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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Clarity

Having written about brain fog yesterday, it seems only fair to write about clarity today. What do we mean by it? Most people, I think, would reply that we mean the quality of being clear, intelligible, sharply defined. Some of us, however, particularly those accustomed to singing the Divine Office in Latin, might want to overlay such a definition of clarity with something others might find unexpected. The word clarus in Latin is associated with glory, more specifically the divine glory (cf the antiphons for Vespers on Holy Saturday). That takes clarity into another dimension. Just as I argued yesterday that the danger of the many varieties of brain fog is that we use them as an excuse for not making the effort to distinguish between true and false, right action and wrong, so I would argue today that striving for clarity infuses a very ordinary, everday activity with touches of divine glory.

I always pray before I write, and one of the things for which I ask in prayer is that what I write may be clear and truthful. That it should be truthful is, I hope, self-evidently necessary; but clarity isn’t always so easy to achieve and many might argue that it can appear ‘simplistic’ and  ‘unprofessional’. (I am thinking here of the turgid prose that too often masks the thought of the academic or expert while proclaiming to the rest of the world that he/she is one who knows — and is keeping the secret close.) In an age where speed-reading and headline-skimming are more and more the norm, I am conscious of how easy it is not to make one’s meaning plain; and even if one does make one’s meaning plain to one’s own satisfaction, there will always be someone who uses words and concepts differently and therefore understands differently. But that doesn’t invalidate the quest for clarity, or lessen its importance.

To be clear, to reflect something of the divine glory, to allow that glory to permeate, infsofar as one can, both thought and speech is not a trvial matter. It is the work of a lifetime — and it is work.

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Ego Networks

People sometimes refer to Social Media as ‘ego networks’, and the way some people use them (not you or me, obviously) that is devastatingly accurate. But the phrase set me wondering, and as it is Saturday morning, a little light-heartedness is in order. What other ‘ego networks’ do we belong to? I take the phrase to mean groups or associations that flatter us, make us feel good, or enable us to advance some cherished aim or plan of ours. In my youth, a lot of people seemed to play golf who didn’t like the game very much but who valued the ‘opportunities’ playing provided. Then there were the week-end sailors who didn’t like the sea very much but who appreciated the ‘interaction’ at the yacht club. Even today we have parents who suddenly discover a religious bent when attendance at church is a pre-requisite for their child’s enrolment at a faith school. But what about you and me, decent, upright citizens that we are, what do we belong to for reasons of self-interest? I have examined my conscience on the matter and drawn a blank. Could that be the ultimate self-deception? Is blogging just another ego network? Over to you. 🙂

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Preparing for the Unknown

I begin a course of chemotherapy tomorrow so will probably be blogging only intermittently, if at all. It is fitting that I should start this new phase of my life on the feast of the Presentation of Our Lady, the Dies Memorabilis of the English Benedictine Congregation, and my own Clothing anniversary. However much we try to prepare for certain eventualities or to predict outcomes, we have to live with the unpredictable, with scenarios for which we are most definitely not prepared — as Our Lady did with such spectacular consequences for us all. I think that is what it means to live by grace. It is certainly what is meant by monastic profession, when we place our whole lives not only in the hands of God (the easy bit) but also in the hands of fallible human beings (the difficult bit) and learn to walk, as St Benedict says, by another’s judgement and decisions.

So, you get a little rest from my words, at least for now. The prayer, however, goes on and on.

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Waging War with Civilians and Other Horrors

It can be very hard to understand why anyone should wish to use bullets, bombs, kidnapping, torture and other horrors to achieve their aims, yet that is precisely what is happening in many parts of the world. Hamas wants to destroy Israel so rains down rocket-fire; Israel wants to destroy Gaza so rains down air-strikes and ground offensives; ISIS wants to eliminate anyone who thinks or believes differently so uses bully-boy tactics on Christians and other religious groups; Boko Haram has its own vision, if one can call it that, for Nigeria and has no scruples about using kidnap and terror against the civilian population. In every case, it is civilians who suffer most; and as far as I can see, the shocking truth is that civilian suffering is what is intended. If enough civilians die, there will be a shift in thinking; existing power-structures will crumble; victory will have been won.

It would naive to believe that waging war with civilians is a novelty. Sadly, it has always been so; but today’s weaponry makes it easier and deadlier than ever. That raises all kinds of moral questions about Just War theory, individual/collective responsibility, the role of Superpowers and so on. I’m not sure what bloggers and others have to contribute to the debate, but perhaps thinking in terms of ‘debate’ itself contributes to the problem. We are not talking about something abstract and ultimately harmless but about human lives. Perhaps we all need to take a deep breath and remember that what is done, or not done, today affects not only the present generation but generations to come. Wars are rarely born of sudden misunderstandings or power-grabs. They tend to come from long-simmering feuds and resentments, from the memory of hurts, real or imagined, that we all carry within us. Perhaps there is something there for us all to think about today.

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A Medical Interlude

As some of you already know, today I begin six weeks’ radiotherapy in Oxford. That will inevitably put a huge practical strain on the community. This blog will continue to appear from time to time (I hope) but there will be delays in answering emails and enquiries. For the time being, we shall continue to hold all comments for moderation or perhaps simply turn the comments box off. That is not because we don’t want to know what you think (we do!) but a few people have been trying to spoil things for others and we don’t want this blog to be marred by hateful or spiteful comments. Please keep us in your prayers, as we do you.

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