Blog or Book: Which is it to Be?

Yesterday I published my 1700th blog post here on iBenedictines. There were several hundred more on its predecessor Colophon. That means a great many words have been tapped out on my keyboard and launched into the ether. What, if anything, have they achieved? I have thought aloud, irritated, amused, teased, and, somewhere along the line, I hope, have provoked others into thinking. I certainly value the contribution made by those who have commented, as I trust my readers do, too. I hope I have never been nasty or unfair to anyone, though I admit to being quite firm about what is acceptable and what isn’t in the comments section. The readership of the blog has changed over the years. Some read me no longer, or at least do not comment anymore; others persevere with every post. Now, however,  I have to make a decision. Should I finally get down to that book I have been thinking about for years, or should I go on blogging? For once, it is an either/or choice because I don’t have the energy to do both. In the past I managed to write before others got up or after they had gone to bed, but I don’t think I can do that any longer. So, assuming I live long enough, it is a straight contest: blog versus book.

Blogging has the advantage of engaging directly with its audience. Responses usually come quickly and often take the subject in different directions from the one originally intended. Notably, it is a form of writing that makes no financial demands on the reader. The monastery pays for the blog and everything associated with it, including the blogger’s dinner. The downside to blogging is that it can lead to extensive correspondence or unintended rows. I still recall with horror being accused of homophobia because I once ventured the opinion that I thought most children did best if they were able to grow up with a mother and father. I didn’t actually receive a death-threat, but it came pretty close. On the whole, however, I’d say blogging is infinitely forgettable. What is written today might as well be ‘in wind and running water writ’. It is truly ephemeral.

A book, on the other hand, is a weightier prospect altogether. It makes a pitch, not for eternity exactly, but for as long as the publisher is prepared to keep it on his or her list. There may be correspondence, positive or negative, but unless one happens to be unusually fortunate, a book can prove almost as ephemeral as a blog. There is, however, always the possibility that it may endure for while; or that someone may read it, perhaps years hence, who would never bother with a blog. And there is always the hope that there may be some small remuneration, a royalty payment or two, to reward one’s labours and put a smile on the cellarer’s face. Writing a book requires more discipline than a blog and a slightly different style. I’m not one of those who think a blog can be conversational while a book must be ‘literary’, but one cannot be quite so self-indulgent in the matter of words or the way one uses them. An allusion that today is funny or topical may be neither tomorrow. In any case, ideas change, and so do we. A book does not reflect such changes: it expresses what we thought and were at such and such a time. It fixes us for ever.

So, decisions, decisions, decisions. Watch this space.

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Insisting on Having One’s Own Way: the PDHOW

Most bloggers will have encountered Persons Determined to Have their Own Way, or PDHOW* for short. In vain do we protest that a post is not about the subject they wish to ‘discuss’. The PDHOW sees everything as grist to their mill, an opportunity not to be missed; and if, at first, they don’t succeed in making us listen (and publish their views), they will go on and on until we are worn out with the effort of trying to reason with them. Gentle reminders that certain comments may be actionable in law are brushed away. Polite attempts to moderate the language in which their comments are expressed are angrily rejected. Even pointing out that that the platform they want to use is, er, financed by the blogger is dismissed as inconsequential. It can be even worse in Social Media where the PDHOW is ever on the look-out for an opportunity to ‘kidnap’ a tweet or Facebook status for their own ends, but at least there one can mute or hide the comments if they become too numerous or aggressive, or block the user completely if they are taking up too much time and energy.

It is all very well thinking of the PDHOW as a kind of human mosquito, a minor irritant, but the fact is that, like mosquitoes, they can sometimes do serious harm. The kinds of harm I come across most often are the imputation of base motives to others and defamation of character. It makes me uneasy because I sometimes feel pressured into defending those I have doubts about myself. Truth and justice, however, demand that one should point out that an allegation has not been proved or that there can be more than one explanation for what has happened. I daren’t give examples that occur to me because I know, perfectly well, that though I give them as illustrations they will be taken by some to be arguments — and I just don’t have time today for every PDHOW who may light upon this post.

I am encouraged in my thinking by today’s section of the Rule which is about not doing one’s own will (RB 7. 19–23). Benedict is writing about humility and the ways in which we go astray, but he reminds us all that thinking we are right does not necessarily mean we are. He ends the section with a sentence from the psalms that I use for my examination of conscience: My every desire is before you (Ps 37. 10). That neatly disposes of the idea that we always act from the purest of motives and have no hidden or even semi-hidden agenda. Dare we ask every PDHOW to think about that? And just in case you are congratulating yourself that the PDHOW is always someone other, allow me to let you into a little secret. We are all PDHOW at times.

