The Perils of Good Advice

We all love to give others the benefit of our advice. That hard-won wisdom, that special insight, the experience we, and we alone, have gained, how wonderful to share it all with others! The trouble is, anyone whose advice is worth having will probably wait to be asked but far too many of us proffer our advice unasked. Take social media, for example. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve mentioned something, the planting of a new hedge say (species already decided upon), and received in return masses of alternative suggestions, including plans so vast and expensive that I’m left wondering whether Twitter or Facebook or whatever is inhabited solely by multi-millionaires. As nuns, I think we often come in for more than our fair share of this kind of advice, especially from those who assume we know nothing and need to be guided. There is, however, a more perilous form of good advice, and I’m sorry to say nuns can be just as guilty of giving it as anyone else: spiritual advice.

Spiritual Advice

I come from a community that has always been chary of giving spiritual advice and expressly rejects the role of spiritual director for any of its members. The reason for that is partly historical, partly a recognition that none of us has the qualities required of a spiritual director. Others do; we don’t. Occasionally, I ask myself whether some of the posts in this blog overstep the mark, but as any advice given is general, not particular, and is closely linked to scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict, I can quieten my conscience. Please note, however, that the three things I have cited — scripture, the Church’s tradition and the Rule of St Benedict — all have an objective character. We may try to put a personal interpretation on them but they are independent entities, so to say, to be respected and understood, not forced into a mould that is inherently untruthful.

Classical Monasticism

Earlier this week I wrote a short post about what I called classical monasticism. Discussion, both online and off, has been interesting. Those who live in traditional monasteries have, by and large, shared some of my concerns about attempts to call ‘monastic’ anything anyone chooses to think monastic. Others have argued that my understanding of monasticism is too narrow and given me quite a lot of advice about how we should change things here at Howton Grove. Oddly enough, these suggestions have come from those who’ve never actually been here or, as far as I know, lived in the kind of monastery I’ve lived in for almost 40 years. I have thanked them for their advice, thought and prayed about it (the Holy Spirit, after all, has a way of shaking up our ideas) and then dismissed it as being based on some serious misconceptions about what monastic life is and what it is intended to achieve in the lives of those who live it. I hope that is not arrogant of me, but what is a caution to me may be to you as well.

A Warning

Do not trust every spiritual guide. Do not take all advice as being good, especially as we draw closer to Holy Week. The devil still masquerades as an angel of light, by which I mean that what appears good on the surface may not be as good underneath. I believe that if we cling to the scriptures, the sacraments, the tradition of the Church (and I mean the Church’s tradition, not the different versions of it some have concocted for themselves), we cannot go far wrong. And that, my friends, is my good advice for you!

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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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Edward the Confessor, Wonder and Awe

Anonimo inglese o francese, dittico wilton, 1395-99 ca. 03 edoardo il confessore
Edward the Confessor from the Wilton Diptych:
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license.

In the last few days our liturgical calendar has commemorated a little group of pre-Conquest saints known mainly to historians and hagiographers: Ethelburga of Barking, Paulinus of York, Laurence, Mellitus, Wilfrid and today Edward the Confessor, the only English king to be formally recognized as a saint, and one whose claim to sanctity is probably open to question. I was brought up on Frank Barlow’s Edward the Confessor, which makes a case for Edward as an effective king, but must admit I was never wholly convinced. Still less am I convinced by the portrayal of Edward in his Vita, which is conventional and idealised:

[Edward] was a very proper figure of a man – of outstanding height, and distinguished by his milky white hair and beard, full face and rosy cheeks, thin white hands, and long translucent fingers; in all the rest of his body he was an unblemished royal person. Pleasant, but always dignified, he walked with eyes downcast, most graciously affable to one and all. If some cause aroused his temper, he seemed as terrible as a lion, but he never revealed his anger by railing.

We can find similar hagiographical tropes in the portrayal of the others I’ve mentioned, so, why bother with any of them today, especially someone like Edward? I think there are three reasons. The Communion of Saints is a reality transcending our limited notions of time and place. I ask the prayers of the saints in heaven as I ask the prayers of my fellow Christians on earth. I do not need to rank them according to some scale of holiness of my own: an alpha saint, a beta saint, and so on. The fact that someone lived long ago or far away is irrelevant. To the Lord the prayers of the saints, living and dead, are pleasing; and that is good enough for me. I don’t believe in DIY salvation and am happy to ask the help of others in approaching the throne of grace.

