Net Curtains: Real and Virtual

Until we came to live here, I had a rather distant relationship with net curtains. They adorned the windows of others. Occasionally I would remark on the fact that they were dirty or had hideous patterns woven into them, but, by and large, I scarcely noticed them. O blissful ignorance! O happy times long gone! Our monastery is a lovely barn conversion but it does have one drawback: lots of windows with net curtains that it is my job to launder and iron with somewhat dismal frequency. I would cheerfully consign them to the bin but for the fact that they serve a useful purpose in maintaining our privacy (and having suffered from the unwanted attentions of a photographer pointing her lens at us from the field across the way, I realise that our privacy can be invaded very easily).

Why do we worry about privacy when so much of our life is open to scrutiny by all and sundry? I think it has something to do with the need to have a safe space we can withdraw to when we have wounds to lick or simply want to spend time unobserved — when we don’t have to give explanations or justify what we are doing (or not doing) according to the standards of another. St Benedict doesn’t mention privacy as such in his Rule. In fact, he reminds us that our actions are always open to God and our deeds constantly reported by the angels; but he does allow for a private life for the community inasmuch as he gives the community the right to determine how it shall live, whom it shall admit, how it shall order its work and prayer and maintain its discipline. Privacy is thus protected, but it is never absolute. Neighbouring clergy and laity have a duty to intervene if things are going wrong, but they don’t have the right to impose their ideas on the monks just because they think that is how they should live. Our lives are open to observation, but not to prying or dictating.

The internet has opened up many previously private spaces to the public gaze, monasteries among them. On the whole, I think that is a good thing (although I must admit some people’s insatiable curiosity can be trying at times). Fortunately for us, we do not have the grand buildings and precious artworks that makes living in some monasteries peculiarly difficult. But I do wonder whether we need to think more deeply about the way in which we manage openness and privacy. Here at Howton Grove, for example, although we are happy to use Social Media, we draw the line at posting frequent photos or videos, preferring to give an occasional glimpse behind the scenes rather than streaming a monastic version of reality TV. We are online, but we don’t live online. There is a difference, and I think it’s important. My question for today, therefore, is: if we do away with the old net curtains, what shall we put in their place? How many of us could bear to live without any limits on public access? I know I couldn’t.

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14 thoughts on “Net Curtains: Real and Virtual”

  1. “…. if we do away with the old net curtains, what shall we put in their place? ”
    We have a small walled community living a couple of hundred metres away in this small city.
    The walls keep the nosily annoying out and social media isn’t affected by them. For South of Herefordshire perhaps rustic fencing would be better, and it never needs ironing. :0)

  2. The whole net curtain business is an interesting one, in that while those outside cannot see in, those inside can still see out.
    (Personally I don’t have them because they come off worst when the dogs want to bark at visitors and passers-by).

  3. The Lord sees everything. It has been a long time since our house had net curtains. If we need privacy from the outside world, we draw our curtains or blinds. Most times I don’t bother. However, if you and your Sisters are getting unwanted intrusion, I can understand your need for the light penetrating barriers. God bless, love and peace.

  4. It’s strangely timely that you should post this, as today I’m getting net curtains for a Syrian refugee family newly arrived in our town. While the council furnishes their house with the basics, that doesn’t include net curtains, and they’re living by a main road. Another family our refugee group supports, Afghan asylum-seekers, have been living with their curtains closed all the time, and no natural sunlight (so we’re getting them fixed up too). I’d never considered the importance net curtains might have, particularly in Muslim homes, and for vulnerable people. Privacy, yes, and dignity, freedom, wellbeing too.

  5. Would it be possible to stick ‘stained glass’ transfers strategically on the windows? I haven’t seen this done for big barn windows, but it seems to work on smaller ones. So that you could look out and light would enter (albeit coloured light), but nasty cameras couldn’t invade your privacy.

  6. I can’t picture the windows but I imagine they are very tall. Would you be able to cover the lower portion for privacy leaving the upper portion uncovered for light. We have louvered shutters on bottom half of our windows for privacy so light can come in from upper portion and we can see sky.
    Ironing is not my favorite task i.e. no drapes or curtains. I understand.

  7. Thank you for all your suggestions regarding net curtains. It is very sweet of you. Perhaps I should be a bit of a bubble-buster and point out that I am principally writing about the other, virtual kind and the new sorts of privacy concerns we all — not just monastics — have today. But for those of you who are anxious about our physical privacy, let me assure you we do have a range of answers; and after five years of saving up, we are just about to get our first set of venetian blinds for the courtyard area. Hurrah!

    • Oh dear – one of my childhood hated jobs was cleaning venetian blinds……It involved a red fluffy implement with 3 prongs to slide between the slats…..but at least it didn’t involve ironing!

  8. Thank you for the reminder. We need safe spaces in our lives – places to just be, reflect, rest. My guess is that we don’t get enough of that kind of time or have access to safe spaces at home, in work or in transit. Intentionally unplugging from the digital world from time to time is likely a good start.

  9. My sewing class at the local centre for refugees was given a long length of voile from the local curtain shop. A Pakistani woman leapt on it and cut and sewed it into prayer shawls and gave one to each of the other participants for the start of Ramadan. (Sorry this is about nets and not privacy.)

  10. I fully understand the need for visual privacy and having just bought a better camera and lens I was amazed how I could have recognised individuals on the top of Stanage Edge from the road a long way away.

    Electronic means have stripped away our privacy. Anne is waiting for a hospital appointment and the letter contained a lot of personal information. When we got there they knew my first name, but not my surname, and everything else. Google knows precisely where I’ve been and even asked me yesterday for a picture from the top of Mam Tor where I was with some fellow photographers.

    I’m not sure that I’m happy with the total loss of privacy but it might well help the authorities to prevent terrorism. On the other hand I have invited Alexa in to our home, so to some extent it is my own fault, but at least she doesn’t have a camera for me to worry about. 🙂

  11. Maintaining privacy on the Internet is a challenge, given the algorithms and monitoring across user platforms from Facebook and Google. I screen Friends on my Facebook page carefully, moderate comments and discourage arguments. It is space where I need to feel safe and not a battleground. On Twitter I block unwanted posters quite ruthlessly and post only for a poetry community and writer friends & artists. I don’t engage in political debate on social media. I’d describe my boundaries as flexible shutters rather than net curtains.

    More intense or conflicted conversations I keep for closed forums and mailing lists. I share certain images or artistic links on Instagram, read blogs and tumblrs, connect with other researchers online for work purposes, listen to downloaded music videos of musician friends while I work. I use prayer sites and liturgical calendars, pray the Office online, but in a solitary way, by which I mean without any communication with others using the same resources.

    It is necessary to engage, to share and listen to one another. The Internet for some of us is just an extension of what happens in workshops, seminars and coffee shops. My life moves between personal and private spaces and unrecorded interactions with friends and family, and public spaces, selected for accessibility, safety and hospitality. There are many intentional communities out there. I have found (sadly but unsurprisingly) that the least welcoming and most divisive or even hostile places online are often Christian or Catholic, so I keep those interactions for church/parish participation in the village, conversations after Mass, etc.

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