*pronounced ‘peedeeHOW’ with the emphasis on the HOW.

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What’s the Point of It All?

Almost by accident (I use Google Alerts), I found myself mentioned in a recent Church Times article about the use of Social Media, mainly by Anglican clergy and academics. Along with the Church Mouse, Digitalnun seemed to be consigned to a list of ‘old has beens’ which made me smile. It reminded me of Wired back in the early 2000s prophesying the end of blogging. What I think the article and several of a similar nature have made clear, however, is that attitudes are changing. We are more aware of the limitations and pitfalls of any kind of internet engagement, and without a coherent idea of why we are here and what we hope to achieve (if anything), it is all ‘sound and fury, signifying nothing’ — especially in Social Media.

As a community we would say we know why we engage with people via the internet but we are also conscious that what we have done in the past may no longer be relevant. For the last few years we have concentrated on blogging and Social Media interaction, mainly because our Broadband is unreliable and we are not very good at visual images and videos. I still think there is value in such interaction, but the chances of having a good discussion on Twitter or Facebook, the two platforms beloved of the older user, are probably fewer than in the past because we are all tending to react rather than reflect; and trolls rear their ugly heads in some surprising quarters.

Overhauling our websites recently (publication still a little way off because of the complications of Cor Orans), I came to the conclusion that we need to revisit some of the things that we adopted early on but then gave up. For example, we more or less ceased podcasting when D. Teresa died in 2010, but podcasting is now growing exponentially and we are thinking about resuming on a regular basis. It is definitely a favourite with the under 35s and sits well with our interest in serving the needs of the blind and visually impaired. There is a catch, however: the traffic trundling past on the A465. Can we find a quiet place to record? The ear is a delicate instrument and picks up all kinds of sounds. We do not want to inflict aural agony on the listener, so we need to think about it.

The big question, of course, is whether this activity is really doing what we hope it is doing. We have always seen it as an expression of our monastic hospitality. It begins in prayer and leads back to prayer, and we hope that en route, as it were, it brings the reader/tweeter/friend into contact with the living God, even if he/she would not necessarily think of it in those terms. There are many people who have no contact with a monastery, or whose contact is at the most superficial level. By bringing the monastery into cyberspace, we hope that we can deepen that monastic experience and make it more available to others. That is where you come in.

What we would like to ask you is what you would like to gain from our websites and interaction on Social Media. Please don’t ask for lots of photos of nuns in olde-worlde habits or the live-streaming of the Divine Office. We are a small community and there are others who can supply such ‘needs’ more easily than we can. What we are asking you to do, I suppose, is to think about why you bother to read this blog, visit our websites, or interact with us on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus or LinkedIn. You can help us plan for the future, and we would be immensely grateful.

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A New Look for an Old Blog

Readers may notice that we have changed a few things on the blog, making the desktop and mobile versions more like each other than they were hitherto. This is only the first stage of an intended ‘refresh’ of the design and layout. Our principal reason for change was the need to ensure that the underlying code on which the blog relies is as free from vulnerabilities as possible. Having suffered a major cyber attack in the past (and ever since paying a lot of money for 24/7 professional monitoring, to ensure that no one’s computer is infected with malware, etc), the introduction of GDPR and the changes that required seemed a good time to overhaul the blog as a whole. So, what are the changes, and are they permanent?

First, I don’t intend to make any further changes for at least a fortnight. That is partly to allow myself to get over the chemocosh (and help prepare our accounts for their annual audit, groan). It is also because the shock of the new often overrides judgement. Most of us need to get used to change little by little.

Second, from a reader’s point of view, the changes made so far concern the following:

  • We are using a theme created by GeneratePress and tweaking it to suit our purposes.
  • We are using Alegreya serif as a typeface. That may change again.
  • We have introduced colour into post headers (you may not see them if you use a Dlvr.it or bitly link to get to a post).
  • We have changed the layout slightly to make our comment and quotation policies clearer, and to enable people to find the RSS feed more easily.

When I am satisfied that the basic structure of the blog is working as it should and load times are acceptable, we shall be introducing a few genuinely new elements, including more graphics, including photos. I am not the world’s greatest photographer and freely admit that words and typefaces are where my own interest lies, but I will try to make iBenedictines more visually appealing to those who have more pictorial imagination than I do.

You can help, as many have already (thank you) by letting me know of any difficulties you experience using the blog, and how you feel about the design changes.

