Normal for Whom?

One of the ways in which I annoy my friends is by asking them not to include me in the photo- and video-sharing in which they delight. That is not asceticism as such, although anyone seriously trying to live monastic life needs to think about how they use their time, which belongs to the monastery just as much as their bodies and wills (cf RB 58.25 and passim on obedience). It is a consequence of rural broadband speeds being slow and unreliable. Those living in towns and cities tend not to be aware of the limitations this imposes. For example, all the excitement about live-streaming church services tends to become more muted where the fields and the furrows  take over from the tarmac. We are resigned to blurry images and hiccuping speech. Fortunately, we no longer have to go out into the garden and climb a ladder when we want to use a mobile, but we still suffer from breaks in the signal and the frustrations that follow. What this means in practice is that our definition of ‘normal’ is different from those who enjoy faster connection speeds or the facilities of a more urban environment. 

Where the Church is concerned, that is significant. It must be clear to everyone that the COVID-19 pandemic has consequences for how we worship, how we celebrate the sacraments, and how we experience community; but how we interpret those consequences, and the ideas we take from them, will vary according to what is ‘normal’ for us. I wonder if that is where those who live in the countryside, whose incomes are often lower than those of town-dwellers and who have fewer choices, will lose out. If so, I think it is where the rural monastery has the possibility of a renewed flourishing. Time was when I assumed that the old ideal of a large monastery situated in the middle of nowhere, dependent on an agrarian economy, was a relic of the Victorian Gothic imagination, wholly unsuited to the world of the silicon chip. I still think the large monastery of former times is less likely, but the role of the rural monastery itself is more certain.

We think of ourselves here as small and insignificant, of no importance to the diocese and no interest to most of the people around us, but that may be to look at ourselves through the wrong end of the telescope. Here, day after day, prayer is made real; here, day after day, we try to live up to Benedict’s ideal of hospitality. Above all, the focus is not on us but on Christ; and that, surely, is where the eyes of the Church must always be. So, even if for many people living nearby their experience of church is now confined to those blurry live-streams in their living-rooms, we can say that here the Church has a living, beating heart, ready to embrace all. It may be somewhat obscure, it may not have the grandeur of the old monasteries or large public buildings we have tended to associate with the Church in the past, nor any of the silicon chip wizardry of online celebrations, but it is here. It’s normal for us. Could it become normal for others, too?

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8 thoughts on “Normal for Whom?”

  1. I really like this, a good pause for thought and I believe you are as often spot on.

    When the internet dies along with mobile phones [ Oh my! ] and I suspect one day it will happen with little or no notice, this will be more apparent to us all.

    The internet is great, but sometimes I think we are too connected up and take much for granted that could go away in seconds given the conditions.

    The potential serenity and holiness of a rural monastery [ and yes I know the reality has its other moments ] I sometimes find myself envious of when I stop and consider where I am at….

    Thank you for these words, et oremus pro invicem..

    Fr John

    • Thank you, Fr John. I think COVID-19 has undermined many of our old certainties about what is going to be available in the future and we now need to think beyond the internet (much as we love it and derive great benefit from it/are committed to making the best use we can of it here. Praying for you as always.

  2. Maybe this is something that has been forgotten in certain parts of the Vatican as well as in other large organisations – that small can be beautiful. When we became Oblates we were told that we were to be the leaven in the lump that was the church; the warp in the weft.

    When my faith was waking up I used to enjoy visiting a small house nearby where two Sisters of Mercy lived and saying the Office with them. We really need the small communities living in our midst and leading by example. To this end, although large communities can run productive concerns like farming, bee keeping and brewing and remain sustainable and centres of prayer, to me the smaller communities are even more important but are under threat from people who think they are too small to be controlled centrally in a one size fits all mentality. Sorry if this sounds just too much like a little rant and moan.

  3. This is VERY heartening, and O so true! Thank you for pointing it up. Says a sister in a semi rural house with a small chapel and next to none of the pomp and circumstance that used to grace our life.

  4. Thank you for the reminder of how much reliance we have on the internet. I have been trying switch off Sunday. Having no landline, it upsets a few people who cannot speak to me if they want! Though it really helps centre and re-boot back to a quieter mindset.

    • It’s very important to find balance. We even have a problem here at the monastery, inasmuch as ‘people’ expect us to be always on tap and can sometimes be very put out when we aren’t. It is a consequence of the myth of an ‘always connected’ society.

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