I’d also argue that there is something to be gained from studying the lives of those who, at first sight, inhabited a very different world from our own but who, on closer inspection, can be seen to have had to deal with many of the problems confronting us today. The growing hostility towards Christianity shown in the desecration of churches and statues, the increasing gulf between the haves and have-nots, and the obvious the vulnerability of us all in the face of disease mirror many of the experiences of pre-Conquest England. We may not have quite reached the point of plague-stricken Jarrow, with only a Ceolfrith and a Bede to sing the Divine Office, but many religious communities have lost members to COVID-19 while more secular organizations have felt the impact of lockdown restraints and loss of income, leading to closure and social disruption.

But just as we can register points of similarity, I think it is good for us to be challenged by the differences. Too many of us have a somewhat narrow conception of what constitutes orthodox belief and practice and tend to judge others according to our own lights. For instance, I forget how many times I have been told that I must pray the Rosary or I am not a good Catholic. Our pre-Conquest saints did not know the Rosary, but they were good Catholics. Not only the saints but even ordinary layfolk, if they observed even half the regulations that applied to them, put us to shame with the way they kept Lent or the vigils of feasts. They were zealous where we are apt to be lukewarm. Above all, I think they had a simpler and more direct awareness of the transcendence of God. That does not mean that they were unsophisticated or stupid — far from it — but I would argue that it does mean they saw significance and purpose where we tend to see only randomness or chance. They possessed, in a way we sometimes do not, the gifts of wonder and awe in the presence of God.

Wonder and awe are not gifts many of us actively seek, I suspect. They make us acknowledge that we are not the measure of all things; that there exists someone greater than we are before whom, like Job, we can only keep silence. And we do not like keeping silence! We much prefer to express ourselves via social media or blog posts, giving others the benefit of our opinions, but maybe if we were to cultivate greater restraint in speech, there would be more room for wonder and awe in our lives; and wouldn’t that be a good thing? We treasure our awareness of the immanence of God, and rightly so, but perhaps that has led us to downplay or fail to recognize as we should the transcendence of God.

Today I shall ask the prayers of St Edward for the people of England as we face more restrictions in the attempt to ward off COVID-19. I shall also ask his prayers for the Church throughout the world and for all who are in need. As a royal saint, he was expected to be a patron of the Church, the major philanthropic institution of his day, to be generous to the poor and kindly to the sick. Perhaps that is not a bad indicator of sanctity, and one we can emulate in our different ways. But among all my other requests, I shall include one for the gifts of wonder and awe, for becoming more alert to the transcendence of God. Will you join me?

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A Little Online Housekeeping

This is not a spiritual post (Are they ever? Ed) but a brief explanation of some intended/hoped for changes to our online presence over the next few weeks. We don’t intend to make any major changes to this blog but will continue to add audio of the text whenever feasible. Your comments are always welcome and we are delighted that (nearly) everyone is courteous and thoughtful towards others when engaging in debate. THANK YOU.

For some years we’ve maintained a ‘Daily Reading from the Rule of St Benedict’ audio section on both our large-screen and small-screen web sites (www.benedictinenuns.org.uk and www.benedictinenuns.net). However, we are now moving most of our spoken audio to the Anchor™ platform and featuring the Rule readings on our Facebook page, www.facebook.com/benedictinenuns, where you will also find daily prayer intentions, information about the Church, links to Vatican documents, etc., and our Twitterstream, @digitalnun, https://twitter.com/digitalnun. The Facebook page is being restructured to make it easier to use, but our slow internet connection has hampered some of our efforts so it is very much a work in progress. Again, feedback would be welcome.

Our two main web sites about the monastery are being rolled into one, equally easy to use on both a large or small screen. The content has been largely re-written — several times. The new site will incorporate the online retreat material we used to issue under a separate domain name, plus our first blog, Colophon, and archive material we think may still be useful. We are not sure when we are going to be able to release our new site, however. It will mainly depend on Rome, which has issued quite a lot of new legislation for contemplative nuns in the last few years, and my own health. We are also going to be adding a new domain name to our current selection which we think will enable more people to find us online if they wish.

We have no plans to add an Instagram account as we are not a very ‘visual’ community but we are always glad to be alerted to platforms which might be of use to people seeking God. We’d love to be able to re-introduce our interactive online meetings but we’ll probably have to wait for 5G and use tethering to make that possible It can’t be done on rural broadband with pathetically slow and uncertain connection speeds.