What won’t change? There are no plans to change the type of content, nor the way in which opinions are expressed. A few kites will still be flown, and I hope the Holy Spirit will be there somewhere, ut in omnibus glorificetur Deus, ‘that God may be glorified in all things.’ (RB 57.9)

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An Unprovocative Post

I usually know when a post will provoke comment; what I don’t know is when a post will provoke thought or prayer or both. If I touch upon certain subjects, I can usually predict that I’ll get a flurry of emails/messages telling me that, as a nun, I oughtn’t to have an opinion on such matters and should certainly not express it; but I also know that in more than one case the very people who disagreed with me have given the matter more thought and sometimes even come back to say that they had changed their mind or, if they had not changed their mind, at least they did not dismiss my view as automatically as they had at first. And I smile with pleasure because my aim in blogging is not to make people agree with me (although, of course, it’s nice when they do) but to encourage thought and to stretch my own thinking as much as anybody’s.

The strapline for this blog is ‘the world seen from the cloister’. It has a double meaning: it’s a looking-out from the windows of the monastery — physical, spiritual, moral, intellectual  — at the world outside, an almost limitless horizon. But it’s also an admission of the smallness of the world I inhabit, the tiny cloister hidden away in south Herefordshire that few would know about and even fewer come into contact with were it not for the internet. The lives of most of us have similar paradoxes at work in them. Our circles of work/family/church/associations are comparatively small, but we are engaged with a much bigger world we know principally through the media and through the books we read and the questions we ponder. The place of prayer in all this may not be obvious to everyone, but I think it needs to be emphasized. Most of us most of the time have to act on imperfect knowledge, on less than adequate information about possible consequences, on the proverbial ‘wing and a prayer’. Let us not be so reliant on ‘winging’ it that we forget the importance of prayer.

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They Come and They Go: Blogs

Recently I have been checking links on this blog and on our main web sites with a view to updating the material we have posted online — a huge task in itself, but necessary from time to time. I have been struck by the number of blogs that vanish into the ether, either because the writer has grown tired or bored or moved onto other media. The ephemerality of the blog is something I ponder often. Is it worth devoting time and thought to so transient a form of writing? I have tended to answer my own question in the affirmative on the grounds that a blog can be linked to current events and allow for discussion in a way that no other medium currently does. The reader can read if and when he wants; he can comment if and when he wants; errors of fact or interpretation can be corrected quickly and efficiently; and unless the blog is behind a paywall, all this can be done at the writer’s expense*. The downside is that the writer is under an obligation to make every word count. There is no room for padding in a blog, or for a discursive approach to a subject — not because the reader’s attention span is short (though it may be) but because the modesty of the blogger’s enterprise means that he or she cannot claim too much of anyone’s time. I look back on some of the blogs I or readers have linked to in iBenedictines with gratitude and sometimes regret. It is many years since Wired predicted the death of the blog. I wonder whether those of us who still practise the craft are the Luddites of the digital world or whether we’ll see a renascence in due season. I rather hope we may.

*or, in my case, that of the community, who pay for the hosting and Broadband service, etc.

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1500 Posts and Counting

For my 1500th blog post on iBenedictines, I thought I’d do something a little different and write about my readers. After all, what is the point of writing if no one reads? I don’t mean that the posts that attract the most attention are the most worthwhile — there are a number on here and on its predecessor Colophon that have been read by comparatively few — rather that unless a blog makes an effort to engage with people it really is no more than private journaling, which, as we all know, can be a trifle self-indulgent. It is the readers who make the effort of blogging worthwhile, who help determine the shape the blog takes and who ultimately spur one on to continue even when energy flags and inspiration seems sadly to seek. Sometimes it is not the most carefully crafted post that speaks to others but the apparently banal. And that is good to remember, because I blog as a Catholic and know that anything anyone finds of value here is the work of the Holy Spirit — and the Spirit is often more obvious in the comments than in the posts themselves.

So, who are my readers and why do I care about them? They come from all walks of life and from various faith traditions (or none). For years I had a charming Buddhist monk who rarely commented on the blog itself, and then only under a pseudonym, but who sent me thoughtful emails that I really had to think about before I dared reply. He has now withdrawn into deeper solitude and given up the use of the internet. I miss him. Then there are the F.C.s, the frequent commenters, a lovely bunch who sometimes write comments twice as long as the original post but who dare to share much of their own experience with a humility and frankness I find both touching and inspiring. There are the B.B.s, the belligerent battleaxes, who occasionally swoop down and deal what they hope is a knock-out blow but who often find themselves wrong-footed by one of the F.C.s. I like to think that this blog provides a safe space where people can say what they like provided they observe the two guiding principles: no personal attacks and no profanity or blasphemous language. The B.B.s thwart these principles at their peril, for I am not above using the moderator’s power to edit out a nasty gibe or refuse to permit a comment that is libellous.

