An Irritable Post by an Irritable Nun

The hot weather is getting to me. I have laid aside, for the time being, a long and carefully argued post about RB 31 and the role of the cellarer and decided instead to have a little fun with some of my King Charles’ heads. In no particular order, therefore:

The Vatican Bank
Well, perhaps we now know why Pope Francis wasn’t at that concert! There has been more than a whiff of sulphur around the Institute of Religious Works (IOR), as the Bank is known, for many years. We must continue to hope for a thoroughgoing investigation and reform. However, those inclined to gloat should remember (a) that British banks are not exactly models of propriety, alas, and (b) ask themselves which other banks donated $70 million to charity in 2012. For reasons that are probably only too clear to you, if not to me, I have not yet received the call to go and sort them out. I shall therefore join the thousands of others acting as armchair experts and bore you in due course with my theories and opinions on what should be done.

Abuse Scandals
A major U.N. child rights protection body has asked the Vatican to disclose all it knows about abuse cases involving Catholic clergy (see BBC report here). Readers of this blog will know that I have absolutely no problem with that — the more transparency the better — though I must admit I am not overly impressed by U.N. officials’ own standards of behaviour in many spheres, but that is by the by. I am distinctly  unimpressed by the BBC’s analysis piece by John McManus on the same page, however, where he refers to abuse by ‘Catholic priests, nuns and brothers’ (note the omission of monks). As a cloistered nun, I’d be genuinely interested to know how many, if any, cases of abuse by nuns (as distinct from religious sisters) have been recorded. We are obliged to pay an annual Safeguarding fee to the Catholic Trust for England and Wales, but as we don’t have contact with children or vulnerable adults, I would imagine our risk assessment is fairly low. Which is why I object to the good name of nuns being treated so cavalierly by the BBC. If the BBC doesn’t know the difference between nuns and sisters, this little post may help them. The lazy, hazy days of summer are no excuse for lazy, hazy writing, are they?

Ecumenical Good Manners
Readers know that I don’t usually comment on the affairs of other Churches and never allow false statements about them to pass, even in jest. I think that’s quite important. I am a Catholic by conviction and am ready to give an account of what I believe and why. That doesn’t stop me valuing my friends in other traditions or respecting their points of view, even if I disagree with them. Respect is not the same thing as agreement, though some assume it is. It has much more to do with a readiness to hear the other out, weigh his or her words and respond kindly and gently, though with complete honesty. Nothing is to be gained by trading jibes, still less by perpetuating exploded myths about ‘what they believe’. Genuine dialogue, based on careful reading and prayer and leavened with a little humility, is another matter. In this age of the internet, where everyone has an opinion and opinions can be spread across the globe in a matter of minutes, I think we all have a duty to think before we blog, tweet or FB on religious questions. Our point-scoring can bring Christianity into disrepute, which is a very negative kind of achievement, isn’t it? Ultimately, it isn’t just a matter of ecumenical good manners but of truth itself. So, if you ever catch me falling below the standards I set myself, please alert me — but gently, if you can.

I think that’s enough ‘heads’ for one day. I have beans to pod. Very Desert Father-ish.

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Manners Online

Colm O’Regan is slightly irritated by the rash of chumminess which has infected online communications, especially the false intimacy characteristic of websites such as Facebook with its intrusive, ‘How are you feeling, Colm?’ (see http://bbc.in/WqYd5Q). I must confess that, by and large, it doesn’t bother me. Time was when I daresay we all had but a single name and were just Thomasina, Ricarda or Harriet to fellow members of our tribe and grunted and pointed our way through life, without adverting to any of the finer feelings. That, to me, sums up the process of shopping online; so those cheery emails which inform me that ‘Catherine! Your payment was successful!’ leave me quite happy; it’s those that say ‘Ooops! there was a problem with your card!’ that annoy.

There is, however, a whole area of life online where I think manners matter very much indeed: blogs and social media. We reveal a great deal about ourselves by the way in which we interact online. Yes, of course, we all have ‘off’ days or sometimes say things we regret or with a clumsiness we subsequently deplore and are chastened to think that those remarks are there for ever and ever. It is a challenge we have to work at: how to be ourselves, but in a genuinely social way.

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I defy you to find a single line where Jane Austen ever approves of arrogance or the wit that achieves its effect by wounding others. Today is also the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. It is said of him that, although he was often abstracted and did  not welcome interruptions, he was a true intellectual aristocrat and always answered others with politeness. St Benedict often referred to the need for courtesy in the monastery, seeing it as the outward manifestation of the humility and reverence at the heart. Centuries after Benedict and Aquinas, Chesterton defined courtesy as ‘the wedding of humility with dignity’ and declared that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’.

I think there is something there for us all to think about, don’t you?

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Religion and the Internet

This coming Sunday, BBC Radio 4’s ‘Sunday’ programme will be devoted to the subject of religion and the internet. Bishop Alan Wilson, Vicky Beeching and I will be grilled by presenter William Crawley on a number of topics. The programme outline has already sent my head into a spin, it is so searching and extensive, but I’m wondering whether we shall address one topic that has surfaced twice in the past few days: sacrilege. It’s an old-fashioned word, expressing an old-fashioned concept, clearly meaningless to many in the west, yet to many in the east far from meaningless. It is, in fact, a driver of action: something that calls for immediate and severe response.

My last post was on the act that led to the Pussy Riot trial in Russia. Note the words: the act that led to. The trial itself led to an explosion of comment in the media. Twitter and Facebook were awash with opinion, much of it condemning the sentence on the grounds that the band’s protest was aimed at President Putin. Yesterday the BBC published a report that a Pakistani girl had been charged under the country’s blasphemy laws for desecrating the Koran. There was some comment in the media, especially when it emerged that the girl was allegedly only 11 and suffering from Down’s syndrome, but nothing to equal the response to the Pussy Riot trial. My Twitterstream was virtually silent on the subject.

Someone carrying pages of the Koran in a bin bag or burning them is committing an act of desecration according to Pakistani law, and although I assume that most of us are outraged at the thought of a child being arrested for such an offence, we mainly seem to accept that that is ‘how it is’ in Pakistan. Judging by our response on the internet and in social media, it is much less troubling than the trial of a Russian punk band. There may be many factors at work here, not least the uncertain nature of the information coming from Pakistan (though I have to say, Twitter never seems to be too much concerned whether a rumour is true or not), but it has reminded me of something it is easy to forget: there is a morality involved in our use of the internet and social media.

The internet is a powerful shaper of opinion. In the past, blogging was a prime way of disseminating opinion and allowed a writer to nuance statements in a thoughtful way and invite similarly thoughtful responses on difficult and complex subjects. Today, I think microblogging is more important. We seem to like short, snappy answers to short, snappy questions — and that is where the danger lies. Not every subject is susceptible of brief treatment. Twitter, in particular, enables an opinion to gain momentum very quickly, but it is rarely possible to advance a detailed argument. It’s for soundbites rather than syllogisms, perfect for jokes and links. When we address serious topics, however, we have to think how we are to tweet responsibly. It is easy to tweet and retweet without thinking. Even silence, our not tweeting, can be significant. Think before you tweet? A good idea. Even better, if it is a good work you are about, pray. Odd though it may seem to some, I think of the internet as a sacred space where what we do and the way in which we do it matters. There is a closer relationship between religion and the internet than may at first appear.

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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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