We will continue to have all our sites professionally monitored 24/7 to ensure that they are safe for you to use. Sadly, hackers and scammers are no respecters of persons or institutions. Our online donation facility at VirginMoneyGiving is unchanged for those who wish to support our work financially.

The one thing you can be sure won’t change is the community’s prayer for everyone with whom we come into contact, and our gratitude for your support and interaction.

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Putting the Social Back into Social Media

Quietnun in Digitalnun's Nest: going online
Quietnun in Digitalnun’s Nest: going online

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.

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A Word Fitly Spoken

‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25.11). St Francis de Sales, the Catholic bishop of Geneva and patron saint of writers and journalists (and nowadays, surely, of bloggers, commentators and opinion-makers also) seems to have understood that very well. His courtesy was legendary, but there was nothing complicated about it. He wished to win others to Christ and saw that ‘whoever wants to preach effectively must preach with love’. That didn’t mean that he watered down what he believed or that he endorsed views or actions he thought wrong, but he was never one to refuse to engage with those who thought or taught differently. On the contrary, he took more trouble than might have been expected to try to understand those whose opinions or beliefs differed from his. He recognized their goodwill and regarded dialogue as preferable to condemnation, convinced, as he was, that holiness was for everyone, not just ‘professional religious’ like monks and nuns.

We are almost at the end of this year’s Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity. One of the questions we are asked to consider today is how we tackle prejudice and exclusion in ourselves and in our communities. I think St Francis de Sales, with his gentleness and love for others, has something to teach us all. In the seventeenth century, D. Prudentiana Deacon, a nun of Brussels sent to help the young Benedictine community at Cambrai, obviously thought so, too, for she translated some of his work into English. At first sight, St Francis de Sales is the antithesis of of Fr Augustine Baker, then vicarius of the monastery, and a great exponent of the medieval mystical tradition. A little thought, however, will soon show how wrong that is. Those who truly seek God in prayer cannot but love all his children; and those who love the children must surely seek to deepen their love for the Father.

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Dodgy Data and Popular Pitfalls

From time to time I return to the question of what we’re doing online and why. Most recently, I mentioned the carbon footprint of our everyday online activity and suggested that we needed to make sure we were not reckless or profligate. Just because we can do something doesn’t mean we necessarily should. For a Benedictine, thinking in this way is natural. In his chapter on the cellarer (RB 34), St Benedict urges the business manager of the monastery to look on everything entrusted to his care as sacred, and to avoid both extravagance and parsimony. Reverence is another key theme of the Rule, a reverence that extends beyond the human and spiritual to the physical and material. The goods and property of the monastery are not to be treated casually or in a sloppy manner. As a result, I have often thought Benedict was an ecologist avant la lettre, one who has marvelled at the beauty of creation and desires to fulfil his duty of tending and sustaining it. In the same way, our community found its inspiration for its online activity in Benedict’s teaching on hospitality in chapter 53. That is why our first tweet of the day and our first Facebook post are always prayer (cf RB 53.4). It is why this blog exists, and why we are keen to revamp our other web sites, including that for online retreats. In the last few days, however, I have been thinking about a problem we all encounter online at some time or other: dodgy data and popular pitfalls.

As apps and web sites multiply, the internet becomes bigger and more hazardous for even the most knowlegeable and intrepid. False stories abound, and I’m not referring to the more or less harmless ‘joke’ variety. Many have died from measles as a direct consequence of the rumours spread about vaccination. Others have taken for truth erroneous claims about both individuals and organizations. Worse still, these lies have been spread by many who would be aghast to realise the part they had played in ruining another’s reputation or subjecting to unnecessary stress and anguish someone innocent of the charges being made against them. Sometimes, it is all down to ignorance and reacting too quickly rather than pausing to reflect for a moment or two.

Faced with an interesting story or piece of information, how many of us actually take the time to check facts with snopes.com before we press the send button? Even the minimum time needed for reflection tends to be curtailed because ‘everything is instant online’. So, instead of checking when something was written and by whom, we propagate a lie and make it even more difficult to correct. That is especially true of photos and videos. Everyone knows how easy it is to fake them, but how often do we do even the most elementary checks? For example, uploading a suspicious photo to the Google image search-box will reveal if/where it has appeared online and when. Notoriously, a video widely circulated with the title ‘Muslims celebrating after Paris terror attacks 2015’ turned out to be footage of Pakistanis cheering after a cricket match held in 2009. Yet, if you look, you will still find that video being trotted out as ‘evidence’ of Muslim malice. The contrary is true.

