A Facebook Experiment

Yesterday I conducted a small experiment on Facebook. I had been reading what various people had to say in response to the change in the Catechism’s stance on the death penalty and had become more and more interested in the underlying assumptions being made. So I asked my Facebook friends whether they automatically identified with law-abiding citizens when thinking about the death penalty, rather than what they thought about the death penalty itself or the change in the Catechism’s wording. People took my question seriously and answered frankly. I was particularly struck by the responses of those who had worked in the criminal justice system here in the U.K.. Inevitably, one or two wanted to address questions I wasn’t asking, but the majority simply stated what they thought and why, which I found very powerful. I hope those who responded also found it helpful because the answers threw light on why people react as they do to the idea of a death-penalty or changes in the Church’s view of it.

Most of my Facebook friends are thoughtful people and many are religious; so I ought not to have been surprised by the calm and generous way they responded to my question, but I was. The overwhelming impression I took from the discussion was of compassion and humility. We (I) have become so accustomed to thinking of Social Media and the internet generally as being disputatious and shallow that to see the good side was something of a revelation. People are kinder and less dogmatic than we often allow, but if we want to know what people really think about something we need to try to find a way of asking that does not predetermine the answer. If I got it right yesterday, it was by grace alone. It has certainly made me think about how I phrase questions in the future — and much more.

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Boring, Boring, Boring: Swear Words

When I was younger, linguistic ‘tics’ used to irritate me profoundly. Time was when every sentence I heard in France seemed to have a meaningless ‘si vous voulez’ tacked on to it. In Britain there was, and still is, the endless repetition of ‘like’ and its cousin ‘innit’. These, however, do not bore me in the way that profanity does. It seems that many people are now incapable of framing a sentence that does not contain a swear-word, most often the one that begins with ‘f’ and ends with ‘k’. It is used as a descriptive, as punctuation, as mere sound, but it is tedious in the extreme. Some people use it in the hope that we in the monastery will be shocked, not realising that it would take a lot more to shock nuns. More often, people use it unthinkingly, not realising how it weakens their argument precisely because it is obvious that it is used unthinkingly. Twitter is spattered with it; and one has only to walk down the nearest street to hear it spoken, sometimes by very young children.

Couldn’t we think a little more about the words we use, and try to find those that will express what we really want to say? There are many words we can no longer use without giving offence and most of us take care to avoid them. Why not take as much care to avoid those that are simply boring and ultimately devoid of meaning?

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Nuns and Social Media

After another sleepless night, I can report a little black humour to mark my emergence from under the chemo cosh. Cor Orans, the document which establishes the norms for implementing the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere, assures us, with dreadful earnestness, that nuns may now use Social Media ‘with sobriety and discretion.’ Of course I agree with the need for discretion, but having been using Social Media for about ten years — probably longer than many of the clergy and others who felt it necessary to give nuns guidance on the matter — my main reaction is a mixture of despair and irritation. Despair, because yet again the Vatican shows itself to be out of touch with the reality of women’s (i.e. not just nuns’) lives, and in seeking to control is in danger of losing whatever moral authority it still commands; irritation, because with all the world’s problems, to devote time and energy to  something that I think most nuns have already thought and prayed about sufficiently to have arrived at a sensible decision regarding its appropriate use, is embarrassing.

It hurts to say I am embarrassed by the Church to which I belong and her heavy-handed approach to facets of modern life that she should be embracing, not condemning or viewing with suspicion. It seems to be only a few years ago that we nuns laughed about being given permission to use fax machines, with due discretion and limitations, naturally, and were tempted to email our response, only the Vatican wasn’t using email at the time!

I do have a serious point to make, and it isn’t a grumble. The text of Cor Orans raises many concerns for us as a small contemplative community*, but I think it raises even bigger ones for women in the Church as a whole. I have never been entirely convinced that there are two differing forms of spirituality, one masculine and the other feminine, with the masculine needing comparatively few rules and the feminine needing very close regulation. If Pope Francis is serious about using the gifts of all the Church’s members, then I genuinely believe that he and all the other senior clergy must take seriously the fact that women are not second-class beings. We can be as intelligent, well-educated, fervent and disciplined as any man. To presume that we are somehow lacking in any of those qualities is deeply insulting. True, some women have not had the educational opportunities given to men; true, there are still parts of the world where cultural constraints mean that women are condemned to secondary roles; but, if we have heeded the gospels of Easter Week, how can we assert that this is divinely ordained?

