The Sydney Siege: a few thoughts

Yesterday the world held its breath while events unfolded in Sydney. Now the siege is over, the investigations will begin. We shall probably need to revise some of the more ill-informed pronouncements of the media (you may have noticed that the gunman was variously described as a Shia extremist, a Sunni extremist, a terrorist, and so on). But this morning two things stand clear: the need to pray for the dead and injured, including those who have been deeply traumatised by the event; and to salute the #illridewithyou movement which gathered momentum throughout the day and showed how, in the midst of the most terrible circumstances, ordinary Australian people refused to give in to hatred and fear. No one wants to talk in terms of ‘victory’ or ‘defeat’ on such occasions, but in this instance they were the real victors of the Sydney siege: decent people having the courage to stand up for human values.

Sadly, not everyone was prepared to follow their example. I was saddened to find a few people churning out the kind of hate-filled rhetoric that actually fuels terrorist violence. What grieved me most were those who claimed to do so as Christians. The irony of preparing to welcome the Prince of Peace this Christmas and spewing out hatred of others, in this case Muslims, seems to have been lost on them.

Today’s first Mass reading, Zephaniah 3, reminds us how easy it is to strut on God’s holy mountain; to convince ourselves of our own superiority. We may think we have a monopoly of righteousness, like the chief priests and elders of today’s gospel (Matt 21.28-32), but then the tax collectors and prostitutes come along and put us in our place — outside the Kingdom. It is a sobering thought. If today we are tempted to harbour bitter or angry thoughts towards anyone, but especially towards our Muslim neighbours, let us think again. Sometimes, to be really brave, one has to accept being thought a coward. Sometimes, to follow Jesus, one has to be prepared to abandon the herd and just do what is right and proper.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Angry Twitter, Angry World

St Jerome

St Jerome, whose feast we celebrate today, has a not entirely unjustified reputation for being a bit of a curmudgeon, though I think myself it has been unfairly exaggerated. I wonder what he would have made of Social Media? There are days when both Twitter and Facebook, for example, are awash with bile and one has to fight down the urge to say, ‘If you really did have the solution to the world’s problems, we’d all be beating a path to your door; the fact that nobody is should tell you something!’ The problem with Social Media, as we all know, is that it is instant. If we had to sit down and ink our words on parchment or chisel them on stone, we might allow ourselves a moment’s reflection. That is why, in my old-fashioned, fuddy-duddy way, I always urge people to pray before they look at their smartphones or log onto the internet. Being conscious of what we are doing is important if we are not to waste our energy and our opportunity.

As you might expect, St Benedict has a lot to say that is pertinent. His chapter on humility, which we are in the process of reading over the next few days, urges restraint in speech and action so that we are fully conscious of what we are about. We don’t drift into holiness, so to say; we have to make an effort. Anger is one of the passions early monastic writers marked out as being a major barrier to holiness of life. It takes over, controls us, places a red mist before the eyes so that we don’t see or hear clearly. St Jerome’s letters to St Augustine often contain passages in which he acknowledges what a struggle he had to contain his anger and check his tendency to sarcasm. He had, of course, the virtue of his fault: he was courageous. The cowardice that masquerades as charity was never for him! The difficulty for us is discerning when our anger is merely anger, and when it is a necessary and righteous means of achieving a good end — and I have to say, if my own experience is anything to go by, anger is usually just anger, with nothing righteous about it at all.

Today, I’d like to suggest two things: that we pray for Gaza, where Jerome lived some of his life; and we pray for all who use Social Media, that we may build up rather than destroy. Angry Twitter, angry world? The connection is not as distant as we might hope. Perhaps we could ask the prayers of St Jerome to help us.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

A Light-Hearted Plea to the Godly

Have you noticed, as I have, a certain tendency among the godly to use Latin where plain English would be much better, and often, alas, using it incorrectly? I don’t mind people coming up to me and saying, ‘Salve!’ (though ‘hello’ would do just as well). I do wince if they say, ‘Salvete!’ as though my name were legion; while greeting me with an ‘Ave!’ makes me tremble in my socks, for reasons they are probably blissfully unaware of. But being wished a happy birthday ‘ad multis annos’ sets my teeth on edge, and the muddling of genders and case endings in other phrases induces apoplexy, especially when I see them on Twitter and Facebook. Latin is a beautiful language, and deserves to be used intelligently. I don’t quite share Christine Morhrmann’s view that it is the perfect liturgical language (Greek would always get my vote), but it is for me the language of prayer, of poetry and history, and I’m very glad I was taught to read, write and speak* it at an early age. It has made me realise what I don’t know — always a good reason for sticking to English, and even there I sometimes have problems, as the comments section of this blog will testify (sigh).

My simple rule is this: avoid Latin tags if you can, but if you must use them, make sure you’ve got them right. Otherwise, as Bro Duncan PBGV was heard to say this morning, Cave monialem!

