St Catherine of Siena: Mistress of the Sound-Bite

Catherine of Siena: Photo by Jim Forest
Catherine of Siena: Photo by Jim Forest


















People often lament that no one really argues anything any more. They opt for the sound-bite instead: something short, snappy and hopefully memorable. You might think that I, as a Benedictine and therefore a proponent of the slow meditative reading we know as lectio divina, would be hostile to the whole idea of the sound-bite. Certainly, I am uneasy at the way in which politicians often try to simplify arguments, reducing them to absurdity, but today’s saint, Catherine of Siena, was very good at producing wise, pithy sayings one can spend the whole day thinking and praying about. Take, for example, her insight into the crucifixion: ‘All the nails in the world could not have held Christ to the cross had love not held him there.’ Isn’t that theology in a nutshell, and doesn’t it lead naturally to prayer— a perfect sound-bite, in fact?

If you know nothing about St Catherine, Dominican tertiary, mystic and doctor of the Church, the Wikipedia article is a good place to start: (or you could do a search of this blog, using the search box in the sidebar). I hope it will encourage you to read Raymond of Capua’s Life of the saint and then go on to read the saint’s own letters and important Dialogues.

Catherine played a major role in returning the papacy from Avignon to Rome and wasn’t afraid to say exactly what she thought — but always with courtesy, something today’s critics of Pope Francis might usefully dwell on. She had a great devotion to the Blessed Sacrament of the Eucharist, was given the gift of tears, and experienced a mystical marriage to Christ which was to dominate much of her subsequent thought and teaching. Yet she remained always firmly grounded in the realities of everyday life and was much sought out for her guidance and practical wisdom. It is not surprising that she was opposed by some of the authorities of her day and had to undergo interrogation by the Friars of her own Order six years before she died.

This morning, however, I am thinking chiefly of the wonderful way in which she expressed old truths as though new-minted. Take, for example, her image of Christ as a bridge flung between earth and heaven. This bridge consists of three great stairways constituted by the feet, the side, and the mouth of Jesus. Rising by these stairways the soul passes through the three stages of every path to sanctification: detachment from sin, the practice of the virtues, and of love, sweet and loving union with God. It is an image easy to grasp, easy to remember. Best of all, though, is her warning to perfectionists — those of us who never get anything done because we are always wanting to do things better: ‘God does not desire a perfect work but an infinite desire.’ There’s a sound-bite to take us through today and every day.

Image licence:


Click ‘Like’ for Outrage

One of the acknowledged problems of Social Media is the ease with which a sense of outrage can be generated. A tweet or a Facebook post expresses a partial truth in vigorous language. We click ‘like’ and pass on, duty done. Only, as the more thoughtful will recognize, duty isn’t done, but rather the reverse. Whenever we assent to something we haven’t really thought about, whenever we promote something we haven’t reflected on, we are acting irresponsibly. Our clicking ‘like’ isn’t morally insignificant (unless, of course, we are ‘liking’ a photo of, say, a PBGV, which is, after all, merely an indication of our good sense and good humour). Activity on Social Media is now often touted as expressing public opinion on various subjects. It would be fairer to say it expresses the opinion of those who use Social Media, but that limitation is often forgotten. Today, as we read about the doctors’ strike, the failure of BHS, the Brexit debate or whatever, perhaps we might pause before we click ‘like’. Do we really agree, and if we do, is this the best way of expressing our agreement? Are we inadvertently helping to create a false sense of public opinion? Most important of all, are we clicking ‘like’ and doing nothing ourselves? I notice a lot of Social Media outrage at the Government’s refusal to admit 3,000 child refugees but I wonder how much those expressing such outrage have done to help those they are so angry about. Just a thought.


Laughter, Social Media and the Tenth Step of Humility

Laughter is surely one of God’s most gracious gifts. The ability to see the funny side of life, to lighten a gloomy atmosphere with a smile or quip, the sheer joie de vivre that carries others along on a sparkle of sunshine and merriment, these are things to be celebrated. A good sense of humour is almost a sine qua non of survival in monastic life. As to the literal-minded and humourless sourpusses one sometimes encounters, oh dear! What a pain they are! It can be rather a shock, therefore, to find St Benedict stating as his tenth step of humility (RB 7.59)

Decimus humilitatis gradus est si non sit facilis ac promptus in risu, quia scriptum est: Stultus in risu exaltat vocem suum.
The tenth step of humility is not to be easily prone to laughter, for it is written: ‘The fool raises his voice in laughter.’

