I have alarms set on my phone to remind me to do two things: pray and drink water.
The irony that I need the most distracting device to remind me to practice the rudimentary tenets of my spiritual and physical health - which I am wont to forget when distracted - is not lost on me. My parish pastor once called me the Most Millennial, and I’m here to accept my crown.
My phone has been a tool in my prayer life for years. I mostly use the clunky but trusty iBreviary app, as it has the daily readings as well as the Office of Readings and Liturgy of the Hours for free. I use my phone’s alarms to remind me to pray the Angelus, and sometimes I listen to Catholic podcasts on Spotify. That’s about the extent of how I use my phone in my prayer life.
I’ve been trying to use my phone less lately. For Lent, I deleted the Twitter and Facebook apps. They remain deleted.
So when The Pillar asked me to test out Hallow, a Catholic meditation app, I admit I was biased from the start: I was not super excited about having another reason to be attached to my phone. It seems like the opposite of what I should be going for in my prayer life.
But for the sake of Catholic journalism and all that is holy, I did it. Here are my thoughts.
What is the Hallow app?
The Hallow app, made popular online by Catholic Influencers™, is a Catholic prayer and meditation app that markets itself as a kind of Catholic reimagination of Calm, or Headspace, which are secular, meditative apps.
The app is entirely audio in format. There are recordings of people reading Bible passages in calm, meditative voices that you can fall asleep to. There is the popular Bible in a Year podcast by Fr. Mike Schmitz and Ascension Press, there is Catholic music and Gregorian Chant, as well as guided lectio divina reading, the rosary and other recorded prayers, among other features.
A chat with Hallow’s founder and chief investor
Alex Jones, founder and CEO of Hallow, told The Pillar that he had the idea for the app after his faith journey took him from Catholicism to atheism and back to Catholicism again, by way of meditation.
“The short story is I was raised Catholic to the extent that my mother dragged me to Mass,” Jones said.
In high school and college, Jones stopped practicing Catholicism altogether, and considered himself either an agnostic or an atheist during this time. But after college graduation, he became enthralled with the idea of meditation.
It was during this time that he started using Headspace, a secular meditation app that guides users through mindfulness exercises or meditation based in the Buddhist tradition. Jones said he was surprised to find that he was drawn to think about God, faith, and the spiritual life while he was meditating.
Out of curiosity, Jones started to ask Catholic priests and religious brothers and sisters if there was anything to the connection he was feeling between meditation and faith. They laughed, he said, but they also helped Jones discover the contemplative, meditative techniques and devotions of the Catholic Church. He dove into learning all about them.
“I Googled how to do lectio divina, and opened up Scripture to a random passage, and it was Christ teaching us the Lord's Prayer,” he said. “And the word that stuck out to me was ‘hallow’ in ‘hallowed be thy name’ and...that experience completely changed my life.”
Praying lectio divina brought about a deeper sense of peace than Jones had ever felt with secular forms of meditation, he said - one that also left him grappling with the purpose and meaning of his life. As he came back to the Catholic Church, Jones said he wanted to give others the experience of meditation that he had had. To that end, two and a half years ago, he launched the Hallow app.
“We've reached way more folks than we ever thought possible,” he said. “We just crossed 10 million prayers completed on the app and 150,000 downloads or so. We're growing really quickly and lots of people are finding out about it.”
Jones announced in April the app had received $12 million in new funding from venture capital group General Catalyst, a firm which has also invested in companies like Warby Parker, Airbnb, and Kayak, to name just a few.
Katherine Boyle, a practicing Catholic at General Catalyst who spearheaded the investment, wrote recently that she was struck by Jones’ chutzpah, after he pitched a religious app during a 2019 open pitch day at Stanford Business School.
“What struck me most about his pitch was not what he was saying, but where he was saying it: on a university campus where students are passionate about crypto, self-driving cars and the future of AI, not the lectio divina,” Boyle wrote.
