Religious Nerdism

A few years ago trying to get a church or religious institution to take the internet or social media seriously was uphill work. Many took the view that it was something the Church didn’t need to bother with or could safely leave in the hands of a few eccentrics who liked messing about with computers. There were exceptions. Early adopters of podcasting, for example, were frequently fired with evangelistic zeal. Most of us can probably also remember some rather inept YouTube videos with similar messages. It wasn’t so much the Word that drove the technology as the technology that drove the Word. To members of the mainstream Churches, it was all slightly shady. Now, religious nerdism has become respectable. The resources available online have multiplied, many of them excellent (e.g. those provided by Premier), and conferences on Christian engagement in the media are two a penny.

The question no one seems to be asking is, to what purpose? Our stated purpose, that we want to proclaim Christ online, is not always the real driver. Sometimes when I look at Twitter I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. Facebook and Pinterest tend to be light-hearted by their very nature, but just occasionally I look at a day’s religious offerings and the word ‘drivel’ comes to mind. When everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to hear what is worth listening to.

These somewhat negative thoughts may be attributable to incessant rain or dyspepsia or something, but I am working on a relaunch of our own websites and doing so has made me think again about what we are trying to achieve. Our online engagement began when we sat down as a community and prayed about how to interpret the teaching of St Benedict on hospitality. I have an inkling that it is that more receptive model that will ultimately prove the most fruitful. It is not exhortation but experience that draws people to Christ. The challenge is how to create an opportunity for that to happen online.

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5 Suggestions for Self-Censorship (Blogs)

The idea of self-censorship is alien to many. Freedom of speech is something we value, rightly so, but there are times when, as Benedict says, melius est silere quam loqui, it is better to be silent than to speak. Words are dangerous, slippery things. Once let out of the cage, they cannot be whistled back again; and while they are on the loose, they can do untold harm. When should we put a clamp over our mouths or a lock on our keyboards? Here are a few suggestions. I am sure you can add to them.

1. Never turn an argument ad hominem. Good people sometimes do bad deeds, but a personal attack is never justified unless one is in possession of all the facts (unlikely).

2. Never give way to the temptation to be patronising or dismissive: you have lost the argument if you do.

3. Never state as fact what is merely opinion. Everyone has a right to their good name. If you want to make an accusation, make sure you have evidence to back it up.

4. Never forget that acts have consequences: before you write or comment, consider what the effect on others might be, especially those who may suffer as a result.

5. Never underestimate the importance of goodwill. Encouragement achieves more than condemnation, courtesy more than rudeness — no one was ever bullied into belief.

That is not an exhaustive list, but I’m sure there will be some who will see it as a limitation on their freedom, a forcing them to be something other than they are. I myself see it as a discipline, a way of ensuring that what one writes is responsibly written. Lurking behind my suggestions is, of course, an even bigger question than how we should conduct ourselves online but, sadly, it is too big to explore in a short blog post. Can you guess what it is?

 

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Twitter and the Joy of Contradiction

There are times when I think the only reason some people use Twitter is the joy they find in contradicting others. The glee with which they seize on a statement they dislike or don’t agree with, and the aggressive way in which they set about putting the tweeter right surprises me. I have myself had to say on occasion that it was impossible to nuance an argument within the 140 character limit. Otherwise, I feared the ‘conversation’ would go on and on, rather like the Tennysonian brook. Fortunately, that doesn’t happen often, but it is worth thinking about when it does.

Why do people derive so much pleasure from attempting to prove others wrong? Why do we always want to be in the right? I suspect a moral theologian or psychiatrist might give a different answer, but doesn’t being in the right confer a kind of security on us? If we’re right, we’re right, and somehow unassailable. St Benedict never directly addressed this topic, but I think his teaching on humility, the importance he attached to confession of error or wrongdoing (note, we are not talking sacramental confession here but the regular monastic practice of confession of faults at chapter or in private to the superior), and the strict limits he imposed on fraternal correction provide some clues. He recognized that quite often we aren’t right, though we think we are; and our conduct should reflect the lack of certainty. Courtesy and mildness of manner are not signs of weakness but of the importance we attach to truth, even in small things, and the reverence we show one another as persons created in the image and likeness of God.

