayer time (you can also set up bells to chime at intervals during your silent period as well). The app also includes an optional journal so you can make notes after your prayer time concludes. You can set up your prayer time at any length from one minute up to 23 hours 59 minutes! This means you could also use this app as an alarm clock, if you’d like a peaceful wake-up chime. I can’t stress enough how useful my wife and I have found this app. The chimes are lovely — not jarring like kitchen timers or alarm clocks. You can set it up so that a lovely image appears on your phone (the countdown is hidden, so you won’t be tempted to “peek” and see how much time you have left before the chime). You can also type in a message to appear on your phone when the bell chimes (I’ve put in Julian of Norwich’s motto, “All shall be well,” which is a nice reminder on those days when my prayer time is more chaotic than contemplative). Best of all, it simply liberates you (and your companions, when praying in a group) from having to watch the clock. You’ll be more present in your prayer (and meditation) with Zen timer.

Each of the other apps I’m listing are text-based, which of course leads to the great danger: of reading about prayer instead of actually praying. With that caveat in mind, I still want to mention these, because each can be truly supportive of your ongoing efforts to train your mind by engaging in a daily discipline of prayer, lectio divina, and study.

For prayer, I’m partial to the Divine Office for the iPhone. It features the Catholic Liturgy of the Hours, in the North American translation, in an attractive font that is easy to read. But what makes this app particularly enjoyable is that you have the option to listen to an audio recording of morning, evening and night prayers, complete with hymns (and, on some days, the Psalms are sung). This is a wonderful tool that can alleviate the sense of isolation when you are praying the Divine Office by yourself.

I remember when computers first came out, and one of the “gee whiz” features was the ability to load the complete Bible as a searchable text. That may seem old hat now (nowadays I use my desktop Bible mainly for its Greek/Hebrew language features), but I’m finding that my iPhone Bible is something I refer to again and again. When Accordance (the Gold Standard in Macintosh Bibles) finally releases their app, it might well be the one we’ve all been waiting for — but until then, I’m perfectly happy with the Olive Tree Bible Reader for iPhone, which features a truly easy-to-use verse search feature, attractive interface, and a variety of available translations, including the New American Bible and the New Revised Standard Version. With this app, suddenly lectio divina is a possibility at any time or place.

Finally, a rather obvious one — but excellent nevertheless — Amazon’s Kindle for iPhone. I know the iPhone has very little real estate for a reading interface, but this is a free app, it will sync with your actual Kindle (or Kindle app on your desktop or iPad), and — best of all — you’ll have access to a variety of writings by the great mystics, perfect for study and reflection. Many classic translations and writings are available in free or low-cost public domain versions, but you can also get easier to read, more contemporary translations of the great mystics at reasonable prices — including The Cloud of Unknowing, Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, Meister Eckhart’s Selected Writings, and the Institue for Carmelite Studies’ Collected Works of John of the Cross. And of course, there’s this work called The Big Book of Christian Mysticism available on the Kindle as well…

So, there you have it. Use your iPhone to let go of time so that you can be fully present in your prayer, whether you are engaging in conversational prayer, meditation, or contemplation. Use your iPhone as your breviary (kiss those annoying ribbons goodbye). Use your iPhone as your go-with-you-everywhere Bible — as well as a fit-in-your-pocket library of mystical classics.

Just remember: the technology is a gift given to us to assist us in fostering intimacy with God. Not the other way around!

Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
Five Things Christian Contemplatives can learn from Buddhists
Why Trappists Make Great Spiritual Guides
In Memoriam: Kenneth Leech
  • Dwight

    As long as we’re talking about technology, I was wondering if you have an opinion regarding CDs that are advertised as an aid to meditation? They use “biaural beats” to encourage “brainwave entrainment” Do you think they are useful or are they just another gimmick that people spend money on?

    I find them to be relaxing, but I’m not sure if I’m getting any additional benefit beyond what what happens during quiet prayer.

    BTW- several companies sell the same technology with widely differing prices. Someone interested in this technology doesn’t need to spend big $$$ for the most widely advertised brand. “Perfect Mediation” seems to offer good value for the money.

  • Dwight

    Spelling correction- I meant to write, “Perfect Meditation.”

  • Carl McColman

    I’m really not invested one way or the other regarding the various kinds of meditation technologies that are out there. I’ve tried the little machines with the clicking noises and blinking lights; they do seem to stimulate an altered state of consciousness but I find them rather jarring — I’d rather keep it “organic” and simply do the disciplined work of breathing and awareness. That said, I don’t think there’s any harm in such technologies. If they work for you, go for it.

    I do like the Journey to Wild Divine: meditation instruction under the guise of a biofeedback driven game. It’s a lot of fun, and, I think, rather useful.

    Your second point is certainly worth considering: do your research, probably some tools are better values than others.

  • wildfire28

    Thank you for the blessing of your blog. I just ordered your “Big Book” and look forward to reading it. Cheryl Bryant Rushing

  • Joe hudson

    I think I will try you with this question.
    I too have Zen Timer. I emailed them with a question, but got no response.
    My one frustration with the timer is that I can’t seem to set the ending volume. I can set the volume for the beginning gong, but can’t figure how to make the ending one quieter so it doesn’t jar me at the end of the session.
    Do you know how to change that volume??

    • Carl McColman

      Joe, I just use the volume control on my iPhone for adjusting the closing bell’s volume. Once I have that volume set, then I use Zen timer’s internal settings to adjust the opening bell. Hope this helps.