The Friday after Ash Wednesday generally sees the first little wobble in our Lenten discipline. The fast begins to bite; our ambitious plans for holy self-improvement are less attractive than they looked a week ago; and the nay-sayers who think we are motivated by a mixture of fear and sanctimonious priggishness are starting to get under our skin. Then the Church’s Mass readings deliver the coup de grace. Isaiah 58. 1–9 and Matthew 9. 14–15 are both about fasting, and leave us absolutely no wriggle-room. Giving up wine or chocolate or some other luxury isn’t the point at all. Our first duty is to fast from sin. There should also be restraint in our use of food and drink, because we need to feel in our flesh the commitment to conversion that we make through prayer. As always, however, the third element in our Lenten discipline, almsgiving, needs to be part of our fast. Giving up food and drink and giving generously to others are intimately connected.
So, what if you have decided to give up something other than food and drink, social media, say? That may be a very good thing for you to do if you find that you are becoming addicted, but it may also have an impact on others you do not intend. For example, yesterday I saw that one of my Facebook friends who, for various reasons to do with health, etc, relies on social media for many of her social interactions was sad that several online friends were going offline for the duration of Lent. For the person concerned, that means six weeks without the interaction and support online friendship can bring. It isn’t straightforward, is it? Perhaps that is why so many of us opt for the obvious.
Perhaps we could let Robert Herrick examine our conscience on the matter and maybe even re-consider some of the choices we have made.
IS this a fast, to keep The larder lean? And clean From fat of veals and sheep?
Is it to quit the dish Of flesh, yet still To fill The platter high with fish?
Is it to fast an hour, Or ragg’d to go, Or show A downcast look and sour?
No ; ‘tis a fast to dole Thy sheaf of wheat, And meat, Unto the hungry soul.
It is to fast from strife, From old debate And hate; To circumcise thy life.
To show a heart grief-rent; To starve thy sin, Not bin; And that’s to keep thy Lent.
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.
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!
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.
The stabbing of five people at an orthodox Jewish rabbi’s home in New York state during Hanukkah celebrations on Saturday added one more dreadful statistic to the wave of hate crimes associated with the resurgence of antiSemitism in the West. Then came news of a gun attack in a Texas church during service-time on Sunday. No doubt we shall be told in due course who the attackers were and what their motivation was thought to be. We in the U.K. will probably allow ourselves to wonder whether the frequency of mass shootings in the U.S.A. (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-50936575) has created a culture of indifference towards such violence, but we have nothing to be proud of when we consider the rise in knife crime in our own city streets. The fact is that the expression of hatred is becoming harder and harder to contain or neutralise. The kind of anger and abuse we find in social media easily translates into violent action, only we tend not to see or want to acknowledge the way in which it can affect both ourselves and others. There are no boundaries, it seems — except for some fashionable hate crimes which seem to draw a disproportionate amount of attention because endorsed by the celebrities of our day.
I was struck by the response of Mayor de Blasio to what happened in Monsey: he promised more security in Jewish areas, by which I presume he means more armed guards, and a programme of education in schools. As Rabbi Sacks sadly remarked, in a tweet published yesterday,
Antisemitism has returned within living memory of the Holocaust, and after more than half a century of programs of legislation, and education designed to ensure that it could never happen again.
Legislation and education don’t appear to have changed things, and while there are those who will say it was because a churchgoer had a gun on him that the attack in Texas was no worse than it was, some of us still find the thought of taking weapons into a place of worship highly questionable. Two thousand years since the birth of the Prince of Peace and we still have not learned that violence too often begets violence!
As 2019 races towards its close, we are faced with an ever starker choice. Do we want to be people of violence or of peace? Are we going to pass the poison on, or are we going to say, ‘No. I refuse to be part of that violence’? If our answer is ‘no’ we must be prepared for huge sacrifices. It will mean being extremely careful about how we speak or act, not in the sense of being cowardly but in the sense of being mindful how our words and deeds increase or decrease the stock of tension in the world. It may be ‘fun’ to denigrate others with our witty put-downs; it may be a relief to our feelings to disparage those with whom we disagree; it may even be a source of inner congratulation to have pointed out the wrongness of a policy or an individual’s behaviour, but we do need to think about possible consequences. It is no good lighting a touch-paper and then lamenting the fact that the building burned down. The only real antidote to hate-crimes comes from those who are not prepared to hate. Which will we choose?
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.
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.
It is a difficult line to tread, between sharing one’s enthusiasm and parading one’s knowledge. A few months ago I was taken to task for expressing delight in some of the work being done by South American type designers. I made no comment on the suitability of the typefaces for any particular use but found myself drawn into an increasingly grumpy exchange on Twitter where my interlocutor was concerned principally with the accessibility of typefaces, especially online, if I remember correctly. At the end of the exchange, I felt as though I had been lectured well and truly and the person I’d been conversing with declared himself angry and went off for a walk to cool down. It was an example of the way in which sharing an enthusiasm can go horribly wrong if one does not take into account the possibility of its being misunderstood. I regret the misunderstanding and would love to put it right, but once one has got at cross purposes it can be very hard to put things straight. One just has to trust to God that He will deal with it and try to avoid making the same mistake in future. I have not made any comment on typefaces or printing since because I don’t want to upset people.