*Yes, reader, I was taught to speak Latin by a Spanish Latin mistress who gave her classes in Latin from start to finish. I couldn’t manage it now.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Polemics and the Art of Being Christian Online

St Athanasius, whose feast we celebrate today, is one of my heroes. I love his reverence for the Incarnation, his pastoral concern, his interest in monasticism, the fact that the ancient Churches of both East and West regard him as a great saint. I even love even his rather fiery temper, though I do not think I would have liked to have been on the receiving end of some of his tongue-lashings.

Today there are many who seem to think they are heir to Athanasius in their zeal for purity of doctrine and observance but who quite often overlook two important points. First, Athanasius was a learned man and spoke and wrote from a deep store of theological knowledge and understanding. Second, he was a saint and consciously strove to put into practise the teachings of Christ. I have never been attracted to polemics myself but if I were, I think those two points would give me pause. It is very easy to assume we are right, that we have the answers others are searching for, but it is just possible we are mistaken, that we don’t know enough, or don’t understand as well as we think we do. As to leading holy lives, filled with faith, hope and charity, would it not be presumptuous to claim that?

One of the problems with the blogospshere at the moment, and perhaps even more the corner of Twitter that I inhabit, is that there is too much shrieking going on. Too many people are attacking others without really examining whether they are right to do so. We may want to see ourselves as champions of truth, but very often that desire is all about us and not about truth at all. I’m particularly saddened when I see Catholics attacking one another in virulent terms over supposed lapses in orthodox belief and practice.* Not so long ago I was myself attacked, in no uncertain terms, by someone regarded by many (though not, I have to confess, by me) as a champion of orthodoxy. Even though I did my best to point out where and how the misconception could have arisen, there was no apology, only another sneer. It left an unpleasant taste in my mouth and reminded me forcibly of something we need to remember every time we go online. We will never argue anyone into belief in God; we can only try to show something of God’s holiness and love and pray that he will draw others to himself. That doesn’t mean that we allow errors to go uncorrected or fail to stand up for what we believe; it does mean that we don’t mistake love of a fight for love of the truth. Putting someone down isn’t the best way of raising them up, is it?

Truth matters; and it is precisely because truth matters that I think we should be reverent and charitable in our attempts to defend and spread the truth we have been privileged to know, especially online where it is more difficult to convey nuance or relax tension. That is part of the art of being a Christian online. It is also, unless I’m very much mistaken, part of the secret of successful polemics, too.

*We all have a duty to try to put right whatever may be wrong, but the way in which we do that is important. It is particularly important that we make sure of our facts otherwise we may be guilty of grave injustice.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Twitter Arguments

From time to time, someone on Twitter will decide to take another person to task about an opinion they hold, or are thought to hold (not at all the same thing), or will tag their name onto a tweet in the hope of getting their views into the other’s data stream and thereby reaching all their followers. It happens to me occasionally. Sometimes I’m not online to notice; sometimes I’ll engage in friendly discussion or disagreement. Sometimes, however, things take an uglier turn and I prefer to dissociate myself entirely from the other’s agenda by blocking them. Inevitably, that leads to howls of rage from the blocked, but, really, why should one meekly accept insults and accusations, usually expressed in screaming capitals, when one has not initiated the argument oneself and has no desire to press any particular point?

In the past few days, I’ve had two ‘interesting’ experiences of a Twitter argument into which others tried to draw me. My overwhelming feeling in each case was ‘this is a waste of time, no one is listening to anyone else, and hurling insults around makes it unlikely that anyone is going to want to listen to anyone else’. I preferred to withdraw (and was, of course, attacked for doing so) but I think if one genuinely believes in freedom of speech, one must allow others the right to silence. That is often forgotten on Twitter, where individuals sometimes assume the right to compel others to respond. It is, in effect, another form of bullying.

However, I accept that many people do want to use Twitter for arguing but don’t want to be bullies, so here are my five little tips for Twitter arguments. Before you begin, ask yourself

1. Is Twitter the best place to argue your  case?

2. Can you make a valid statement in 140 characters?

3. Can you argue your case without attacking/accusing/insulting another? (Courtesy does matter; so does checking one’s facts and getting them right.)