I admit to great fondness for the S.L.s, the silent lurkers, who, from time to time, will shyly emerge from their hidden places in cyberspace and add a comment or share a reflection that is nothing less than pure gold. If only they realised how much they give to others, especially me! I am also very fond of the O.Q.s, the open questioners, who ask for explanations and ways of probing deeper into the subject on hand. Often they inspire further reflection or even radical rethinking of a position previously held. Bless them for it! Then there are the C.E.s, the constant encouragers, without whom no blogger would persist very long. They include a surprising number of agnostics and atheists who regard questions of faith as valid matter for discussion and argument and do so with a courtesy and a thoroughness that puts us all in their debt.

Finally, of course, there are the D.L.s, the dog-lovers, who read Bro Duncan PBGV’s posts while he was here on earth and now follow his and Bro Dyfrig BFdeB’s correspondence now that he is Beyond. Where would we be without you?

For all my readers, I am grateful. Please go on being as interesting, thoughtful, challenging and sometimes infuriating as you have been. Then I can continue to blog.

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Conservatives, Liberals and Populists

To an Englishwoman of my generation and background, the use of ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ as a term of abuse or condemnation is incomprehensible. They are descriptive terms only, and although one may sympathize with one or the other according to context, the idea of their representing an individual’s moral standing is questionable. As far as I can see, there is probably more sin in spewing contempt and hatred over someone who holds different opinions from oneself than there is in holding those opinions. I say ‘probably’ because, of course, the argument must be nuanced.

To give an example to make that last point clearer. If someone argues that women have a right to abortion, I part company with them because I do not believe we have the right to destroy life in the womb. I believe it is wrong, very wrong, and during the years when I was active in the Life movement, I did what I could not only to provide practical alternatives but also to try to help others see why abortion is wrong. What I did not do was hurl anger and abuse at those who argued for abortion, still less did I talk about women who had abortions in terms of  wickedness and sin. In other words, I made a pragmatic judgement — abortion is wrong and to be condemned — but did not equate that with a moral judgement of the person  — you are to be condemned because you support abortion.

So, on the question of abortion, I am to be labelled a conservative; on other matters, such as  the desirability of some form of state-sponsored  healthcare and social welfare, I daresay I am to be labelled a liberal. In different degrees, and with different mixes, that is true of most people. We hold a wide range of opinions, some of which may appear to others inconsistent but which to us make sense and are part of our outlook on life. A problem comes when this cheerful mix is overlaid with dark notions of populism and democracy run riot, and it becomes neither acceptable nor even possible to hold opinions different from the mainstream. That is the point at which genuine freedom is lost; but before then it dies a thousand deaths as it becomes more and more circumscribed by those who argue loudly for the current fashionable orthodoxy. To take one example, it seems to be slightly easier in the U.K. to wear a hijab in the workplace than it is a cross, yet both are, for their wearers, a sign of their religious adherence. We can see an erosion of freedom in the name of, well, what exactly? A vague, well-meaning attempt to secularise the workplace has become something quite different, a form of petty discrimination.

A couple of BBC Newsnight presentations on Plato’s Republic as an explanation of the rise of Donald Trump as President of the U.S.A. have been going the rounds and provoked some interesting reactions (you can see the second here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cnzo9qXLFUo). Their reading of the text is selective, but to anyone familar with it, the trajectory traced is perfectly legitimate. There is an inherent tendency in democracy to become more and more liberal and for freedoms to multiply, so that, in the end, we all do as we please and all differences or inequalities are done away with. However, as that does not lead to happiness, we look for a saviour, drawn from the elite but who makes great play of being hostile to it and in favour of ‘the little man’, who solves our problems for us by gradually taking away the very freedoms that led us to desire a saviour in the first place. This is populism in action: the kidnapping of democracy by democratic means. As an explanation of the rise of tyranny, it is seductive; and to anyone who has read the nightmare vision of society in Plato’s mature work, The Laws, the vision of The Republic is, at least in its earlier account of democracy, infinitely preferable. But it makes several assumptions many of us would question. For example, self-interest isn’t the only value we admit. Pace Mr Trump, most of us see ourselves as part of a bigger world than that defined by the nation state. We have global responsibilities, whether we like it or not, although we may disagree on what those responsibilities are.