Quite clearly, he is not condemning mirth in general. Indeed, one of the small asceticisms he recommends for Lent is giving up some of our customary joshing and joking (scurrilitates), which he wouldn’t if no one ever laughed in the cloister. The scripture Benedict quotes, Sirach 21.20, is key to understanding the passage. Laughter in the biblical sense usually has overtones of disbelief (think of Sara, laughing behind the tent curtains at the angel’s prohecy of Isaac’s birth). It is especially identified with the fool who thinks there is no God. To raise up one’s voice, to parade one’s unbelief, to claim for oneself the ability to judge matters about which we are largely ignorant, the derisive laughter of the mocker and scorner, these are all indicators of massive pride — and Benedict has no time for that.

I think this tenth step demonstrates something I have often emphasized: the importance of reading the text of the Rule closely, with an awareness of its broader context. One can’t simply mine a sentence here or there and say, this is what Benedict has to say on a subject. On the other hand, I do think one can apply his precepts to a world beyond the monastery and this one is very relevant to Social Media.

Humour and debate both figure largely in Social Media. Unfortunately, as we all know, debate is often reduced to name-calling or worse, and humour can become rather sinister and unpleasant. There is a lot of scoffing rather than engagement with the issues or with individuals. Now, mockery is one thing Benedict is very opposed to. It contradicts his idea of the importance of mutual respect and his special concern that the most vulnerable should be protected from the ravages of the strong. We may have quick minds and even quicker tongues, but that doesn’t give us the right to use them to put others down. The laughter we provoke condemns us, because it is essentially violent and cruel. Some of the tweets and Facebook postings regarding the current [2015] Synod on the Family have made me wonder whether the authors have really thought about what they are doing. Being rude, imputing dishonesty to others without being sure of one’s facts, vilifying, these are not the work of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, they are not very funny, either. Today would be a good day for doing a kind of mental check on how we use humour ourselves. We can build up or tear down: the choice is ours.


Being Bridge-Builders Online

Social Media, although a wonderful communication tool, can sometimes emphasize cultural divisions, even among English-speakers. For example, I often find myself having to explain jokes to American friends online. Just as witty American one-liners sometimes fall flat over here, so our dry, allusive irony can lead to incomprehension or even irritation on the other side of the Pond. It becomes even more complicated when one is treading less familiar ground. How often have I managed to misunderstand (or myself been misunderstood) when talking to people in India, Africa or Asia. Even when we share the same religion, the expectations we have of one other can be widely different. Although some people in this country have distinctly odd ideas about others, I haven’t met many who are absolutely sure what everyone else should say or do (unless, of course, they happen to be aggressively non-Christian, in which case they frequently have an alarming tendency to know exactly how one should behave!). It can be a shock, therefore, to find oneself at odds with someone whose cultural background sets a different value on argument/discussion or who has quite different ideas about the place of women in Church/society or simply has a different experience of life. In theory, this should be enriching; in practice, it can be disconcerting.

As Social Media matures, I think we are becoming more aware of both its strengths and weaknesses, but I’d say we need to think more carefully about its potential for harm. Social Media does bring people together in ways that weren’t possible before. It does enable us to share thoughts and ideas quickly and easily. Against that, its rapid response facility means that we all sometimes use Social Media in ways we later regret — and we can’t scrub the record clean, despite Google’s best intentions. It won’t be a popular thing to say, but we can sin using Social Media. We can lie, dissemble, hurt or undermine reputations. We can stir up false arguments. We can also be perfectly horrid to one another. We may not be trolls, but we can be dismissive or rude or sanctimonious idiots. Does that matter? I think it does.

