Once merely a useful tool for keeping in touch on the go, the mobile phone is fast finding a new niche as an instrument of spiritual enlightenment.
From Muslims who use their phones to point them toward Mecca, to Roman Catholics who collect text messages from the Vatican, religious observers across the globe are turning to their cell phones for aid and inspiration in practicing their faith.
Cell-phone service subscribers in the United States and several European countries can receive a daily text message from the pope. The Pope's Thought of the Day is so popular that the Vatican is testing a more advanced multimedia messaging, or MMS, service that provides text, audio, images and video of the pope's weekly service from St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
In response, service providers and religious institutions are rolling out a host of services to attract the growing ranks of spiritually oriented phone users.
For followers of Islam, companies such as LG Electronics and Dubai-based Ilkone Mobile Telecommunications make phones that aid Muslims in their daily practice by indicating the direction of Mecca, providing the call to prayer or even incorporating the Quran within the phone. Even those with a regular phone can augment it with a religious ring tone or download a lunar calendar.
The text message, a dominant method of communication in many parts of the world, has also become a valuable religious tool. Indian operator BPMobile lets customers send prayers by SMS to a Bombay temple where they are offered to the Hindu god Ganesh.
In a similar vein, subscribers in the United States and several European countries can receive a daily text message from the pope.
The Pope's Thought of the Day is so popular that the Vatican is testing a more advanced multimedia messaging, or MMS, service that provides text, audio, images and video of the pope's weekly service from St. Peter's Basilica in Vatican City.
Multimedia spiritual guidance can also be had in the United States by people who subscribe to a daily service called The Seven Spiritual Laws, which features the holistic teachings of Deepak Chopra. Currently available from two U.S. mobile operators, the service provides daily aphorisms as well as diet tips and an inspiring image.
"It's amazing that people can find solace in something so short. People just need a little nudge so that they can have a reflective experience," observes Chopra.
Chopra is not the only spiritual leader to see the value of the mobile phone as a tool for enlightenment.
"I think it is excellent," enthuses Rabbi Emanuel Carlebach of the House of Israel Congregation in Ste Agathe, Quebec. Carlebach himself downloads "Psalms in his Palm" and excerpts from scripture through PilotYid.com, a Judaism-oriented service for users of Palm OS devices that seeks to cover costs with voluntary donations.
"There is a principle that the Torah teaches us: We are supposed to utilize everything in the world to serve God," he says.
Carlebach also sees no ethical conflict in the fact that many of these religious services are for profit.
"One is entitled to make an honest living," he says, characterizing the payment as a means of thanking the provider for the convenient service.
But even the for-profit services are treated carefully. Andy Nulman, president of Airborne Entertainment, the company behind Chopra's service, says the price it charges subscribers, $3.25 a month, is about midrange for a mobile-entertainment subscription service.
Neither Acotel, the company that handles the technical side of the Pope's Thought of the Day service, nor the Vatican makes a profit from the daily messages. However, subscribers do pay a fee to read the messages. Acotel is not allowed to promote the service -- you'll find no mention of it on the company's website -- but works with local Christian organizations to promote it.
A British service has taken a third route. MS Wireless Marketing sends the money raised from daily Islamic text messages to humanitarian charities in the United Kingdom. Saadi Hussain, managing director, says it has raised 17,000 pounds ($31,000) in 17 months.
"The mobile phone is a perfect solution," Hussain says, "because it allows you to do micropayments. Over the year people are spending 70 pounds ($128), but they don’t realize it because they are spending 25 pence (46 cents) a day." Not only do his customers receive holy verses and prayer times on a daily basis but they are fulfilling their Muslim duty for charitable donation, Hussain says.
However, there are times when spiritual leaders work to keep religion and mobile technology separate. The Catholic Church in the Philippines, for example, has forbidden confession and absolution via text messaging.
In other instances, people are incorporating cell phones into spiritual practices as they see fit, often in surprising ways.
In China, people burn paper effigies of material goods, including mobile phones, to ensure their dead relatives are fairing well in their parallel lives. While last year one might have burned a basic phone, this year's offering will be a camera phone with color screen.
On a recent field trip around Asia, Genevieve Bell, senior researcher at Intel, saw people getting their mobile phones blessed by a Buddhist monk.
"Because they are wearing them on their bodies, they didn't want them to be bad for them," she says.