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Spiritual Reflections

Go Up One Level

by Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins

Joyce Tompkins is the Religious Advisor to the Campus Protestant Community. Other Spiritual Reflections  are available on the Religious Advisor's page.

You can write to Joyce at

Confession: I am not much of a computer person. Of course I use the thing when I have to (such as sending out this reflection). But I have been accused of being a Luddite in my insistence on writing out my notes long hand on a pad of white paper. Last year I was the focus of fond derision among students when I insisted that the computer in my Bond office was possessed!

Every day or so, for no apparent reason, in the middle of a conversation or counseling appointment, a gravelly female voice would speak out of it and say: "It's not YOUR fault." It was unsettling, to say the least, and I was all set to call the Bishop's office and request permission to perform an exorcism.

I was saved from this unfamiliar and dubious activity by Lucas, a Computer Science major. He went into my office one evening after our Communion service and quietly eviscerated the demonic voice with a few taps of the keyboard, returning my space to blessed silence and my soul to peace.

So I admit that my history with the machine is not a friendly one. But recently I learned a spiritual lesson from a computer -proof that anything, even an infernal machine, can be an instrument of the divine word. The machine this time was not the Bond computer but the one I use at home, which I share with several other users. Consequently there are multiple layers of files and applications, and I sometimes have to search diligently for a particular file.

Last week I went in search of a recommendation letter I had written for a student and saved, under her name, just a month or so earlier. The student, a Senior, needed another copy of my letter for a hot job prospect, and needed it right away. I entered Microsoft Word and looked under My Documents, no such letter. I looked in the other users' files, no such letter. I did a search under her name, no such letter. I began to panic. I had spent hours crafting a very strong letter for this student, and was not confident that I could recreate it. Madly I went on pounding keys, tapping on the screen, and repeating loud but less-than-flattering epithets to the computer. No luck. No letter.

Suddenly a little icon I had never before noticed winked at me. Really, I think it winked. I looked more closely at the screen. There was the same complicated pattern of envelopes and folders various representing the levels and choices I had been searching: Desktop, 3 ½ floppy, local disk, memory card, Cyberlink, something called Boggle Supreme. Over to the right was a row of icons, including the first one, which still seemed to be winking. I took a deep breath. I looked away from the screen into the greener screen of leaves outside my window. I said a prayer. And then I clicked on the beckoning icon, a little folder with an upward arrow on it. Immediately these words appeared: "Up one level." I clicked on it again. Lo and behold, the entire menu of files appeared before me, laid out neatly like a patchwork of cultivated fields seen from the airplane window. It was a God's-eye view of all that the computer contained. And there, hidden within a hitherto untapped folder called "Temp," was the student's name. One click, and the entire letter was on my screen, innocently smiling up at me as if to say, "What took you so long?"

I am humbled. It was a machine that reminded me of this most important lesson in the spiritual life: Go up one level. It's simply cyper-speak for prayer. When life seems frenetic and I can't find my way, what should I do? Go up one level. When my problems seem SO important, the tasks I need to accomplish SO great, what do I need to do? Go up one level. When I can't remember what's important or who I am, what's the answer? Go up one level. Perhaps it is no accident that the little pictures on our computers are called icons. If we are looking for guidance, any symbol can be a window to the divine. God's voice is always speaking, reminding us to slow down, asking us to listen. Go up one level. What does it take? Not much. Only a moment. A breath. Perhaps- could it be?- a click.