But what if we are definitely right, and the other person isn’t, what do we do then? I think I would say that it is not enough merely to be right; we must be right in the right way. That is trickier because we have to balance some apparently equal and opposite concerns. We must uphold the truth, but never in such a way that we fail to acknowledge the dignity of the person with whom we are speaking. Whether we’re talking about Twitter , Facebook, or wherever we engage in online argument, it is a case, once more, of bringing our online and offline persona into harmony: being the same person, acting according to the same standards.

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Nothing to Say

I haven’t blogged for the last few days because I’ve had nothing to say. That is the luxury of blogging, as distinct from preaching or teaching. When the well of inspiration runs dry, one is under no obligation to try to find an alternative source of hydration. One can just go silent (which, as someone will probably want to point out, is an anagram of ‘listen’).

Maybe it is because I am a nun, or maybe just because I am ‘built’ that way, I think the most important thing any Christian blogger can do before sitting down at the keyboard is to pray. We are so busy filling our minds with information, we sometimes forget the need to digest it all and ask the Light of God to shine on the areas we don’t understand or, worse still, think we understand but don’t. Slow prayer, slow blogging: I am a fan of both. Much better to go quiet for a little than to find one has become entrapped in one’s own noise.

The Monastery and the Internet
(The video presentation I did for the Gott im Web Conference is still available here and will be as long as the bandwidth we bought holds out: it has been viewed by more than 250 people so far.)

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The Blogger’s Vocation

I sometimes wonder why so many people (apparently) read this blog when it appears on very few blogrolls and scarcely any Catholic ones. It doesn’t provide news, although it is generous with opinion; it studiously avoids the liberal-conservative debate inside the Catholic Church as well as most politics outside; it has what one reader called an ‘austere format’ yet doesn’t pretend to any scholarship except other people’s. In short, as far as I’m concerned, why you read it is one of life’s little mysteries.

But you do read it; and that is the point. I think many people forget that blogging is, in its own small way, as much a vocation as life’s larger choices. It therefore requires similar commitments:

• to prayer, first of all (how many bloggers, even Christian bloggers, think of praying before they write and again before they publish?);
• to truth in all its ramifications (how many relationships founder because they are not essentially truthful, and isn’t there a relationship between blogger and reader that requires just as much integrity and transparency as any other kind of relationship?);
• to charity in its deepest and widest sense (love is the one thing that can never hurt our neighbour).

Blogging is a vocation filled with hope, that looks beyond itself to an end not yet attained, a transformation not yet achieved. If that seems to you verging on the grandiloquent, if not seriously deluded, I’d argue that those of us who blog have a great responsibility. We place our words in the blogosphere, but we don’t know who will read them or what effect they may have. For every person who comments, there may well be several more who don’t. We have no real means of measuring the consequences of our actions. We exist in a kind of digital limbo. I think blogging is as much an act of faith as anything else, with success being measured by the good we do, not the praise we receive or the score we achieve on Klout or Wikio. And the amazing thing is, as any blogger will tell you, those of us who do blog receive much more than we give. It is the vocational paradox in a little.

 

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Saying Things Simply

This post is a little experiment. If you look at the attached presentation, do you come away with a clear idea of what we are asking/offering? Can you suggest any improvements? Please click on the link to see the slideshow (I have failed to install a suitable player on the page — something else to work on!)

HTM Presentation

In the meantime, I am starting a campaign to say things simply. This past week-end my blood-pressure has been raised by the number of instances of gobbledegook occurring in ‘official communications’ and even private conversation. Surely, we can say what we mean simply; or is the problem that we are not too sure what we do mean?

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World Youth Day 2011 (WYD)

All this week, in Madrid, we shall see young people exploring and celebrating their Faith. Let us keep them in our prayers. For more information, see the official web site http://www.madrid11.com/en or follow the Twitterstream.

I am having another short blogcation as we have a lot going on in Veilnet and Veilpress, the commercial enterprises that keep the monastery and its charitable works ‘afloat’. Enjoy the silence!