Where does all this leave the Christian when confronted with the moral and political upheavals of our time? I am not sure. What I do think is clear is that the need to live with integrity was never plainer or more important. Just as I don’t think we should join in the abuse-hurling that has begun to characterise every level of political debate, so I don’t think we should opt out of all the difficulties that living in a democratic society implies. We have a duty to engage, but how we do so is as important as that we do so. Today’s gospel, Mark 3.22-30, has much to say on the destructiveness of division and blaspheming against the Holy Spirit. It makes uncomfortable reading. I am reminded that tomorrow we celebrate the feast of St Francis de Sales, bishop of Geneva at a critical time, of whom one of the Calvinists against whom he argued said that, if ever they were to honour a saint, it would be he. He is the patron saint of writers and debaters. We are all now writers and debaters on blogs and Social Media. Prehaps if we spent less time shouting at one another and more time, like St Francis de Sales, thinking and praying, we might see more clearly what we have to do. In the end, labels are a minor matter; it is what we are that counts.

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What Makes A Blog ‘Catholic’?

Scrolling through a well-known blogger’s ‘Catholic blogroll’ recently, I found myself wondering how one would define a ‘Catholic’ blog. Is it enough that a blog should be written by Catholics or from a Catholic perspective (theological, ethical, historical, liturgical, etc.) or is something more required? I suspect it depends whom one asks, but anyone who blogs as a Catholic surely needs to have some idea what he/she means by it — and so do their readers.

In days of yore we had the ‘Imprimatur’ to signify that what was printed was free from doctrinal error, but there is nothing like that nowadays for the blogosphere where authority is conferred by the number of ‘likes’ and ‘shares’ rather than anything more substantive. There are some popular blogs that seem to me to be a bit shaky theologically and very shaky where charity  is concerned, but they appeal to their readers and play a useful role in making people think. Whether they ought to be called ‘Catholic’ is, however, another question.

When Catholicism is limited to one particular interpretation, be it conservative or liberal, and everyone else is accused of heresy, I become uncomfortable. We cannot have a church within a church, so to say; and the idea of the ‘gathered remnant’ which alone is faithful comes perilously close to pure Protestantism. With the loss of the largeness of view that typically characterises Catholicism, I think we lose something very precious, something that actually defines us as Catholics. What do you think?

Note
‘Catholic’ in the above context refers to members of the Church to which I belong, commonly known in the UK as the Roman Catholic Church although it also includes 28 Eastern Catholic Churches.
In the interests of transparency, I ought to add that iBenedictines didn’t make it on to my blogging friend’s Catholic blogroll. Not Catholic enough, I suppose . . .

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Advance Notice of Changes to Come

I ought to be blogging about St Jerome, for whom I have a soft spot. Saints who struggle with their anger and sarcasm appeal to me because, without being at all saintly myself, I can identify with their struggle — especially when someone touches a nerve online and the temptation to be withering in reply is very strong! But I have written quite a lot about him in the past (if interested, please do a search for St Jerome in the sidebar search-box), so today I just want to give you advance notice of changes scheduled to take place during the next fortnight. If he were on earth today, I’m sure St Jerome would be deeply into MySQL databases and the like, don’t you? I’m therefore invoking him as patron of our transitions.

At some point during the next two weeks all our web sites, including this blog, will be offline for about twenty-four hours. We are changing from U.S. to U.K. based servers. The intensity of the cyber-attacks we have sustained in the last few months, plus the plunging value of the pound relative to the dollar, make the change inevitable. In fact, we only kept our sites with a U.S. host because we thought, mistakenly, that doing so would cut down the amount of time we had to give to their maintenance, thus leaving us free to devote our major efforts to the sites we host for others on our own servers. We will still be using the hosting services of another company rather than our own, in the hope that most daily problems will be taken care of automatically, but at least we shall not have to deal with time differences when things go wrong. As we care about the security of the users of our web sites, we shall continue to implement several layers of extra security, including monitoring by one of the leading companies in the field.

Once all the sites are safely transferred, I hope to be able to begin uploading the redesigned sites, starting with this one. There will be teething-problems, you can be sure of that; but we will work through them, one by one. Please note that one effect of these changes will be that our emails, including the prayerline, will be temporarily suspended. However, we have set up a temporary catch-all at holytrinitydotmonasteryatgmaildotcom (please replace the words with the requisite symbols) and our personal gmail addresses will still be operative.

May I ask your prayers for all this? I’m suffering  from ‘chemmie brain’ so it is a daunting prospect in some ways, although long overdue. It would be very kind if, when the inevitable ‘what’s happened?’ questions start piling up on Facebook and Twitter, those of you in the know would spread the word. Thank you in anticipation.

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