I became a nun in response to what I believe to be my vocation. I have never wavered in my desire to live that vocation as whole-heartedly and generously as possible but I am dismayed to discover that there is doubt whether I and other nuns can really be trusted with it, online or off. And what is true of nuns in that respect is, I fear, true of all women — though, happily, women who are not nuns may apparently use Social Media without the limitation of ‘sobriety and discretion’. I’m tempted to say, ‘Go for it!’

* See, for example, the concluding paragraphs of Cor Orans, Final Dispositions.

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A World on the Brink?

One might be forgiven for thinking that the situation in Syria is about to explode into another world war. Whether the West takes military action or not, there are too many nations using Syria to further their own ambitions and fight their own proxy wars. The stand-off between Russia and the U.S.A. is but one element, but it is potentially deadly, and if one looks at what is happening elsewhere, the build-up of warships in the South China Sea, for example, one can feel thoroughly unsettled. So, what do we do? Do we take refuge in distractions of one kind or another, build ourselves bunkers or otherwise close our eyes to the reality of what is happening and our own part in it? Or do we indulge in a kind of gloomy fatalism, Que será, será, and leave all the worrying to others?

Our celebration of Holy Week and Easter should have reminded us that we cannot dismiss either the suffering of others or our own possible complicity in evil. We may feel powerless, but each of has a real responsibility towards the Syrian people and towards what happens in Syria. How we exercise it is the difficult point. For most of us, I suppose, the means most available to us are prayer and the forming of conscience.

When we pray for Syria, we are asking God to come into the situation and transform it as he knows best, but we are also asking him to transform us and guide our response. We are saying, in effect, that we don’t have the answers, that we know we need help, and that we trust him to act. The forming of conscience is rather trickier because many of us forget that our own opinions are not always wise or just, and though we may be very ready to share them with others, we do not always do so with discretion or judgement. The power of Social Media to shape opinion must be taken seriously, for example, but I wonder how many of us consider whether our use of it is ever sinful. We can add to the store of good or evil by our use of Social Media, almost without thinking.

This morning perhaps we could spend a few moments praying for Syria and reflecting on what we can do or not do that will be constructive of peace rather than war. And if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that this goes further than Syria. It goes to the heart of the existence of each and every one of us, doesn’t it?

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St Benedict and Data Protection

Today is the Transitus of St Benedict, the day when we commemorate his entry into heaven. For us, it is the great feast of the saint, infinitely more important than the Translatio or Translation of his relics, which we celebrate in July. You might therefore expect a paeon of praise in iBenedictines, but that is not what you are going to get, or only incidentally.

St Benedict was a practical man and I think he would have had something useful to say about one of today’s hot topics, data protection, especially as it affects millions of Facebook users. Contrary to the belief of many, I don’t think St Benedict was particularly reclusive in his mature age. The monastery at Monte Cassino is high up, certainly, but it commands an important crossing-point, and I think what the Rule has to say about guests and visitors is a clue to the sheer numbers the community had to deal with in the course of a year. Benedict expected to have to engage with others but the way in which that engagement is surrounded with prayer and common-sensical safeguards for the peace and unity of the community is striking (see, for example, RB 53, 61). Within community Benedict had some tricky situations to deal with also, but he was always discreet and urged that the senpectae, for instance, should be such that they could support the weak and wobbly without publicising their difficulties (RB 46.6). Throughout the Rule, we find references to the need to be considerate, circumspect, and careful about what we say and how we say it. In short, Benedict expects everyone in the monastery to keep the good of others in mind and do nothing that would hurt or harm them.

How does that apply to today’s world, where the buying and selling of information is at the basis of so much commercial activity? You may question that reference to ‘buying and selling’ , but if you use any ‘free’ service on the internet, you are trading some information about yourself in return for what is offered. A problem arises when the amount of information demanded is excessive or put to uses that go far beyond what we could reasonably expect. Who would have thought, for example, that doing quizzes on Facebook could have led to the current debacle with Cambridge Analytica? I myself have always steered clear of such quizzes and limited the amount of information I allow Facebook to have access to (plus I download my Facebook data from time to time) but is it enough? Am I at risk? The answer must surely be, yes, to some extent; but on the other hand, being on Facebook allows me to have a page for the monastery which many people find useful, and a group for our oblates which makes contact between us very easy. The trade-off is thus clear, isn’t it? Well, not quite, because what we have learned about the uses to which Cambridge Analytica allegedly put the information it gathered is worrying.