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The Web Magisterium and Other Weighty Matters

Tonight, after first vespers of SS Peter and Paul, the pope is going to launch the long-awaited Vatican news portal, www.news.va. If the sneak preview we were treated to at the Vatican Blognic is anything to go by, it will be worth waiting for. Benedict XVI is not perhaps the most naturally web savvy of men, but under him the Vatican has made strenuous efforts to improve its online presence (in the case of the Vatican web site the verdict must be ‘could do better’, but at least it’s a start).

I was mulling over this when I found on my Twitterstream a link to Fr James Martin’s reflections on what the Church is/is not doing online. Taken together with the same author’s Ten Dos and Don’ts, and the wise words of Pete Phillips on engagement with social media, we have a helpful summary of how best to make our web presence constructive. Needless to say, Digitalnun nodded her head in agreement over most of it and wondered whether we, as a community, come anywhere near to living up to the ideal. Is there scope here for a seventy-fourth chapter of the Rule?

One particularly eye-catching phrase used by Fr Martin was ‘the web magisterium’. What a perfect way to describe a phenomenon most of us have encountered from time to time (and maybe even been guilty of ourselves on occasion): the self-appointed guardian of the Church, who knows how to castigate what is wrong with bishops, priests and religious; who has the solution to other people’s problems and believes in ‘speaking the truth in love’; who is blissfully unaware of his/her own feet of clay and regards disagreement as a form of martyrdom. I’m not sure which is scarier: the liberal or the conservative manifestation. All I can say is, I thought about it a little, and trembled!

Finally, a sad day for bloggers: Mouse is hanging up his laptop for while, to concentrate on Mrs Mouse and the Baby Mice. We shall be the poorer for his loss, but children grow up fast, so perhaps he will return to the blogging scene earlier than we realise. Hope so.

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That Vatican Blogmeet Again

I suspect that by now anyone interested in the historic Bloggers’ Meeting at the Vatican on 2 May 2011 will have found links a-plenty. In case you haven’t, you can listen to all the audio files here (about half-way down the page). The best address, in my opinion, was given by Elizabeth Scalia, (a.k.a.The Anchoress), here, and the best post-meeting reflection by Anna Arco here. If it’s photos you are after, I suggest you look here or at the video on romereports.com. The live-streaming of the event was not wholly successful because of inadequate bandwidth. (Indeed, I appeared to be in a wi-fi blackspot as I was unable to get Twitter to load during the meeting.) I couldn’t attend the alternative meeting the day after organized by Hilary White, nor can I go to the London meeting today about forming a Guild of Catholic Bloggers. However, the internet is awash with information and comment, and even a cursory look through the Twitterstream #vbm11 gives  a lively idea of what was happening as it happened.

So, what’s to say that hasn’t been said? First, I must record my personal gratitude for having been encouraged to apply to attend, my delight at having been one of the lucky 150 invited and my very great thanks for the sponsorship which made acceptance possible. It was wonderful to meet bloggers who previously were only names, although there was far too little time to talk. There was such a buzz in the aula.

Richard Rouse and others had put a lot of hard work into organizing the event at short notice. We tend to take for granted such things as simultaneous translation, but a little note of congratulation should go out to the translator who, without missing a beat, rendered Brazilian Portuguese into excellent English, even though it was not on the official ‘language menu’. Communication was truly the order of the day.

The first panel provided the most interesting talks. All were from thoughtful bloggers who reflected on such diverse topics as the nature of the blogosphere (e.g. the problem of charity and promotion of the ego) and ways of engaging people with faith (Fr Roderick Vonhogen must be one of the most media-savvy people in the Church). The second panel said some good things, although the language used tended to be more impersonal and abstract: definitely less blog-like! It was encouraging to hear about the Vatican’s plans for a new web portal and more creative use of social media; encouraging, too, to hear it stated that bloggers perform a valuable and valued service within the Church.

For me, the most remarkable thing was that the meeting took place at all. It reinforced my sense of the universalism of the Petrine ministry. However, I did come away with some questions.

