Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when we pray for the sick and those who have care of them; it is also Safer Internet Day, intended to encourage safer and more responsible use of online technologies and mobile phones. For me, there is a clear connection between the two.
Everyone knows, I think, that the community to which I belong chose to use the internet, including social media, as a way of responding to St Benedict’s concern for hospitality. Being short of money, physical space and numbers, and wanting to ensure that the monastic heart of our existence should not be compromised by too much noise or over-exposure to outside influences, the web offered lots of possibilities for engagement with others. It promised to be an excellent way of fulfilling the old idea of contemplata aliis tradere. By and large, I think it has fulfilled its promise and, as early adopters, I hope we have made a small but useful contribution to that.
Over time, many things have changed and the ugly side of the web has become more prominent. Think false information, anger, trolling, porn, hatred. These have made the community here more determined than ever to use online technologies for good. To a fellow believer I would express it as trying to take Christ into a situation, a world, from which more and more are trying to exclude him. In the early days we saw being active online as being where people were (and therefore where the Church should be). We now see it in rather starker terms. It is where a battle between good and evil is being fought, where we confront those principalities and powers of which St Paul writes. That sounds melodramatic, I know, but using traditional language to describe a current phenomenon does have advantages. It prevents us from seeing what we are experiencing now as completely without precedent and reminds us that the old disciplines of prayer and fasting may have something to say to us today that we need to hear.
Take social media, for example. I have often urged prayer before we go online and especially before we make use of social media. I have not been quite so enthusiastic about digital fasts because, in my experience, they rarely work as a way of bringing long-term discipline into a situation we may feel has got out of hand. That said, I acknowledge that, for some people, the need to come off social media for a while is essential because it has taken over their lives. It is a kind of Lenten discipline that enables one to re-focus. Fortunately for me, my life as a nun takes precedence over everything else so I am not free to go online whenever I choose or would like to. There is a kind of built-in restraint that is invaluable. There is, however, another way of looking at things I would like to suggest as worth pondering and perhaps acting on: bringing the social back into social media.
It is very easy to forget what the word ‘social’ means. It comes from the Latin word for a friend or ally (socius). It gives us the name we use for the community of human beings in which we live, society (societas). For St Thomas Aquinas, what we now call the State was simply societas christiana. The idea of being connected with one another in a relationship of friendship, mutual support and sympathy, is thus culturally an important one for all users of social media, whatever our religious beliefs or lack of them. It is our disregard of that which I would say is at the root of much of our current unease with social media and the way in which they are used.
There is a very active Tweeter in the USA who does not seem to be unduly bothered by the truth or falsehood of what he tweets. As far as I can see, he is a narcissist whose main aim is to exalt himself at the expense of everyone else. There are some users of Facebook and Instagram who plainly see those platforms as being marketing opportunities. All they want from us is our money, whether in the form of cash or data. All this may strike you as being very cynical. I prefer to think of it as a kind of sickness in need of healing. We cannot turn the clock back to those heady and visionary days when the web was seen as a way of connecting everyone and the internet promised to make knowledge of all kinds freely available, but what we can do is ensure that our own use of the opportunities we are given is not merely responsible but creative and, I hope, healing.
We do not often stop to think of the creative and healing possibilities of social media, but they exist, and I believe we should each try to cultivate them. It isn’t only the lonely who go online. It isn’t only the dysfunctional. But we should not scorn them if they do. The community’s use of social media has brought us into contact with thousands of people who would never otherwise have got to know us. We have accompanied a few of them through some dark moments in their lives. I think — hope— we may have helped one or two find a happier way of being. Along with the photos of cats and dogs, and the little jokes that delight some and exasperate others, I think social media have enabled us to open the cloister to many who are not called to live there permanently but who have discovered that it has value, even for them in their busy, secular lives. What I write of here is not unique to us. Everyone who uses social media can use it for good or ill, to build up or tear down; and we do not always have to be solemn about it. Laughter is a good medicine, but let it be the right kind of laughter, not the kind St Benedict regarded as destructive. Let us make friends online by being friendly, by being truly social.