I believe that Christians have a role to play in trying to make the internet a safe and useful place to be because we are, or ought to be, people of integrity to whom truth matters. If we find that we ourselves have made a mistake, own up to it, post a correction and draw people’s attention to it. Support attempts to keep children and young people safe online. Welcome the UK Government’s Age Appropriate Design Code (due to become operational in Autumn 2021 — see yesterday’s announcement here: https://ico.org.uk/about-the-ico/news-and-events/news-and-blogs/2020/01/ico-publishes-code-of-practice-to-protect-children-s-privacy-online/). Remember that we still have people using the internet who are not well-informed about its darker side and just assume everyone is telling the truth. Above all, take time to think. Yesterday I did something foolish online. I uploaded a short post about the feast of St Agnes and the exploitation of children. I’d hoped people would read it and think about the ways in which we can, unintentionally, let young people down. I followed it up with a light-hearted tweet about the image I’d used to illustrate my post (especially the first paragraph). Twice the number of people who read the post tweeted, emailed or messaged me their views on religious art. Bro Duncan PBGV used to urge people to be more dog. All I can say is, where the internet is concerned, don’t be a silly-billy like me. Think first!

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Gracious Words

There are times when a phrase leaps out of a text and hits one between the eyes. Very early this morning I read today’s gospel (Luke 4. 14-22), the last sentence of which is ‘And all were astonished at the gracious words that came from his lips.’ It made me question how often the words that come from my own lips could be described as gracious, and whether those who hear them are astonished when they are. Food for thought there, and not only for me!

We are often told (in words) that we live in a world where the visual is more important than the verbal. Our use of smartphones and messaging apps has encouraged a truncated language of abbreviations and emojis incomprehensible to some, and I’m surely not alone in thinking the regular use of profanities as adjectives goes unnoticed by the perpetrators, so habitual has it become. But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is not much point in lamenting the passage of a past that was never quite as golden as we would like to believe. I could quote hundreds of instances of ugly, brutal misuses of language from earlier times, but it is what we do now that is important. The words we speak or write, the choices we make, have an effect on ourselves as well as others.

St Benedict devotes a whole chapter of his Rule to restraint in speech (RB 6) and often mentions the value of the good word or blessing that we pass on to others. He is concerned, too, about the way in which we shape our words in choir or as we read in the refectory, how we address one another in the cloister, and how we use words (or not) to welcome a guest. I think most readers of this blog know that it was reflecting on hospitality in the Rule of St Benedict that led the community here to develop an internet outreach at a time when it was still unfashionable among ‘churchy’ types. It is what drives our engagement with social media today, but I think we are facing a new challenge; and if we are, then you, the reader, are, too.

It is not enough to make a resolution to avoid profanity, for example, or refuse to join in when others are casting slurs on the integrity of others. That can look a little like holier-than-thou tactics to avoid drawing fire on one’s own head, though I would endorse both as being part of civilized discourse. When Jesus is described as uttering gracious words, we have to consider what made them gracious. Content, style, purpose, yes; but something more, the something John tells us about in 1 John 4: love. I wonder how often love of others prompts our words, and how often it is simply love of self, the desire to be heard? Being more self-aware without becoming self-obsessed is a difficult art but one I think we all need to master, both online and off. It may change how we perceive words and how we use them. The most gracious word ever spoken was made flesh at Christmas. That’s how important words are and what we need to ponder.

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St Stephen, Courtesy and Techie Stuff

In previous years I see I have written about St Stephen in terms of faith, forgiveness, martyrdom and zeal. If interested, you can find the links by using the search box in the right-hand sidebar. This morning, however, it is the courtesy of St Stephen that strikes me, and that chimes in with a theme I have begun to develop about our use of technology and the internet.

‘Courtesy’ literally means having manners fit for a royal court. Anyone reading the account of Stephen given in Acts 6 and 7 will note that he was ‘full of faith,’ ‘filled with grace and power,’ ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and that his dying words were ‘do not hold this sin against them.’ The account in Acts is not so much a paeon of praise for Stephen as a programme of action for us to follow. His refusal to speak angrily or disdainfully to the Sanhedrin was rooted in the transformation grace had wrought in his life. He was a man of faith because he prayed and allowed God to act in and through him. Somehow, I do not think that he would have had much truck with the concept of ‘righteous anger’. It was for God, and God alone, to decide who should be punished for wrong-doing, and Stephen himself preferred to follow Jesus in asking for forgiveness not condemnation. His manners were, so to say, fit for the royal court of heaven.