A similar thing can happen on other Social Media. One makes a small point or comment and someone decides to demonstrate that they know much more than one does oneself, or they expand one’s original comment as though one were completely unaware of any other aspect of the case or had intentionally left something out. My usual response is either to say ‘thank you’ or, if I have some doubts about what is said, to ignore the remark. Unfortunately, I do not always follow my own advice, and I am sure I have caused hurt and misunderstanding at times both by my own comments and by my response to other people’s comments. What can one do in such a situation?
I think there are only two possible responses: a simple ‘sorry’, without, please note, going over the rights and wrongs of the case again. That rarely leads to better understanding. ‘Falling out of faithful friends/Renewing is of love’ perhaps, but one has to be good friends to start with. In any case, I am not suggesting that one should avoid expressing one’s opinions or sharing one’s enthusiasms. I think it is the way we do so that needs a little thought. The second response is more humbling but ultimately a way of gaining deeper insight: to ask oneself why one made the comment in the first place. Was one really sharing an enthusiasm or bolstering one’s own ego by parading one’s knowledge? My own conscience is far from clear on that question. How about you?
I am sometimes tempted to think that the reputation of today’s saint, St Peter Chrysologus (‘Golden-Tongued’), is helped by the fact that much of his writing has been lost. We have only a few of his sermons, none of which demonstrates his fabled eloquence — or at least not to me, who once had to translate a few of them.
I was thinking about this as I did my usual swift survey of social media and came up against something I have noticed many times before but never thought of mentioning on this blog: the carelessness with which we write and, in particular, the way in which it is thought acceptable to denigrate women and girls. Kind and educated people seem to think it unobjectionable to use swear words as adjectives and regularly refer to women and girls whose views they disagree with as bitches or worse. Why is that? Have we really all undergone a collective impoverishment of vocabulary, or has aggression become our normal response to anything or anyone we dislike, especially, but certainly not exclusively, if female?*
Some of us smiled at Jacob Rees-Mogg’s style guide, with its masculine focus, its determined refusal to acknowledge that language changes over time, and its misunderstanding of some punctuation practices; but no-one, I think, would ever accuse him of being deliberately rude. I find it hard to imagine him referring to an opponent as a bitch, for example, or using a derogatory term about those of a different ethnicity; and that, I think, matters.
The language we use says a great deal about us as individuals but it also affects those who hear us. If we have got into the habit of using profanities or referring to other people with the language of the farmyard, we have done more than merely coarsened our speech. We have coarsened our thought, too. In a world where violence is becoming more and more widespread, we cannot shrug off responsibility for the effect our own words and attitudes have on others. St Benedict was acutely aware of this and again and again urges restraint, thoughtfulness, and consideration for others. I think he was on to something.
*I’ve singled this out because I’m probably more aware of it, being a woman myself, and because there is no male equivalent. Calling someone a dog or a cur doesn’t have the same derogatory overtones.
During the hot weather I have done my best to be circumspect. Unlike Bro Dyfrig BFdeB, I haven’t been able to take myself off to a cool corner and ‘aestivate’, but I have tried to avoid obvious conflict zones like Twitter or Facebook. In this I have been enormously helped by some hackers who decided to try to bring down this site. Two lost days when my attention had to be focused on making sure that nothing had slipped through the net (all our sites are professionally monitored 24/7 to make sure they are safe for you to use, but accidents do happen); two lost days when I was unable to get done any of the things I had hoped to do — a minor irritation, if ever there was one!
What do we do about these minor irritations? If some of those who comment on social media are to be believed, we should adopt an attitude of perfect acceptance, allowing nothing to ruffle the surface of our thoughts and feelings. I call that the Teflon Response and am very glad it isn’t a particularly Christian or Benedictine response. Benedict, you may recall, allowed for ‘justifiable grumbling’ in certain cases, and even Jesus cursed the fig tree that bore no fruit (cf Mark 11.12). The point is, being human doesn’t mean pretending to be an angel; it means being honest but also recognizing that there must be proportion and restraint in the way we express our negative feelings. Just because we are hot and bothered doesn’t mean we have the right to bother others with our hot tempers or treat them with contempt.
The heatwave may be over for now, but minor irritations are sure to come thick and fast as summer wears on. Most of us will have one or two little tricks we use to try to stem an immediate angry response, such as counting to ten or walking from one side of a room to another or uttering a short silent prayer. Failures, alas, are bound to occur. If they do, the best course is to turn matters over to God. Choose the right time to apologize if you can but beware of self-justification or going over what caused the misunderstanding in the first place. That will only stoke up the fire, so to say. God knows how to bring about peace better than we do. We have only to ask and to wait. After all, so many of our minor irritations stem from the fact that we want to be in control and dictate the timetable for, or the unfolding of, events or other people’s behaviour— but aren’t and can’t.