Boyle told The Pillar that the Hallow pitch also struck her because she was tired of seeing outdated Catholic apps and websites, and Hallow seemed to take design seriously.
“I'm a practicing Catholic, I have been my entire life, and I've always been interested in technology,” Boyle said. “And I've always wondered why, when you're looking for novenas or prayers or anything online, it feels like you're stuck in 1997?...You have over a billion Catholics in the world, why are there not really great technology products and consumer companies built for these religions? Because every other aspect of my life has been digitized.”
Boyle said General Catalyst decided to invest in Hallow after watching the app’s growth during the worst of the coronavirus lockdowns in the U.S., when churches throughout the nation were closed and people were invested in finding faithful spiritual options in the digital world.
Boyle said she thinks the interest in religious technology will last beyond the COVID pandemic.
“It was a horrible pandemic and it completely disrupted life,” she said. “It caused people to really start thinking about their lives, asking the deeper questions, asking the hard questions. And I think that leads people to spiritual renewal...you can't necessarily see it in the Pew data, but I very much believe that we're on the cusp of a rediscovery of spirituality in America. And...it does seem like people are turning to ancient religions and traditions, and Hallow is a company that very much supports that movement.”
The online reviews of the app are, by and large, glowing. In the Apple Store, the Hallow app has 4.9/5 stars from more than 26,600 reviews. In the Google Play store (Android users, whaddup), the app has an almost 5-star rating after more than 5,000 reviews.
So does the app live up to the hype? Here’s my experience:
My prayer life before Hallow
Before I tried Hallow, my daily prayer routine looked something like this: in the morning, I read the daily readings with iBreviary for about 15 or 20 minutes.
At noon, I have an alarm set on my phone to pray the Angelus.
In the late morning or early afternoon, I take my daughter Violet for a walk. Sometimes I pray a rosary on this walk, though not always.
Every evening before Violet goes to bed, we have family prayer time, during which we voice intentions, and then a litany of about 15 or so recited prayers we want Violet to learn. Occasionally, Kevin and I will pray night prayer together once Violet has gone to bed.
When I signed up for the two-week free trial of Hallow, I tried to use it as a part of my normal prayer routine. After using Hallow for two weeks, here are my thoughts.
The design of the app is clean and pretty easy to navigate. It’s fast, and not glitchy, like other smaller Catholic apps (sorry iBreviary) can be.
There is a ton of stuff to choose from - podcasts, prayers, meditative readings of Scripture, Gregorian chant, etc.
Every time you finish listening to a prayer or meditation, the app prompts you to journal. I really appreciated this feature, because sometimes I will stop for prayer but won’t necessarily have my prayer journal with me. It was really nice to be able to just jot down some notes on my phone in the moment.
The app tells you how many people are praying at one time. The workout app that I use does this too. There’s something kind of cool about feeling even just a little bit connected to the other thousands of users who are praying with you around the world.
The voices on the app drove me crazy. There are only two voices to choose from for much of the prayers or meditations. I tried them both, but I could NOT get over the breathy, slow, “forced prayer voice” feel to them. You know how people do that thing where they use a totally different voice when they pray aloud? It drives me crazy. Does this make me a bad person? Probably.
Some of the pacing of the prayers was So. Slow. The first day I pulled up the Angelus to pray, I heard the first part of the prayer and then silence - when one would normally respond with the Hail Mary. I thought I was supposed to fill in the prayer myself, and so I started saying it out loud, when all of a sudden the app said “Hail Mary, Full of Grace…” It made the Angelus seem much longer than necessary. I get that Hallow is a meditative app, but the point of the Angelus is that I take a small break in the middle of my busy day to pray. The long pauses here just weren’t doing it for me.
Scheduling phone reminders for prayers on the app was not intuitive for me. It seemed like the app was forcing me to create a “family” (a group where you can schedule prayers to invite other users to) in order to schedule prayers. I was a week and a half into using Hallow when I asked a friend who was using the app for help with how to schedule prayers and set reminders in the app.