Here in the West we place great store by democracy, freedom of speech and our reliance on a justice system we believe to be essentially fair, no matter how much we may dispute individual instances of its workings. However, it must be clear to everyone that these things do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they ‘eternal verities’. They are vulnerable to change and even destruction. They can only continue because we support them, i.e. we as individuals hold precious the values that underlie their existence. That is where I think St Benedict still has much to teach us. His insistence on the right of everyone in the monastery to be treated with love and respect, and the duty of everyone to exercise what we today might call a duty of care towards others, is a very sound basis on which to consider how we use the information we hold. That isn’t ‘pi in the sky’ thinking. It is something that affects all of us and is part of the nitty-gritty of creating and sustaining a just and humane society.

I said I wouldn’t be praising St Benedict today, but perhaps awareness of how much we owe him, his Rule, and the influence of his disciples is reason enough to celebrate. Much that we value in Western society is attributable to his wise and kindly emphasis on human as well as divine values. He never used the term ‘data protection’ but he certainly understood the need for privacy and its importance in protecting everyone, especially the most vulnerable. May we do the same.

A Little Bit of Data Protection of Our Own:
If you wish to receive our occasional email newsletters, please don’t forget to sign up here: http://eepurl.com/dlQ7x5. This is to make sure we conform to the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into effect in May 2018.

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The Welcome We Give

Re-reading St Benedict’s chapter on the doorkeepers of the monastery this morning made me think again about the way in which we welcome others (see RB 66). We have had some spectacular failures in the past when people have turned up without warning late at night or been aggressive or rowdy. If we were a bigger community, or if we had more confidence in our ability to restrain someone who is out of control, I daresay we wouldn’t be troubled by the remembrance. Partly, I know, it is because of the expectations others have of us and our awareness that we can never meet them fully. Our less thoughtful visitors do not expect us to be tired or ill or have anything happening in our lives that would lessen our availability or our readiness to give them a meal or a bed for the night. Part of me wishes that we could be, as it were, reckless in our charity; but prudence is a virtue, and to act imprudently is folly — one of those sins that choke the life of the believer. So, we go on as well as we can, being welcoming at the door and welcoming online, but with some limits.

The welcome we give online is something we all need to think about if we are internet users, not just nuns. We all know the importance of being kind and truthful, but there are two phrases of St Benedict I think are worth pondering carefully. He says whenever anyone knocks at the door, the doorkeeper should respond immediately with ‘Thanks be to God’ or ‘God bless you’.(RB 6.3)  Now, I know many of my readers pray before they go online, but I wonder how many utter those words or their equivalent when they receive an email/message or surf a web site which seeks to engage them personally — especially if the engagement is critical of them or their views. To go online with a spirit of gratitude and blessing is very different from what most of us do most of the time: we go online to inform ourselves or others, and it is a short step from apparent neutrality to picking fault, to being fundamentally unwelcoming.

A second phrase caught my eye, too, the sentence about not wandering around outside the monastery because that is not good for our souls: instead, we should find everything necessary inside the enclosure. (RB 66.6) I myself rarely surf the net as such. I haven’t time, but I know it can be a temptation, especially if one is feeling bored or vaguely fractious: an hour or two of aimless pottering about online would be a good distraction, wouldn’t it? What I had never really considered was how such lack of focus can affect the way in which we welcome others. If our minds and heart are all over the place, so to say, how can we be truly present to another? How can we find the space in which to welcome God? The monastic practice of enclosure, which in our community includes some strict rules about use of the internet, is intended to guard against any such dissipation of energy. I suppose a secular equivalent would be to say, ‘switch off the ‘phone, live wholly in the present for a while, not the virtual reality we find so attractive.’

Simple thoughts, but gratitude and blessing are so much more welcoming than confrontation and condemnation or endless self-indulgence. I intend to try harder and hope you will also.

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Visual Media and Debate

For some years now, here in the monastery we have relied on the BBC website for news updates. The articles have, by and large, been clearly written and easily read. The increasing use of video, however, has presented us with a double challenge. First, rural Broadband makes even the highly compressed video used by the BBC sometimes difficult to accces. Second, one cannot absorb video content as quickly or critically as the written word. It is more difficult to check something a second time, and depending on the kind of reporting or commentary in use, one is affected by accidentals such as the presenter’s clarity of voice or accent. Does that matter? I think it does. The BBC is merely following a growing trend to use visual media rather than the written word to convey both events and ideas. As a result, I think our ability to read a text closely is being affected, and there is a corresponding weakness in our ability to argue a case or debate a complicated subject. When language becomes an unfamilar tool or a blunt instrument in expressing thought, the quality of thinking itself declines. To put it another way, a picture may be worth a thousand words, but it takes words to make the point.