One of the papal titles I love best is pontifex, bridge-builder. I think all Christians are called to be bridge-builders online. We all have an opportunity to cross the cultural divides that exist in the world today, but it can’t be done as instantly as we can send a tweet, post a Facebook status or upload an Instagram update. It takes time and some serious listening, not just to what is going on at a surface level, but also to what is happening at a deeper, more hidden level. We need to bring to our online activity some of the self-restraint and prayerfulness we bring to every other activity of our lives. Sometimes that means we must engage more; sometimes it means we must engage less. It takes wisdom to know the difference — and a generous and humble spirit.


Holier than Thou

One of the professional hazards of being a nun is to be thought a party-pooper, a bubble-buster or an old vinegar-face. By definition, we disapprove of everything human or joyous (apparently). Then again, we ought to be living on bread and water and looking pale and anaemic as we waft delicately down gothic cloisters. The fact that we don’t and won’t is a mark against us. Being holier than thou, you see, takes many forms, with the inverse just as dangerous as the other.

As it happens, I think many of those frequently accused of being holier than thou — not so much nuns but decent, generous-hearted Christians of every denomination, people who quietly do their duty in the face of tacit and sometimes not so tacit opposition — are actually the least likely to be so. They are too aware of their own failings to waste time comparing themselves with others, or condemining them for faults not their own. They do not take refuge in the blithe assurance of the pharisees in today’s gospel (Matt: 23.27–32), ‘We would never have joined in shedding the blood of the prophets, had we lived in our fathers’ day.’ They know that they might not have seen clearly enough to avoid the mistakes of their forebears. They are humble in their self-knowledge.

So, who does point the finger and why? First, there are those who do not believe but still think they know what Christianity is and how Christians should behave. They tend to be very keen on our turning the other cheek when insulted or misjudged and affect to be terribly shocked at any display of material comfort. They also have long but often selective memories. They are the people who haunt Twitter with their oh-so-funny allusions to ‘Sky Pixies’ and make wild accusations about the iniquitous doings of Christians generally, but especially clergy and religious.

Second, there are those who are themselves believers but who are incautious in their judgement of others. They don’t mean to be holier than thou, but they often end up sounding sanctimonious. Their very idealsim leads them astray. ‘What would Jesus do? is, in this context, a condemnation rather than a prayer. If someone sincerely disagrees with them on some point, they are dismissed as being somehow wanting. They don’t believe as they should. Those finding others wanting need to be exceptionally well-informed themselves but aren’t always, which only compounds the difficulty.

Can we eliminate this tendency to be holier than thou? I suspect not. Those who don’t believe will continue to act on their half-knowledge of what the Church is and what she teaches. They will continue to look for a Church of saints and be disappointed when they encounter only a Church of sinners.  Those who do believe will continue to want a Church that measures up to their ideals and be disappointed that she never does. The rest of us must just get on with things, trying to become holy in the only way that matters: in God’s eyes, not those of anyone else. That is the real challenge, and the only one that counts.


LOL, LiLi and L&P

It is, apparently, a sign of being irredeemably behind the times to use the acronym LOL (‘laughing out loud’). I never liked it much. In my youth, we were told that ladies do not laugh out loud, they smile graciously — or, in my case, give way to helpless giggles — at the foibles of mankind. Any suggestion of impropriety by way of risqué joke or allusion should, by the same token, be met with a glacial stare. How long ago all that seems! But it has left me with a vague feeling that laughter can sometimes be cruel and easily turns to the kind of derisive mockery St Benedict deplored. Time was when the letters LOL stood for ‘lots of love,’ and parts of me wish they did still. Can we reclaim them? If we do, may I put in a word for the monastic LiLi (‘like it or lump it’) and my favourite, L&P (‘love and prayer’)? Much of life is a LiLi experience. We can’t avoid the difficulties, but we can avoid making heavy weather of them. And what is love if it is not accompanied by prayer — if it is not taken up into that greater Love which embraces and redeems all others?

L&P, Digitalnun

And in audio format:



Silence in the Midst of Digital Noise

Silence is more talked about than practised these days. The irony of speaking endless words about silence was not lost on the late Jean Leclerq who also had some good things to say about the thousands of miles he had travelled to speak about stability. I think he might have had some trenchant observations to make about today’s obsession with being perpetually connected, as though the smartphone were a fifth limb linking us to a world that never sleeps, never goes offline.