4. Are you prepared to admit you are wrong?

5. Will you recognize that not everyone is as happy to argue as you are yourself?

I have to admit that my tips come more as a plea to the disputacious than the fruits of experience as I’ve never initiated an argument on Twitter and don’t think I’ve ever ‘won’ any in which I may have engaged. Twitter arguments often generate more heat than light, and people and reputations are sometimes badly harmed in the process. The most important advice I would give to anyone wanting to argue on Twitter, therefore, would be Mr Punch’s advice to those about to marry — don’t. Or, if you cannot manage that, at least think before you tweet.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Envy: Left Out of the Party

Today’s the day when lots of Christian folk who are enthusiastic users of social media and the internet will feel left out of the party. They will not be at CNMAC13, the Christian New Media and Awards Conference taking place in London. Having attended a couple of conferences in the past, I know it will be an excellent opportunity to learn from others, share ideas and generally be encouraged. So, we are who are not there physically will be doing our best to be there virtually, following the #cnmac13 on Twitter and any subsequent blogs and videos. But we shall still feel ‘left out’, and not only because we shall not be meeting old friends or making new ones in the intervals of talks and workshops. Whether we like it or not, we shall be in the grip of envy.

Envy is a dewy-eyed old hound in comparison with the green-eyed monster, jealousy. Envy desires what another has, whereas jealousy would rather destroy what another has if it cannot be its own. Envy longs to share; jealousy will brook no rival. The danger, of course, is that envy may easily become jealousy if allowed too free a rein. That is why the psalmist reminds us that our every desire is before God, who is constantly scrutinizing heart and mind — not to catch us out, but because he cares about us and wants us to live free and joyful lives. The jealous person is not free and not joyful: he/she lives in a shrunken universe bounded on all sides by self. But we who are ‘merely’ envious are not let off the hook entirely. The roots of the word ‘envy’ are to be found in the Latin for ‘looking maliciously’ and ‘begrudging’. Malice and begrudging are not attractive qualities. They lead to sin, so let us be on our guard. There is an even greater party none of us would wish to be left out of.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Vanity Twitter

If follower numbers were an index of wisdom or virtue, Twitter would produce some very strange results. I’m not sure why some people are so anxious to obtain ‘followers’. If anyone tweets a request that I should follow them, I usually ignore it on the grounds that anyone so blatantly clamouring for attention is more likely to be a ‘broadcaster’ than a ‘dialoguer’. In any case, I don’t follow as many people as currently follow me for the simple reason that it would be a physical impossibility. I try to follow people with different backgrounds, interests and opinions from my own, as well as those who are particularly knowledgeable and engaging on topics that interest me. So what is vanity Twitter, and why am I unenthusiastic about it?

Vanity Twitter is all about me, my interests, and my business (frequently, especially my business). The vain tweeter will read everything he/she can about how to build follower numbers and will ruthlessly exploit every known technique for doing so (often dreamed up by other like-minded tweeters). In addition, the vain tweeter is a master of the art(?) of the self-promotional tweet and subjects us to a never-ending stream of unwanted information about his/her wonderful achievements, ‘motivational quotes’ and so on. Dialogue, there is not. Unfortunately, religion is not exempt from this kind of vanity Twitter, although it is usually given a gloss of gratitude for graces received.  At base, however, it is as frothy and empty as any other kind of vanity Twitter, and because it does not really engage with other people*, I wonder whether it can achieve anything of substance.

Are you a vain tweeter, or do you try to use Twitter to engage with others? What have you learned from using Twitter? Have you any tips to share? Do you think religion is a difficult subject to explore on Twitter? Over to you.

• I think the @pontifex account does Twitter rather well, despite what I say above. The pope cannot engage with others on Twitter as you and I can because of the sheer numbers involved.

 

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Paradox of Christian Celebrity

We are currently re-reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. (You can listen to the daily readings from the Rule here on our main website.) It is a chapter that means more and more to me as I see both the possibilities and the challenges inherent in any attempt to live a truthful life. This autumn re-reading happens to coincide with the announcement of the shortlist for the Christian New Media Awards (CNMAC13: see here) which has generated some interesting debate about the nature of Christian celebrity and the place of awards for blogging, tweeting, websites, etc. Let me say straight away that it is the notion of Christian celebrity I want to explore here, not CNMAC or the awards it will be making. An earlier post on social media and humility may also be of interest (see here).

There is a paradox in the whole idea of Christian celebrity, for we all have the idea that Christians ought to be ‘retiring’, shunners of the limelight; but it might not be so paradoxical if we could free the concept of celebrity (= known, honoured, frequented) from the trappings of the celebrity culture we see all around us. To be known as a Christian is something every Christian should aspire to: our whole manner of being should proclaim the fact, not just our words or our dress, and it should be apparent whatever we are doing (cf. St Benedict’s Twelfth Step of Humility). Why then the unease? Is it because there are people who make a business out of their Christianity, who parade their Christianity for ends other than God? People who want to be recognized, applauded, for what is, in fact, a work of grace and not their own doing? Empty vessels making a lot of noise and ultimately proving they are not what they seem or want to seem?