Many years ago, when we began using podcasts and video as part of our online engagement, we were ahead of others in our adoption of the latest technologies. As time went on, and the sophistication demanded by users grew, we scaled down our efforts on the grounds that we had neither the time nor the money and human resources at the disposal of the bigger Orders and Congregations. It wasn’t all loss, however. It made us rethink our approach and this blog is one of the fruits of that rethinking. We have, as it were, decided that we must concentrate on the Word and on the merely human words that attempt to lead others to him. I said yesterday I thought it imperative that there should be a renewal of the Church so that we live our Christian values more deliberately and convincingly, but is such a renewal possible if even our faith comes to us in the equivalent of sound bytes and video clips? Are we in danger of losing something precious as video becomes for many the communication norm?

I have probably overstated the case, but I think it is worth pondering. As we draw closer to the General Election, I notice that the number of video clips being posted on Social Media is increasing. They have an impact, of course they do, but whether they help us think through the many complicated questions we need to decide, I am not so sure. It may be I am simply an old fuddy-duddy. I admit to loving words and the beauty and clarity they bring to our appreciation of both the abstract and the concrete. Above all, I value them because they reflect, however imperfectly, the creative Word of God. May all our words today be such as build up rather than tear down.

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Have We Forgotten How To Argue?

One of the striking features of the pre-Election debates reported in the press or commented on in Social Media has been the absence of debate. By that I don’t mean the kind of staged, presidential-style T.V. debates among party leaders that some favour, but engagement in genuine argument rather than slogan-mongering or dismissive, sometimes libellous, personal remarks. We seem to have had far too many of the latter, perhaps because Social Media have made it possible for everyone to express an opinion, so nearly everyone does; perhaps because we have become unused to marshalling our thoughts into an argument, so we rarely do so; perhaps, because we have become afraid to argue because of the possible consequences, so we avoid it. Am I being unfair?

The way we read has a great deal to do with the way in which we argue. I’ve noticed that quite a lot of people will react to a headline without reading the actual article or post to which it relates. That can lead to some surprising conclusions, especially if the headline has been provided by someone other than the writer or is deliberately provocative (a form of ‘clickbait’). Here in the monastery slow, careful reading, weighing every word, is the norm, which is one of the reasons our online actvities are selective. We simply couldn’t process all the information and opinion on offer. But for those who don’t have such constraints, I think there is a huge challenge to make wise and discerning use of what is available. I don’t suppose many people think of their internet/Social Media activity in moral terms, but there is an important moral dimension. We have a duty to be truthful in what we write about others, not to make rash assumptions or wild accusations, and it can be easy to forget. What I say of the written word is also true of our use of photo and video. It isn’t fake news we have to worry about so much as the half-truth, the suggestio falsi.

I think the way in which we respond to criticism is also an indicator of our willingness to engage in argument. Some people seem to think that anything goes. An insult, especially if expressed with a few swear words, is enough to see off X or Y. Personally, I hate such remarks and find myself very unwilling to engage because I know I can’t (won’t) do so on the same terms. That doesn’t mean one should take them lying down. Trying to find a way to respond that might open up genuine debate is difficult and usually wins one few friends. Then there is the ‘poor little me, how dare you?’ attitude which can be equally difficult to deal with. The expression of certain views, no matter how thoughtfully and courteously argued, has become unacceptable to many. This is an area where Christians in particular find themselves at a disadvantage. For example, what possible political enlightenment was to be gained from hounding Tim Farron on whether he thought homosexuality or abortion was a sin? He has not proposed any change in the law as far as I can see, and no other party leader has been grilled in the same way on the same subjects, but had he said yes, he thought either was sinful, I suspect that would have led to a concentration on that, and that alone, as far as his party is concerned. We do not all have to think alike or hold the same views, which is why argument and debate are as important a part of the political process as they are of any other in which we engage.