The truth is, most of us are keener on silence in the abstract than in reality. We understand silence to be somehow an escape from the hurly-burly of life as we know it, so we devise various strategies to free ourselves from the world of noise in which we pass most of our days. Spending a lot of time on Social Media? Let’s have a digital fast! Always on our smartphone? Let’s switch everything off and enjoy some primeval silence! Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. People are still people and will claim our attention whether we are online or not; our smartphone may be off but there’s always something going on in the background, from traffic noise to the squeaks, squawks and screams of wildlife in the countryside. We are approaching silence from the wrong end, so to say, and possibly for the wrong reasons.

Many people enjoy a brief interlude of silence and find it refreshing, but if it goes on too long or is too complete, it makes them uneasy. A soundproof room, for example, can be disorientating. A couple of weeks of silence in a monastery has been known to drive people to midnight flits — anything to get away from this frightening absence of the everyday and familiar. If physical silence can be disconcerting, interior silence can be devastating. Those who try to cultivate interior silence will tell you that, beautiful though it is, it strips us of everything we rely on to protect ourselves. Silence lets us see ourselves as we are, and most of us are not very keen on that.

So, what are we doing when we declare a digital fast or switch off our mobiles for a day, a week, or more? Are we doing anything more than trying to assure ourselves we are not addicted? We are not actually risking an exposure to silence, are we? Anyone who seriously tries to pray will tell you that although external silence is helpful, it is not necessary. It is the noise we carry within that creates all the problems. Rather than switching off or disconnecting, what we need to do is to cultivate an attitude of detachment from our online world. We can be silent in the midst of digital noise, but it takes discipline and a clear sense of purpose. It is not how much we are online but how we are online and why that counts. Perhaps today we could each spend a few moments reflecting on that.


A Little Saturday Morning Rant

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve barely been online. Yesterday, however, I had to do some work which reminded me forcibly that many apparently civilized people are now incapable of expressing any sentiment in English without using expletives. Before you smile an arch smile at monastic naivete, please take a moment to consider: I wasn’t always a nun, and most of my lay working life was spent in an almost exclusively male environment. I’m not shocked by swearing per se (although I do think it’s often rather repetitive and boring). I am more troubled by the laziness of thought it indicates, especially when it appears in written form.

English is a rich language with a large and expressive vocabulary. If one adds in all the loan words and expressions from other languages, it’s probably the richest and most expressive language on earth. Why, then, resort to a narrow range of adjectival cusses as though one were incapable of finding the mot juste? Of course, it may be that one is incapable of doing so; but if that is the case, why display one’s inadequacy publicly?

I’m tired of the constant stream of language that isn’t as colourful or vigorous as its perpetrators claim.  It’s just lazy and ugly. But I clothe my most damming indictment, not in the ‘decent obscurity of Latin’, but in the awful clarity and precision of French: Le style est l’homme même. Ouch!


Trial by Social Media

It isn’t difficult to see why great power and influence are attributed to Social Media. They are even better than the press at ripping reputations to shreds and mobilizing public opinion. Sometimes the power is used for good. How many charities have benefited from the free publicity Social Media can give, for example, or how many individuals have been able to find answers to questions that defeated Google? Unfortunately, we are also familiar with the trial by Social Media phenomenon. Sir Tim Hunt’s idiotic remarks and Rachel Dolezal’s curious self-delusion about her racial background would probably never have made much stir had it not been for the opportunities offered by Social Media. The essentially unpoliced nature of Twitter and Facebook, to name two of the most popular, means that not only were they discussed world-wide, they were also subject to some harsh judgments — and, in the case of Sir Tim, some amusing mickey-taking as well.

The problem with trial by Social Media is that most of us are not in possession of all the facts. We argue and express opinions without being properly informed but don’t follow through the logic of that limitation. It becomes dangerously easy to forget some basic principles of Christian conduct. Everyone has a right to their good name, for example. Imputing base motives or dishonest conduct to another is, if not proven, defamatory. Again, the instant, reactive nature of Social Media means that exchanges can sometimes be sharp, name-calling episodes that leave everyone feeling slightly grubby and the more vulnerable feeling wretched or afraid.