The previously mentioned “ton of stuff to choose from” can also feel overwhelming. After two weeks I felt like I maybe hadn’t even scratched the surface of everything Hallow has to offer.
I really missed having something to look at or read while I pray. Having someone talking at me through my phone during prayer time made the silence that I usually seek for prayer seem less...silent.
A lot of the features that I liked about the app and will continue using (the Bible in a Year podcast, the recording of the rosary that I can pray along with) are things I can already access through my Spotify account.
I’ve heard from a lot of users that they really love the Scripture meditations on the app, and they listen to them right before bed while they fall asleep. I tried to listen to one of these with my husband one night as we were getting ready to fall asleep. He asked me to turn it off after two minutes. Maybe (probably?) he was influenced by me voicing my previous opinions, but he also found the voices too grating and slow to be interested in listening to the whole meditation. It’s also out of our norm to listen to podcasts or watch T.V. in our bedroom before bed.
What other users had to say:
I am just one person with one opinion, so I spoke with several other users of Hallow to see what they liked, or did not like, about the experience.
Cecilia Nguyen is a missionary to Honduras who is temporarily back home in Lincoln, Nebraska. She has been using the Hallow app since before Advent of 2020.
Nguyen told The Pillar that she signed up for the app through an extended free trial that Hallow offered last year for healthcare workers, a field she is working in while she is back home. She wanted to work on meditation but found it difficult without a guide.
Nguyen said she primarily uses the app to listen to the Bible in a Year podcast, and to pray along with the liturgical content like novenas for Advent or Lent or other seasonal prayers and meditations. She said the features she really likes about the app are the journaling feature that pops up right away and saves to the app, as well as the time selection feature: on most prayers or meditations, the user can choose how long they would like to pray for, and the meditation will play for that length of time.
Nguyen said the sheer amount of content on the app can feel “overwhelming,” and that she wishes she had the time to explore more of it.
Her trial expires in November, and Nguyen said she hasn’t decided if she is going to sign up for a paid subscription.
“I want to see by (November) if I still need guided meditation...so for now I haven't made a decision yet,” she said.
Kate Walkowska, a Hallow user in Krakow, Poland, told The Pillar that she appreciated the clean design and efficiency of the app, especially as someone who studied architecture.
“It’s a beautifully designed app. It makes me proud as a Catholic,” she said. “Usually we get Catholic things that are not done well...they may have a deeper meaning, but they aren’t designed well, and that is how you can lose the interest of people who might otherwise try the app. If you want to attract people to it, you need it to look good.”
Walkowska said she is trying the free trial of the app, and so far she loves the background music or noises that she can choose from during her prayer time on the app.
“I added the ocean waves as the background noise - it’s so calming. I feel like I’m on a beach somewhere with Jesus,” she said. While Walkowska is proficient in English, she said she would be happy to see a Polish language version of the app sometime in the future.
Sarah, a Catholic in Raleigh, North Carolina who asked to only be identified by her first name, said she tried the Hallow app, but couldn’t get over the way the voices sound.
“I want so badly to give this app a serious shot, I think it could be a good tool to help my prayer life, but I can’t get past the eerie, unnatural voices. I know they’re meant to sound soothing and meditative, but I do not find them as such,” she said.
I asked Jones, the CEO, about the voices on the app- a complaint of mine shared by other reviewers. He said the readers on the app are content creators, not trained voice actors. But given the feedback from users, they are also planning to add new voice options.
Ask a Spiritual Director: Is Hallow good for my prayer life?
I asked a couple of spiritual directors what they think about the use of the Hallow app in the spiritual life. To be honest, I am still a little skeptical of using my phone at all to pray, so I was wondering if they were going to tell me to ditch my phone altogether. This is not, in fact, what they said.
