The Place of the Telephone in Monastic Life

Anyone who has ever tried to telephone a monastery will know that it is not usually the easiest way to get in touch. Monks and nuns have an irritating habit of keeping odd hours. They are in choir or sleeping when one wants to talk, or they inhabit an entirely different time zone from ourselves and one finds that what is reasonable in X is the middle of the night in Y. That still leaves letters, emails, texts and Social Media, of course, but we have become so accustomed to instant and immediate contact via the telephone that it seems odd that a group of people should remain so resolutely difficult to reach. Are they just being perverse? Is the silence they are so busy protecting fundamentally selfish, not about God at all?

I was pondering this as I received yet another request to advertise our telephone number on Facebook. It is already given on our web sites, so I see no need to flaunt it elsewhere, but the request still makes me think. There is something about the human voice that the written word cannot convey. Many of the people who telephone the monastery desperately want to hear a kind word, to hear in a human voice the accents of love and compassion they do not find in others. Alas, the monk or nun is not always tuned into that need. I have sometimes crawled out from unblocking a sink to deal with someone in a state of breakdown or woken in the middle of the night to hear a torrent of abuse about the Church, at the bottom of which was a great unhealed wound. I remembered that afterwards, of course, but I fear that at the time I was quite crisp and direct. I was thinking about ‘my’ silence, not the other’s need.

I have to conclude that the telephone occupies a very important place in monastic life. Like it or not, it confronts us with aspects of ourselves we would rather not admit. An unexpected call reveals our true mettle. It can demand a generosity that stretches us, especially when we have other priorities. In short, it turns topsy-turvey our ideas about how the day or night should go. It would be an exaggeration to say that it is God breaking in on us — or rather, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, sometimes it may be — but to treat it always as an unwelcome interruption to our plans is clearly wrong.

Today we begin re-reading chapter 2 of the Rule, On the Kind of Person the Abbot Should Be. It is a masterly summary of what every monk or nun should be and it is noticeable how it concentrates on the interaction between individuals. I will read it this time with one eye on my spoken communication, especially that which is done over the telephone.


The Henrician Act of Supremacy and Other Matters

On this day in 1534 Parliament passed the first Act of Supremacy. The Act recognized Henry VIII as Supreme Head of the Church of England and required an oath of loyalty from his subjects regarding the legality of his marriage to Anne Boleyn. My ancestors were no more given to martyrdom than I am, but some were just as obstinate as their descendant and preferred to stick to their principles rather than obey the king’s will. Over the next few decades they paid the price, which leaves me with a slight conundrum. Do I forget them and their sacrifice, taking the lofty view that we understand things differently now? Or do I allow them to prick my conscience and ask myself what it was they thought they were defending, and why they considered it so important? As often happens, we end up with a question of ecclesiology when we thought we were merely considering politics.

The question of ecclesiology (how we understand the Church) was given fresh emphasis yesterday when Pope Francis announced a commitment to seeking a resolution of the differences between the Catholic and Lutheran Churches. Excellent, one would say — except that commentators have homed in on two points that are going to cause some confusion and much theological heart-searching. Pope Francis reaffirmed the othodox Catholic view that it is impossible for a woman to be ordained to priest’s orders, then later talked about working towards a shared Catholic/Lutheran Eucharist. As some Lutheran Churches permit the ordination of women, there is clearly a major difference in the understanding of Holy Orders which will inevitably affect our understanding of other sacraments, including the Eucharist.

At this stage, it is difficult to see how such differences can be resolved; and if they are resolved, what the implications would be for the Catholic Church (I am not qualified to ask what the implications would be for the Lutheran Church). Already we have received a trickle of questions from ‘confused Catholics’ of various kinds. One thing I think we can assert with some certainty is that the resolution of Catholic/Lutheran differences will take a long time. It will not be ‘top priority’ for many people; and though it may not be so evident in Rome, it is not possible to pursue a policy of liberalism (if it is fair to call it that) in one area while demanding strict conservatism in another without some unintended consequences. Maybe the all-male panellists of tomorrow’s Core Values Conference in Rome will provide us with some indications of how the circle can be squared? Whatever happens, much prayer, deep learning and serious thought is required.