Monasteries are not usually thought of as being places where people argue, but the chapter, the meeting of the whole community to discuss the business of the house or matters of importance, has been an integral part of Benedictine monasticism from the first. Debate can sometimes get very lively. But it cannot be sidestepped. I remember my Junior Mistress telling me, very solemnly, just before I was professed, that I had a duty to speak up and should never be afraid to do so. One would hope that, in a monastic setting, goodwill could always be assumed. Can we assume such in the debates and arguments in which we engage with others? Perhaps; perhaps not. However, we should be sure of our own goodwill, of our own readiness to engage in argument truthfully and fairly. In the end, it is only our own conduct that we can control, and for which we must answer. As we continue our novena to the Holy Spirit, let us ask for all the graces that would make us good argue-ers!

In similar vein, I have blogged about internet apologetics here: http://bit.ly/2qtqSuw

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Praying for Social Media Users and Developers

You may have registered that BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme came in part from Twitter’s U.K. headquarters this morning. It reminded me that we need to pray for Social Media users — not just ourselves, the end consumers, so to say, but those who work for the organizations that develop the technologies Social Media depend on and monitor their use. During Lent a number of people decided they were going to abandon some platforms, notably Facebook, and while I sympathize with their stated reasons (they had become addicted, it was taking up too much time, the nastiness of many posts, etc, etc), I know it is not the solution the community here will adopt. Social Media in various forms is here to stay for the foreseeable future; so not only ought we to try to learn how to make the best use of it, we ought also to try to make sure that it is in itself the best we can make it. This morning I’m praying especially for Twitter and Snapchat, both users and developers. Please join me.

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A Generous Spirit

Yesterday’s announcement that, at the age of 95 and after a lifetime in the public gaze, the Duke of Edinburgh is to step down from public duties had a predictable result. There was general amusement at the cloak-and-dagger antics surrounding the breaking of the news (all those staff summoned to Buckingham Palace in the middle of the night); some fine tributes to his service of Queen and country and the intiatives with which he has been involved, such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme; recollections of some of his more memorable utterances (including those that make us squirm); and some mean-spirited sneering, mainly by those too young to have fought in the last World War and with no idea what, in personal terms, his life may have cost him since he was smuggled out of Greece in an orange box. The reaction to the Palace’s announcement has made me think again about what it means to have a generous spirit.

There is a tendency in all of us to believe that our judgements of others are perfectly reasonable, just and, though we may not use the word, charitable. Public figures, most of whom we have never met, are lauded or dismissed according to our own ideas of what is right and proper. We do not hesitate to ascribe to them views they may or may not hold but which we believe their conduct somehow ‘justifies’. Thus, in this country, all Tories are bad and all Labour supporters are good, or vice versa, and Theresa May is an arch hypocrite and full of hubris, or Jeremy Corbyn is pathetically weak and wrong-headed; and we know, without a shred of evidence other than what is in our own minds, how evil they are and how evil their deeds. We use Social Media to proclaim our indignation or spill our bile through the comments sections of blogs and online news sites. The more definite we are in our opinions, the more we congratulate ourselves on being good, compassionate and wise citizens. Those who have more than we do in material terms are especially vulnerable to this kind of critique, but we also have a difficulty with those who are more intelligent, better educated or more talented. We do not like to feel in any way inferior, do we? And what is true of the way we treat public figures is, alas, also often true of those we meet in our everyday lives. Like it or not, we are sometimes mean.

I am quite sure that some readers will not see themselves in the above description, but I trust you will be content to let me say that it is true of me. We need to make judgements about other people’s truthfulness, reliability, goodwill and so on, and it would be very surprising if we didn’t sometimes let a little worm of envy or distaste (though we’d never call it that) creep in. After all, we are being altruistic, aren’t we? We are concerned about others as well as ourselves and we need to state our opinions plainly. I wonder. A generous spirit is a beautiful thing. It doesn’t mean we are any the less aware of faults or failings, any less on our guard against manipulation or wrong-doing, but it does mean we are prepared to be magnanimous, big-hearted, noble. Those adjectives have a smile about them, and that is so much more attractive than a sneer. In a world where it seems that, as individuals, we are able to do less and less to affect the course of events, we can make life kinder, more bearable, by our own conduct — and that is not a small thing. I am not advocating some kind of quietist retreat from the world, non-involvement or suspension of our critical faculties, only a readiness to pause, to give the benefit of the doubt, to hold back the cruel word and the instant verdict. In short, to allow the Holy Spirit a little space in which to act. What do you think?

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