I am a believer in Social Media’s potential for good, but I am increasingly aware that they not only express public opinion but also help shape it. We have gone from seeing Twitter, for instance, as a brilliant way of having concise conversations with others to viewing it as having a role in society analogous to that of our political or judicial institutions. Vox populi, vox Twitterati. But Twitter isn’t God, nor are its users anything but a minority of the population. It is not a substitute for democracy, and the inflated claims we, its users, sometimes make for it are absurd.

I think the time has come for us to reflect more deeply about the role of Social Media in our lives. In the past, I’ve suggested guidelines for their use, but what I have in mind now is slightly different. We need to revisit our purpose in using Social Media and ask ourselves what, if anything, we hope to achieve — and whether we are the right people to achieve it. If we simply want an opportunity to ‘sound off’ to all and sundry about our personal likes and dislikes, we should think through the possible consequences for ourselves and others. If we want dialogue, or an opportunity to give encouragement or reach out to others, well and good; if we want a marketing opportunity, or a channel for some ideology, them, of course, Social Media offer opportunities for that, too. For most of us, most of the time, a more light-hearted approach is all we need. Even so, we must remember that though Social Media can be fun, there’s a deadly serious side as well. It’s the potential deadliness that worries me.

Note: on the subject of Rachel Dolezal, I have been struck by her desire to identify with those she sees as victims. On the language of victims and victimhood, this post may be relevant.


A Mini-Course in Hypocrisy

If you believe everything you read in Social Media or the newspapers, you will know that Christians and politicians have a virtual monopoly on hypocrisy. They say one thing and do another; they pose as good and generous folk, while leading deeply selfish lives; they are, indeed, play-acting (the word has tortuous origins, coming to us from ecclesiastical Latin via Old French, but its roots may be found in the Greek hupokrisis ‘acting of a theatrical part,’ from hupokrinesthai ‘play a part, pretend,’ from hupo ‘under’ + krinein ‘decide, judge.’). I wonder, at least about the monopoly part.

This morning I read that Sue Perkins has had to give up using Twitter for the time being because of the storm of abuse and threats she has received from people who don’t like the fact that she is the front-runner to replace Jeremy Clarkson on ‘Top Gear’. One even went so far as to express the desire (more properly, threat) that she’d burn to death. What do the authors of such tweets think they are doing? Are they the same people who rage and rant about the injustices they perceive in other areas of life? I know that if I post a prayer intention for x, someone will rubbish it, suggest that y is more worthy of prayer (as though God couldn’t cope with both) or use it as an opportunity to air a grievance (real or imaginary) or attack someone else. The sheer violence encountered in Social Media ought to concern us all because it both echoes and, I think, contributes to the violence we see convulsing the Middle East and parts of Africa — because it is not just violence, it is hypocritical violence.

We are, rightly, concerned about the violence and destruction perpetrated by IS and its allies, but I don’t think we have given sufficient thought to the causes of that violence. We can trace a very awkward course back through history — the Iraq War, the British Mandate in Palestine, etc, etc — and see that what now alarms and distresses us has its roots in the mistakes of the past, some of them so far back that the average British person (whose knowledge of history is, at best, partial) will not have a clue why others are so incensed.

The truth is, most of us cannot admit, even to ourselves, that we are not quite as nice or kind as we’d like to be, and our forebears were no better than we are. So, we blame others for our own shortcomings and the fact that the world is not as we’d like it to be. We rather enjoyed Clarkson’s blokishness, so we blame Sue Perkins for the fact that we won’t be seeing Clarkson on ‘Top Gear’ any more (never mind that Clarkson’s conduct might have had more to do with it than Perkins’, the logic of hypocrisy is unassailable). We see the horrors suffered by those who have fallen into the grips of IS, so we condemn Islamist extremism without acknowledging that we, or our forebears, may have had something to do with it. We accuse our politicians of lacking integrity/practising deception while conveniently ignoring little pockets of untruth or bad behaviour in ourselves.

The problem with hypocrisy is that it grows and grows until, at last, we cannot recognize truth in any shape or form. We begin to believe our own lie. That is the real danger. It is no wonder that the only people Jesus condemns outright in the gospel are the hypocrites. Time for a little self-examination perhaps?