How does that link up with our use of technology and the internet? In the first place, I think it is a powerful reminder of the need for consistency. We cannot be Christians in church and howling demons on the internet. The judgements we make and the language we use should reflect the same standards. Whether we are online or off, thoughtfulness and the sort of self-control we associate with kind and considerate behaviour are essential. That means, of course, that we need to make some preparation beforehand. We need to pray, and we need to inform ourselves. Just as Stephen’s faith was rooted in prayer and reading of the scriptures, so must ours be. (I would add that, for Catholics, regular reception of the sacraments is also essential and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep our reading up, either. If we can’t manage theological texts, there is always the Catechism of the Catholic Church to check that the Church does actually teach what we think she does.) It all looks pretty basic, put like that, but we have only to glance at Twitter or Facebook or the comment section of most online media to see how ugly and brutal or even plain vulgar much of our public discourse has become.

Does this matter? I think it does, and in some later posts I hope to argue why I believe we are at a critical point in our use of technology and the internet. For years the Churches (plural) were a little suspicious of the new-fangled world of the internet and only used technology in ways that were perceived to be immediately beneficial (think CCTV, sound systems, etc). The situation now is quite different. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone is online and technology has become a substitute for genuine human interaction. That isn’t true, but the development of A.I. (artificial intelligence), the growing inequalities of the world in which we live, which include inequalities of access to the internet, for example, and, in the West, the increasing prominence of the laity in online engagement, mean that many of the old certainties are crumbling. Certainly, as regards religion, the old hierarchies are no longer as dominant as they once were. There is hope as well as danger in this, but it would be a sad mistake to stumble into a situation that effectively denies the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. No doubt most would protest that it is not so, but many of us are given to wanting the Church to be what we want her to be, rather than what she is in herself — and we are vocal, and not always very courteous, in expressing our views.

Judging by his words and actions, that was not St Stephen’s attitude. He was happy to be a member of the Church. Yes, happy! He was her devoted servant because he was the servant of Christ. He did not see individuals as abstractions. When he gazed at the faces of the Sanhedrin, he saw them as they were, not as ogres or bullies but as men who were mistaken, perhaps, but basically people as intent on dong right as he was; and like his Master, he was filled with love for them. What Acts only hints at, his regular round of service as a deacon, must have taken up most of his time and exercised all those qualities of mind and heart we see at his end. It is tempting to forget the ordinariness of Stephen’s life as a whole because of the Caravaggio-style spotlight on his martyrdom, but doing that is to see only half the man and little of the saint. One of the lessons to be learned from Stephen is his utter selflessness, his desire to be conformed to Christ, and his graciousness in the face of adversity and opposition. It is a lesson I pray we may all take to heart — especially online.

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On Being Tired of Contention

The title I’ve given this post means that very few will read it, even of my most devoted readers. It is, in a sense, the antithesis of blogging and social media, which thrive on diversity of views, to state that one has had enough of disagreements and disputes. But that is the point. I did not say that I had had enough of argument. Indeed, my choice of the word contention was deliberate: I am tired of the endless strife which does no more than repeat opinions and insults and does nothing to advance understanding or provide opportunities to reflect and weigh the worth of what is being said. Anyone who has tried to follow what has been happening in Parliament in recent weeks will probably have wondered what can be believed and what cannot. The one thing that seems to be clear is — that there is no clarity, about Brexit or anything else.

For a Benedictine, schooled in the art of the chapter discussion and what management theorists often dub ‘conflict resolution’, there is always the possibility of invoking silence, of pausing, of deliberately not speaking in order to allow someone else — hopefully, the Holy Spirit — to do the talking. I don’t think that would cut much ice with Parliamentarians or many other people; but if, like me, you are wondering where all the anger and the wordiness are taking us, perhaps there is a case for spending a few moments today just sitting before the Lord, like a dumb ox, letting him direct the conversation.

In a few days we, as a community, will be making our annual eight-day retreat. It will be a time of silence, prayer and reflection. The fruits of it may not be felt or seen for a long time to come, but I do believe it is valuable. Entering into the silence of God, stripping ourselves of the words with which we try to defend ourselves and frequently wound others, is to become a new creation, to admit our own weakness and sinfulness and, at the same time, our desire to change. It is to welcome grace into our lives; and surely, we all stand in need of that.

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