Advance Notice of Changes to Come

I ought to be blogging about St Jerome, for whom I have a soft spot. Saints who struggle with their anger and sarcasm appeal to me because, without being at all saintly myself, I can identify with their struggle — especially when someone touches a nerve online and the temptation to be withering in reply is very strong! But I have written quite a lot about him in the past (if interested, please do a search for St Jerome in the sidebar search-box), so today I just want to give you advance notice of changes scheduled to take place during the next fortnight. If he were on earth today, I’m sure St Jerome would be deeply into MySQL databases and the like, don’t you? I’m therefore invoking him as patron of our transitions.

At some point during the next two weeks all our web sites, including this blog, will be offline for about twenty-four hours. We are changing from U.S. to U.K. based servers. The intensity of the cyber-attacks we have sustained in the last few months, plus the plunging value of the pound relative to the dollar, make the change inevitable. In fact, we only kept our sites with a U.S. host because we thought, mistakenly, that doing so would cut down the amount of time we had to give to their maintenance, thus leaving us free to devote our major efforts to the sites we host for others on our own servers. We will still be using the hosting services of another company rather than our own, in the hope that most daily problems will be taken care of automatically, but at least we shall not have to deal with time differences when things go wrong. As we care about the security of the users of our web sites, we shall continue to implement several layers of extra security, including monitoring by one of the leading companies in the field.

Once all the sites are safely transferred, I hope to be able to begin uploading the redesigned sites, starting with this one. There will be teething-problems, you can be sure of that; but we will work through them, one by one. Please note that one effect of these changes will be that our emails, including the prayerline, will be temporarily suspended. However, we have set up a temporary catch-all at holytrinitydotmonasteryatgmaildotcom (please replace the words with the requisite symbols) and our personal gmail addresses will still be operative.

May I ask your prayers for all this? I’m suffering  from ‘chemmie brain’ so it is a daunting prospect in some ways, although long overdue. It would be very kind if, when the inevitable ‘what’s happened?’ questions start piling up on Facebook and Twitter, those of you in the know would spread the word. Thank you in anticipation.


The Diesel Dilemma

When the British Government encouraged  us all to think about CO2 emissions by lowering the tax rates on diesel cars, we saved up to buy a second-hand diesel. After much deliberation, following the realisation that diesel particulates may do more damage than CO2 emissions, we have just bought another — principally because, living in a rural area, we cover a larger than average annual mileage and needed a car with a more van-like driving position for me. The car we have is not a Volkswagen, but made by a company owned by Volkswagen. Like many others the world over, therefore, we are wondering whether the emission figures have been fudged for our car, too, and what the moral implications are. Do we say, we acted according to our best knowledge and belief, which is true up to a point, although we bought our present car in the full knowledge that the case for diesel is not as unassailable as it once seemed; or do we admit that, no less than Volkswagen, we were lured by greed — in our case, the seductiveness of lower vehicle excise duty and fuel costs? As someone who has both sarcoidosis and leiomyosarcoma metastases in the lungs, I can’t pretend to be personally unaffected by this question. I’m implicated both as perpetrator and as (potential) sufferer.

I think this highlights what I was saying earlier in the week about right judgement. We use reason informed by grace to make decisions, but we make them according to our knowledge and belief at the time we make them — and that may not be complete, nor morally unquestionable. When we bought our first diesel car, we did not know about the effect of diesel particulates in the atmosphere; we do now, but even so, decided that other considerations outweighed our concerns. The Volkswagen revelations have undermined much of the basis for our decision because, if there is no CO2 advantage, we can’t offset that against the particulates. The scale of the German car-maker’s fraud and its implications for diesel technology are not yet clear but it may not be too fanciful to liken it to the financial melt-down caused by the failure of Lehmann’s. As always, it is easy to point the finger, to talk about corporate greed and corruption. No one is denying that there must be huge elements of that here; but, if we are honest, aren’t those of us who own diesel cars, to some degree, complicit?


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.


Inside the Mind of a Murderer

Three tonnes of explosives driven into the busy market town of Khan Bani Saad, Iraq, did their deadly work yesterday. At least 80 innocent men, women and children were killed. It is impossible for any normal human being to understand how anyone could think such acts justifiable or even meritorious. Murder is still murder, however anyone may try to explain or excuse it. To glory in it, as the perpetrators so often do, takes us to a different territory. How can we possibly understand or get inside the mind of a murderer who thinks himself, or more rarely herself, blessed by God?

At this point, those who know less history than they think they do will often appeal to the past, citing examples of dreadful massacres, brutal wars of colonisation, religious persecutions and the like. The trouble is, we are dealing with a very different situation from any that has gone before. The men and women of our own day may, mentally, inhabit the world of any century they please, but we all live in the highly-interconnected world of the twenty-first. For the first time in history, that interconnectedness is no longer the privilege of a few but is shared by the majority. One of the horrible ironies of IS, for example, is the way in which they combine a simplistic interpretation of Islam with a very professional grasp of the possibilities of modern technology — the very technology that allowed people everywhere to know about events in Khan Bani Saad within minutes of their occurring.

Every time we read of such horrors, every time we hear of people being ‘radicalised’ or joining terrorist groups, I wonder whether we can somehow use technology to combat the monster that technology itself has fed. Personally, I find the appeal to British values unconvincing, and demands that Muslims in Britain should condemn Wahabist violence pointless (more Muslims are killed by those who claim to act in the name of Islam than non-Muslims). But if you look for anything like a clear alternative to the propaganda put out by IS, Boko Haram and so forth, do you find it? We react; we do not lead. And because we are always reacting, we are always suffering the consequences.

Maybe we would do better to spend less time trying to get inside the mind of the murderer and spend more trying to produce a convincing and technologically-astute ‘alternative narrative’. Someone somewhere must surely have the necessary skills to make a beginning. It cannot be impossible for those who oppose violence to be just as sophisticated and determined as those who espouse it. In the meantime, let us pray for the dead and injured and all who are grieving.


Do We Still Need Websites?

Recently I conducted a review of all the monastery websites (nun-speak for groaning about the daunting task of updating and remaking them) and came to the conclusion that more was needed than mere revision. We need to think through from first principles what we are trying to achieve, and what might be the best means of doing so.

In the beginning, a website was really the only way of announcing one’s existence to all and sundry. It was cheap, effective and universal. One posted one’s wares, so to say, and let others make of it what they would. Then we began to titivate. We added podacsts, videos, interactive elements like forums, a mobile site for small-screen devices, and sometimes ended up with huge and complicated structures, resource-rich but unwieldy. Then we began to separate functions. Here at Howton Grove Priory we moved the blog and forum to standalone addresses and made a Facebook page for prayer intentions and general announcements. We added email newsletters, Twitter streams, Instagram, and very soon realised that our online presence was fragmented, difficult for a small community to keep on top of, and generating its own problems in terms of cross-referencing and accuracy.

Our fundamental re-think uses as its starting-point the small screen of the mobile. For a long time I have argued that thinking of online engagement in terms of desktops and laptops leads to a static and essentially ‘inside out’ approach. We address the questions that matter to us, and can be incredibly self-indulgent as well as self-referential. An ‘outside in’ approach is much more demanding. For a monastery it means ditching quite a lot of the verbiage we use to reassure ourselves that we are what we say we are, and instead attempting to translate our monastic life into a ‘language’ that makes sense to those who may have little or no formal contact with Catholic Christianity. That requires more than a jargon-buster, because we have to convey something, at least, of the inner reality of our lives, not just the superficial elements many are interested in.

We shall still have a website here at Howton Grove, but we are redesigning it to act as a kind of key to all the other places where you will find us on the web. Because it is being put together with mobile in mind, some of the purely decorative elements are being consigned to a secondary layer of interaction. Whether it works or not remains to be seen, but it will be an attempt to allow that many-windowed fourth wall of the monastery (which is how we think of our online presence) to be what Benedict asks of all monastic hospitality: a welcoming of Christ in the person of the guest.


The Internet of Things and The Internet of People

If I may be allowed a huge generalisation, internet users currently divide into two overlapping categories: those who primarily use the internet as a way of finding or disseminating information, and those who use it mainly as a way of building and maintaining relationships. I wonder whether the Internet of Things is going to change both.

We talk cheerfully about the Internet of Things, meaning objects, people and animals with unique identifiers that enable them to transmit data over an internet network without human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. But the language we use has important consequences. Until recently, the Internet of Things has been mostly an internet of machine-to-machine communication, especially in manufacturing industries. However, we have reached the point where biochip responders are blurring the traditional categories, so that a person with a heart monitor is, in internet terms, a ‘thing’ transmitting data. While part of me is thrilled at the possibilities that are opening up (think car safety, for example), part of me also questions whether the ability to cut out the human and the fallible will actually bring about an even larger change, and one that may have unintended consequences. Impersonal or depersonalised language expresses values, and they may not be the ones we want.

The flood of pornography freely available on the internet has led, I think, to an increase in confusion among young people as to what is expected of them in human and sexual relationships. In the same way, is it not possible that our embrace of the Internet of Things and its distinctive language will depersonalise our understanding of the world? When we think of people as things, almost anything is possible. Perhaps we need to think about the construction of an Internet of People, where the value of an individual is not determined by anything other than the fact of being human; where communication is more than data transmission; and where the consequences of action are acknowledged in moral as well as technical terms. This is not to oppose the Internet of Things but merely to put forward its corresponding human angle.

There is much more that could be said on this subject. I would love to hear your views (though it would be great if you could keep them no longer than the original post as I’m working with very slow mobile broadband here.)


Something for Sunday: the Mappa Mundi

Yesterday I spent some time exploring Hereford Cathedral’s online Mappa Mundi, Chained Library and Magna Carta site, which you can view here (link opens in new window). It is brilliantly done, both historically and technically, and the cathedral authorities are to be congratulated (and thanked) for making such a resource freely available over the internet. Many years ago, when I was making eBooks on a regular basis, I did one on the wood engravings of Sr Margaret Tournour and was fascinated by what the combination of back lighting/high magnification afforded by the computer screen revealed. Here is yet another example of how contemporary technology can enrich our understanding of history and historical artefacts, giving us cause for wonder. If you can, spend a few minutes exploring the Mappa Mundi today.


New Ways of Doing Old Things

Oblates Day 2013
Oblates Day 2013: busy with iPad and Macbook, as befits an internet-aware community

Yesterday we had the joy of oblating Margaret in Canada to our community here in England. We did so by means of a group videoconference, which meant that fellow oblates as far apart as Michigan (U.S.) and Norfolk (U.K.) could take part in real time, together with those attending Oblates’ Day at the monastery. The tradition of associating lay people and clerics with the monastic community as oblates or confraters is very ancient; using online technology to bridge the gap between countries and individuals is much more modern — although we can lay claim to having been doing so for several years.

New ways of doing old things: that is part of the challenge the Church, not just monasteries, faces in every generation. How are we to be faithful to what we have received in a world that is constantly changing? There is a temptation to do one of two things — either embrace the new and jettison the old, or stick with the old and resolutely refuse to change anything. That is not the Catholic way, nor is it the monastic way. One of the best parts of our online Oblate Chapter yesterday was a discussion about how the larger community of oblates and associates can be linked with and contribute to the work of the nuns, especially online. I’m not letting any secrets out of the bag yet, but the words ‘Fifth Column’ may take on a new meaning sometime in the new year.