I was pondering this in relation to some popular American preachers and came to the conclusion that we must distinguish between active and passive celebrity, that which is sought and that which is ‘imposed’ —or maybe ‘bestowed’ would be a better word. Popular acclaim is not in itself indicative of anything other than that someone or something has been noticed by others. No outsider will ever really know how truly humble or otherwise an individual may be. We tend to project onto others our own likes and dislikes, fears and fantasies, confuse the person with the position/office and generally muddle along as best we can, admiring X and ignoring Y. It is hero worship translated to the religious sphere. The Catholic Church has always known how to handle this, but she prefers her heroes (= saints) dead so she can apply certain tests of authenticity. ‘The good that men do is often interred with their bones’ is indeed true. Hero worship can be useful. It can inspire us to emulate the virtues of others. It can also be harmful, leading to idol-worship, the setting-up of that which is less than God in the place of God.

I am really undecided about Christian celebrity. There is potential for good and potential for harm. Ultimately, it is not the Christian celebrity (= person) who is responsible for what we make of him/her, but we ourselves. That surely is the paradox at the heart of this question: what we choose to honour may be Christian or it may not. It is we who need humility to keep us grounded in truth, love and service. What do you think?

Note on CNMAC13
Do have a look at the conference programme and, if you can, attend. You will learn  a lot. This blog was nominated by someone, I don’t know who, and is on the shortlist for Blogger of the Year. Check out the other entries. They are well worth reading if you don’t already know them.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Poetry and the Decline of Civility

Today is National Poetry Day. There are so many ‘days’ in the year that I tend to ignore them, but poetry will always be something I treasure. Indeed, if I were given the choice of becoming a saint or a poet, I might have a little difficulty deciding. Happily, I have no choice. I’m not a poet, and sanctity seems ever further off. (Cue wry smile.) This morning, however, I was struck by a thought that I shall mull over for the rest of the day. My (limited) experience suggests that fewer people now care about poetry than in my youth, when we all committed to memory huge quantities of verse which became lodged in our inner landscapes, even among the most unliterary. Not just words but the best words, as Keats would say, became part of our subconscious. Are they still? I have my doubts, judging by the language I read and hear around me.

One effect of this, I think — and it is only one and probably an arguable one at that — can be seen in the loss of the fine-tuning of our emotions and the decline of civility. When Lady Thatcher died, many who had not even lived during her premiership were gleeful and expressed their glee in ways I found  small-minded and brutal. I felt a similar revulsion when I read the Daily Mail article about Ralph Milliband. One simply doesn’t say such things — only it appears we do. You may have noticed that it is becoming more and more difficult to escape other people’s use of profanity and vulgarity in tweets and FB updates or even casual conversation. Fuddy-duddy I may be, but the effort to find the right word, to express what one thinks and feels as well as one can —something the poet achieves as no other — is an essential part of what it means to be human. It is closely linked to civility, which is, after all, itself linked to being a good citizen, with all that that implies.

Poetry and citizenship: perhaps today a little dipping into the Greek poets is in order, for they understood both.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Social Media and Humility

The juxtaposition of the words ‘social media’ and ‘humility’ may strike you as incongruous, but earlier this week I was privileged to attend the Social Spaces: Sacred Spaces conference in York (a study day for Anglican clergy).  Subsequently, in the monastery we have been reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. I have therefore been mulling over some of the conference comments in the light of Benedict’s imperative, and I think it may be worth sharing my questions if not my conclusions.

To many, social media is just one long, self-indulgent exercise in self-advertisement; and I have to say, there are users of Twitter and Facebook, for example, I would probably not choose to meet in the flesh. You know the kind I mean. Those who are so busy collecting followers that they omit to say anything interesting themselves; those whose every posting has an element of Stalkie’s cry, ‘Hear me, hear me: I boast’. It is inevitable that any system that can be monitored by statistics (no matter how questionable some of those statistics may be) will attract those who are by nature competitive. Collecting ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ is really no different from collecting cigarette cards, except for the involvement of the ego; and that’s where the trouble begins.

When social media ceases to be social, when its use becomes detached from friendship (‘social’ comes from the Latin socius, meaning ally, companion or friend), it becomes a parody of itself, and often a rather sickening one. Yes, social media is great for sharing, not only among people who, in some sense, know one another. One has only to think of its impact on events (e.g. Egyptian Revolution) or attitudes (e.g. sexism, trolling). Yes, social media is great for bringing together people who would never otherwise meet (hello, friends in Australia and Japan). But ultimately, it is what its users make of it. So, it can be used for good or bad; to build up or tear down; as a vehicle for pride or humility.

Benedict has several wise things to say about the uses and abuses of speech, but he makes the point that true humility is manifested in every aspect of our lives, in the interior attitudes of mind and heart as well as our more exterior behaviour. So, my question for today is: how do we manifest humility in our use of social media? This is another way of approaching the old conundrum about how we integrate our online and offline persona, but sometimes posing the question in a different way can highlight things we have hitherto ignored. Over to you!

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail