Shape Nothing, Lips; Be Lovely-Dumb

Monastics on the Web

The prayer of Esther, given to us as the first reading at Mass today, is beautifully crafted. I like to think that much of the work we have done online over the years has also been beautifully crafted, in intention at least. It has always begun in prayer, and I hope it has led to prayer in those it has reached; but I mentioned the other day that we are changing the nature of our online engagement in ways we did not envisage even a year ago. Since 2003/4 our online outreach has been a major expression of our Benedictine hospitality, but what was novel and virtually unique in the UK eighteen years ago (coding nuns making their own web sites, doing podcasts and videos, holding online retreats and what would now be called webinars) no longer is. Moreover, our greatest hope, that other monastic communities would commit to the ‘interwebby thing’ has been realised, and the quantity and quality of material now available is wonderful, stretching right across the globe. Monasteries online have become mainstream so that it is comparatively easy for anyone who wishes to have access to the riches of the monastic tradition..

Discarded plans

Originally, we had approached our second lockdown Lent with plans to expand our own online outreach, lured by the false promise of superfast Broadband coming to our area this spring. But installation has again been pushed back to some unspecified date in the future and our plans likewise. We just don’t have the bandwidth to give effect to them.

Once the gnashing of teeth was over, we thought again. We had fallen into a trap we often warn others against. The fact that we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should do something. We decided to take stock again, reflecting on both the positive and negative sides of our experience.

On the plus side, we have gained many, many friends, who are very supportive and a real blessing to us. Less positively, we haven’t been able to keep up with everyone in the way we’d like. The year I sent out 100+ emails with Lent Book suggestions and reading plans geared to the individual recipient, I realised we couldn’t go on at such a rate. We gave up producing audio books for the blind when advances in technology made them less useful yet balanced that by releasing a new series of podcasts, including a daily broadcast of the Rule of St Benedict. However, we could not hide from ourselves other, more important changes affecting the way our work was being received.

Changes we have noticed

In recent years our ‘audience’ has grown older, often requiring more personal responses, which takes time and commitment. There is much more curiosity about aspects of our life which, if directed at an ordinary person, could be regarded as intrusive. Although that doesn’t bother me greatly, it does bother other members of the community, who have a right to their privacy; and while we love seeing the Instagram accounts of other communities (dancing nuns et al), we know that isn’t a good fit for us. A lot of emotional energy can be taken up dealing with those who want us to be nuns after a pattern of their own, while some of the provisions of Cor Orans have left us wondering what the future holds for any of us. Add to that changes in community and the ever-increasing complexity of compliance with both governmental and ecclesiastical requirements and the time to do anything can be highly pressurised. How should we make the best use of such time as we have?

Everyone is speaking, but who is listening?

What has most affected us, however, is a change in people’s reading habits. Again and again we have noticed that words are hurried over, perhaps misread, sometimes used as a pretext for correcting us or, worse still, those who engage thoughtfully with our blog posts or tweets. It is part of our react rather than reflect culture. Someone will email a question we have already answered on one of our web sites or assume we have said/failed to say something and demand we explain ourselves. That can be amusing and frustrating in equal measure, especially when it happens again and again. For Benedictines brought up on the practice of lectio divina, of slow, attentive reading, it is also mystifying. It reinforces our sense that the web has become a very noisy place during lockdown, with everyone talking and few actually listening.

If that seems harsh, please consider your own experience. Every parish, every Christian community, seems to be holding Zoom meetings, live-streaming worship, sending out bulletins and generally making use of every bell and whistle in the digital toolbox, but how often do any of us stop to ask ourselves why? Are we trying to connect those who are not connected, spread the gospel, cheer people up, or advertise our wares, as it were? I’m sure all these apply, plus the feeling that we need to be seen to be doing something when our churches are stripped of people and our guest-houses are closed, but I want to ask whether we are using our busyness online to avoid facing a deeper question. Are we doing the reverse of what we intend, creating barriers to God with all our noise, no matter how imaginative or well-intentioned?

Put like that, the answer will be a resounding ‘no’; but it is still a question we must ask. Benedict was keen on taciturnitas, restraint in speech, because he was aware that too much speaking, too much noise, can lead us away from God. I think the same is true of our use of online resources also. My general rule of thumb has been half an hour’s prayer for every half hour spent online (uploading and downloading times excepted!) but I am coming round to the view that we (I) need to give more time to prayer if our (my) words are to have any point. That doesn’t mean we will give up our online engagement or go on a ‘digital fast’ as some call it, but I do think we’ll be more selective about what we give time to. I expect I’ll still go on tapping out blog posts and tweets and being frivolous on Facebook as long as I am able, but some of the community’s more ambitious multimedia projects are being placed on hold — and I myself am definitely stepping back from what I call fruitless disputes, especially here on the blog and in social media. We are re-centring, and not just as a Lenten exercise.

I end where I began, with today’s first Mass reading. Queen Esther’s prayer was heard. May ours be, too.

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28 thoughts on “Shape Nothing, Lips; Be Lovely-Dumb”

  1. At the risk of adding to the noise, on a personal note I’ve had an electronic spring clean. Most social media apps have been deleted and I retain those where I communicate with family and close friends. I stopped attending Zoom meetings last May and contact people by phone. Its much more personal. Life seems less cluttered and there’s time to concentrate on the important stuff – and there’s even time for prayer!
    God bless you all and may He answer your prayers.

  2. Thank you for that…what oft was thought- at least by me- but ne’er so well express’d comes to mind.
    I needed this, and so I am sure do many others.
    Your work and words are a blessing.

  3. I absolutely agree and support what you say, Sr Catherine. It is very noisy and can be aggressive in twitterworld. My mother in law, often quoted by me, would say in response to the argumentative replies to your posts, „ Return a soft answer“, not always possible but for me, who tend to be a bit hot headed, a helpful guideline. You handle everything so well and honestly, that is inspirational of itself.
    Whatever you decide to do, I shall be attentive and pray for all your community.

  4. Esther’s prayer — how apt and moving.

    [Merely coincidentally, last night I was reading a section towards the end of Certeau’s La Fable mystique about how the Jesuits faced a similar question in the 1620s — of how best to balance a fast-multiplying apostolate and (if I may get away with this formulation) the Society’s inner life.]

  5. What a well thought out article with which I concur and support.

    Re BB I looked into Starlink and yesterday received an email saying it us now available. Might it also be useful to you?

    • Thank you, and snap, we were discussing Starlink this morning. It is pricey at present, but perhaps more to the point, we are wondering whether the SAS, who are almost next door to us, would block the signal at times. They’ve been said to have blocked mobile signals at times, which would account for the uncertain coverage our smartphone.

  6. I so agree about the multiplicity of material being churned out. I felt this a year ago and thought there was so much that folks would be simply confused. Suggestions about more silence fell on deaf ears. Lent seems to produced another plethora of prayers, courses, suggestions. The conflict between width and depth.

  7. Oh WELL said……especially about the plethora of Ways Of Being Church online. We need the space and the silence for God to be God in the way He wills – just as we do also need the noisier methods – thank you!

  8. I have followed your blog off and on since near the beginning and I am, admittedly, one who tends to read too many things too quickly. But in the last few years, I have come to read your blog more consistently and more slowly. Not, perhaps, to the level of lectio divina, but still enough that it has become a valuable practice for me. It occurred to me while reading this post not only that you might like to know this, but also that I have never said thank you. I pray for you and your community.

  9. I value your posts and read them slowly and they often give rise to prayer, so thank you from my heart. I do find that one has to be selective about the myriad possible online resources, otherwise one would be inundated with thoughts and have no time to pray with focus. I am down to three helpful ones, yours plus two Ignatian. I am grateful for your outreach and know how much effort it must cost. And you are in my prayers every single day. God bless.

  10. Quality not quantity is my rule of thumb for social media. I limit myself to family and likeminded friends on Facebook and now only an occasional toedip on Twitter.
    The quality and kindness of your missives, dear Sister Catherine, are unequalled. I can understand your wish to stop competing with the rest of the clerical world for attention, particularly when time is precious and one doesn’t want to use up scarce resources.
    Your contribution to spreading the good Lord’s message of peace, love and kindness is invaluable. I and many of your dedicated followers have learnt so much from you about how to live and love our neighbours.
    Whatever you decide will be fine. The world would be a poorer place without your contribution.
    God bless and care for you. Peace, love and joy be with you now and always.

    • You are always very kind, thank you. As I said, Tim, we’re putting the multimedia projects on hold, scaling down any involvement in fruitless disputes and resolutely refusing to keep repeating answers we’ve already given so that we have more time for prayer, reading and reflection. Otherwise, what we do do online will be ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’

  11. Thank you Sister Catherine. Taking stock; isn’t that what this is all about, and we all – including monasteries – need to do it from time to time, especially when we recognise that something’s jarring, fragmenting us. Anyway, that’s how I’m needing to read this for myself in the circumstances and stage of my life.

  12. Though I rarely comment I must say that I value this blog tremendously Sister Catherine, both for your own blogs but also because of the generally constructive discourse arising from the blogs (though perhaps that is the “moderation!). And that there are a wide range of users of the blog Catholic, other Christian denomination and followers of other faiths or none.

    I agree that there is so much noise on the web, it is easy to overload with multiple lent courses which all too often (at least in my case) can fall away.

    For once a business “buzz phrase” puts it well – Less is more.

    • Thank you, Simon. I’m grateful that people usually engage constructively here (if not always by email!) and have no intention of giving up blogging. However, we are ‘waiting on the Lord’ regarding other aspects and are determined not to fall into the trap of adding to the clamour just because ‘we’ve always done that.’ Bless you!

  13. Thank you for this Sister Catherine – how true, the noise is drowning out the voice of God. I was at a difficult Zoom this evening and wish I’d read your blog before hand. We need to listen and wait on God rather than all this busyness and noise. Thank you again.

  14. Dear Sister Catherine,
    As a non-Catholic you might be interested to know that yours is the only blog that I follow and it would leave something of a gap in my own spiritual journey if they were not as readily accessible. I pray that your community will be given a clear vision for your future ministry. I shall certainly be praying for you as you seek to discern God’s will.

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