Fr. Paul Kostka is a member of the community of the Servants of Christ Jesus, and he serves as a spiritual director and chaplain to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. Kostka told The Pillar that while he has not tried Hallow, he is generally in favor of people using apps as prayer resources, particularly in situations where they may not have a physical copy of the Bible or the Liturgy of the Hours available to them.
“It just makes prayer resources extra available,” he said. Kostka said that he has used apps like iBreviary, which includes the Liturgy of the Hours, in a pinch. He also uses video-conferencing apps to join his community in prayer while he is away.
“I’m just happy if someone is praying to begin with,” he said.
But beware of distractions, he added.
“A practical thing that I usually advise people to do is to turn their phone on airplane mode if they were going to use it for prayer,” he said. “That way the app is being used for its purpose and you’re not just getting distracted by the additional onslaught of messages or notifications that might come in.”
Kostka added that he also encourages people to schedule their prayer time in their calendars on their phone, especially if they already use their phone’s calendar to schedule other events.
“Put prayer into your schedule just like if you have a meeting with somebody,” he said.
Kay Davis is a spiritual director with the Lanteri Center, a Catholic center for spiritual direction in Denver, Colorado. Davis has used the Hallow app - she started after hearing about it from several of her directees.
Davis said she found multiple meditations in the Hallow app that would be helpful for someone who is just learning to pray, such as the meditations guide the listener through things like lectio divina or other forms of prayer. She also thought the app’s extensive content would be beneficial for those who are a little more advanced in their prayer.
The feature of the app Davis uses the most is a pretty simple one: the prayer timer.
“You can set the timer for five, ten, fifteen minutes, or however long you want. One of the geniuses of it is that you can choose what amount of time you want. And it’s just a time, it tells you how long you’re praying for.”
Davis said the timer setting also has option background noises that users can select, such as ambient noise or Gregorian chant or nature sounds.
“I like to use the nature sounds myself. It's just wonderful to sit in silence and listen to nature, as I pray and and then I can let go of worrying about the time because I know I've spent this amount of time and I don't have to keep looking at the clock,” she said.
Davis said that she thinks Hallow has done a “beautiful job of marrying technology with a reverent and prayerful approach” to Catholic meditation.
She does caution her directees about too much phone use, Davis noted, but she said she typically has not found the Hallow app to be a point of distraction for them.
“This has happened throughout the history of the Church,” Davis said - that is, using modern technology to preach the Gospel.
“The Church used stained glass windows, way back in the Middle Ages, to educate people in the faith. And Francis de Sales - he used the printing press to get sermons to people in areas where Catholic sermons were not allowed and he kind of trailblazed the use of pamphlets, and now he's the patron saint of journalists,” she said.
“So it’s wonderful how the Spirit won't be denied, and I'm going to use whatever is available to reach people,” she added.
The Takeaway (TL;DR here)
It seems the app creators and investors really care about making this app both high quality and faithfully Catholic, which is still somehow something of a unicorn combination today.
It is always compelling to hear about someone working to further the Kingdom from a place of true faith, and it seems the people at Hallow are trying to do just that.
However, I did not choose to continue my Hallow subscription, which would cost $59.99 per year or $8.99 per month. It felt like just one more “thing” I was trying to add into my prayer life rather than a tool that fit organically into what I was already doing, and I have a hard time justifying yet another subscription service in my budget right now.
I still have access to Hallow “lite” - a limited version that still has numerous features. But most of my favorite Hallow features are already available through a music and podcast app like Spotify. Between that, iBreviary, and my phone’s alarms, I am able to meet my religious technology needs.
I can see how I might have enjoyed falling asleep to an audio recording of the Gospel back when I was single and didn’t fall asleep talking to my husband. Or perhaps if I had a longer commute and more time to listen to an audio-only platform. But that’s not my situation right now.
Regardless, it was good for me to take a look at my prayer life and think about what it actually looks like and if what I was doing was working for me or not. Whether you choose to use it or not, Hallow is doing something completely new in terms of what it is offering the world of faith-based apps, and it will be interesting to see what follows.