I think bloggers fall into two categories: those who are in some sense professional journalists or otherwise ‘appointed’ to blog, and those who are enthusiastic amateurs (like Digitalnun). Some of the questions raised at the meeting about accreditation and copyright struck me as being of more concern to professionals than to amateurs. Those who blog in order to report news (or rumours) have a different take on things from those of us who merely share our bathtub thoughts about this and that. I don’t feel I need or want accreditation, nor any kind of policing (loyalty to the Church and to my monastic community would, I trust, prevent my straying too far into heterodoxy). I suppose I am suspicious of ‘badges’. I am not a  Catholic blogger but a blogger who is Catholic, as likely to blog about dogs as dogma. Most bloggers are responsible people who do their homework before launching forth into the blogosphere with their opinions, and I think the Vatican officials who spoke duly acknowledged that fact. But, and it is quite a big ‘but’, I did occasionally wonder whether the distinction being made between the institutional Church (as represented by the Vatican officials) and the rest of us was perhaps a little too clear-cut. We are all members of the one Body. Maybe that is what we need to emphasize.

And for the rest . . .

My two days in Rome were different from any I’d experienced before. I arrived mid-afternoon on Sunday, when the crowds who had gathered for the beatification were beginning to disperse but public transport was at a standstill. It was a long hard slog with my luggage from the Piazza Cavour, where the airport shuttle left me, to Paulo III, on the heights of the Via Aurelia; but the frequent need to stop and draw breath (Rome is not kind to people with sarcoid) made for some lovely exchanges. A beautiful Mexican stopped and chatted away and a lovely threesome from the U.S.A., grandmother, mother and baby, helped me drag my case the last couple of hundred yards.

Rome itself is not very welcoming to Benedictine nuns in full habit, especially on their own. The Swiss Guard salute rather endearingly as one passes by, but some of the locals go out of their way to be unpleasant. Is that why so many nuns and sisters look rather dour? I don’t know. Meals are another problem: cafes and restaurants are O.K. if one is with someone but can be awkward if one isn’t. If hungry, I usually opt for something from a supermarket or, if there isn’t time, from one of the street stalls. The trouble is, I can hear my grandmother saying, ‘No lady ever eats in the street’, which oughtn’t to worry me but does. Funny, that.

However, while in Rome I was able to see D. Margaret at Sta Cecilia (for the first time in at least six years); Abbot Cuthbert and Bro. Michael from Farnborough and I met in St Peter’s Square, as one does, and went off in search of coffee; and Muriel Sowden and I had a good face-to-face chat, our first since connecting on Facebook.

Really the best part of my visit came at the end, when Sr Lucy FMA bore me off to their Generalate and I was overwhelmed with kindness. It was lovely to be in a big community again, and I must say I was very impressed by their spirit. Sr Lucy could not have been more considerate. Finding that my flight out was not due until the afternoon, she arranged to take me to Subiaco for morning Mass and an unforgettable tour with Sr Mary and Sr Connie, devoid of tourists (!). It was immensely moving to kneel in St Benedict’s cave and be able to pray there for Benedictines the world over, and all our oblates and friends. Finally, I was driven to the airport.

It was a short visit but one I shall remember always with affection and gratitude. The gifts God chooses to give are always so much better than those one seeks for oneself. Thank you, Sr Lucy.

 

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Vatican Bloggers’ Conference

The Wonders of Technology

This afternoon 150 bloggers, of whom Digitalnun is one, will be meeting at the Vatican for the first ever formal meeting on Vatican territory. The programme has been published in outline and you will  find links to all the bloggers and their blogs here.

I hope you will join me for some live blogging from the Vatican Bloggers’ Conference on Monday, 2 May, beginning about 2.45 pm British Summer Time. If there is no livestream (video) but at least adequate wi-fi, as promised, Digitalnun should be able to provide some feedback from the Conference as it takes place. There may also be updates on Twitter (@Digitalnun using the #vbm11 hashtag) or on the Digitalnun Facebook page. However, there are sure to be bloggers with better resources and wittier insights who will be blogging, tweeting and Facebooking from the Conference; so it is worth doing a preliminary check to see what is available first.

Please pray for the success of the meeting, and perhaps even for Digitalnun’s ability to cope with the CoveritLive software using nothing more powerful than an iPod Touch! Just click the link to take part (you can comment, too, in real time.)

Click Here

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