Feasting, Fasting and Good Nutritional Balance Online

We have probably all been shocked by the sight of empty supermarket shelves, people squabbling over packets of loo rolls or loading impossibly large amounts of food and drink into the back of their cars, not to mention the heart-wrenching photos of an elderly man or woman standing forlorn in the midst of the chaos, shopping-list and empty basket in hand. It has been a powerful reminder of how selfish we can be, how easily we return to the law of the jungle — only it isn’t the law of the jungle, but something much worse. It is the law of fear and anxiety. We are afraid that we might have to go without; afraid that there might not be enough to go round; afraid of a future we thought we could predict and control but now find we can’t. What we have been seeing is literally panic rather than panic-buying. The results are the same, but the origins lie deeper and are less susceptible of rational control.

We, of course, do not panic. In fact, we are inclined to take a rather severe view of those who do. So, instead, we tell stories of acts of unexpected thoughtfulness and kindness — strangers sharing scarce items, neighbours offering help or leaving little gifts anonymously, postcards through the letterbox to ensure that people know whom to contact in case of need. It is all heartening and reassuring of the decency of the majority of our fellow human beings. We smile over the jokes and clever memes on social media, enjoy clips of the balcony performances of opera singers, and share links to enchanting Youtube videos intended to keep our spirits up. The religiously-minded rush to Zoom and other platforms to maintain contact and provide cyber-worship while we all become a little starry-eyed over the possibilities opening up to us. Then a bubble-buster comes along with an inconvenient question. Is it possible to be a ‘panic-buyer’ in cyberspace as well as in a supermarket? Is there such a thing as feasting, fasting and maintaining a healthy nutritional balance online? I think the answer to both questions is ‘yes’.

If, like us, you live in a rural area, where the Broadband service is at best slow and at worst patchy or non-existent, you will understand the point I’m making more easily than if you live where blistering upload and download speeds are obtainable. Access to the internet is a resource like any other. Over the next few weeks and months it is likely that demand will go up hugely — just think of all those educational establishments taking classes online, for example. It is to be hoped that supply will be able to keep up. Even so, we know that there is an ecological cost involved, and that streaming video and audio uses more energy than other uses of the internet — about 50% of the total before the COVID-19 outbreak. So, there is more to be thought about than just, can we do something. The question is, should we do something?

That is one of the reasons we ourselves have decided not to add to the amount of religious audio or video being put online at the moment (there’s still quite a lot available on our main site, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk) and why we don’t often listen to, or view, the contributions of others (another is the need for silence and recollection in the monastery, which we protect as well as we can).

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of our (your) own internet usage in terms of feasting, fasting and maintaining nutritional balance. I myself think that the internet is a great way for those finding the isolation imposed by COVID-19 difficult to keep in touch with others and maintain some sense of normality, including, for many, worship. That I would liken to maintaining nutritional balance and good health. I also think it is a great resource for learning, dealing with boredom, and stretching the imagination. It can be glorious fun. That I would liken to feasting. And fasting? That is where discernment comes in. For example, I don’t think it necessary for us to add to our online engagement at present, and I don’t think that every parish, congregation or community needs to livestream everything every day. Nor do I think it quite in keeping with Lent to be spending unlimited amounts of time online (in the monastery we actually have rules about that, so it is easier for us to maintain some restraint). But that’s just me and the community here.

I’d be interested to know what you think.


St Stephen, Courtesy and Techie Stuff

In previous years I see I have written about St Stephen in terms of faith, forgiveness, martyrdom and zeal. If interested, you can find the links by using the search box in the right-hand sidebar. This morning, however, it is the courtesy of St Stephen that strikes me, and that chimes in with a theme I have begun to develop about our use of technology and the internet.

‘Courtesy’ literally means having manners fit for a royal court. Anyone reading the account of Stephen given in Acts 6 and 7 will note that he was ‘full of faith,’ ‘filled with grace and power,’ ‘filled with the Holy Spirit,’ and that his dying words were ‘do not hold this sin against them.’ The account in Acts is not so much a paeon of praise for Stephen as a programme of action for us to follow. His refusal to speak angrily or disdainfully to the Sanhedrin was rooted in the transformation grace had wrought in his life. He was a man of faith because he prayed and allowed God to act in and through him. Somehow, I do not think that he would have had much truck with the concept of ‘righteous anger’. It was for God, and God alone, to decide who should be punished for wrong-doing, and Stephen himself preferred to follow Jesus in asking for forgiveness not condemnation. His manners were, so to say, fit for the royal court of heaven.

How does that link up with our use of technology and the internet? In the first place, I think it is a powerful reminder of the need for consistency. We cannot be Christians in church and howling demons on the internet. The judgements we make and the language we use should reflect the same standards. Whether we are online or off, thoughtfulness and the sort of self-control we associate with kind and considerate behaviour are essential. That means, of course, that we need to make some preparation beforehand. We need to pray, and we need to inform ourselves. Just as Stephen’s faith was rooted in prayer and reading of the scriptures, so must ours be. (I would add that, for Catholics, regular reception of the sacraments is also essential and it certainly wouldn’t hurt to keep our reading up, either. If we can’t manage theological texts, there is always the Catechism of the Catholic Church to check that the Church does actually teach what we think she does.) It all looks pretty basic, put like that, but we have only to glance at Twitter or Facebook or the comment section of most online media to see how ugly and brutal or even plain vulgar much of our public discourse has become.

Does this matter? I think it does, and in some later posts I hope to argue why I believe we are at a critical point in our use of technology and the internet. For years the Churches (plural) were a little suspicious of the new-fangled world of the internet and only used technology in ways that were perceived to be immediately beneficial (think CCTV, sound systems, etc). The situation now is quite different. Sometimes it can seem as though everyone is online and technology has become a substitute for genuine human interaction. That isn’t true, but the development of A.I. (artificial intelligence), the growing inequalities of the world in which we live, which include inequalities of access to the internet, for example, and, in the West, the increasing prominence of the laity in online engagement, mean that many of the old certainties are crumbling. Certainly, as regards religion, the old hierarchies are no longer as dominant as they once were. There is hope as well as danger in this, but it would be a sad mistake to stumble into a situation that effectively denies the Holy Spirit’s role in the Church. No doubt most would protest that it is not so, but many of us are given to wanting the Church to be what we want her to be, rather than what she is in herself — and we are vocal, and not always very courteous, in expressing our views.

Judging by his words and actions, that was not St Stephen’s attitude. He was happy to be a member of the Church. Yes, happy! He was her devoted servant because he was the servant of Christ. He did not see individuals as abstractions. When he gazed at the faces of the Sanhedrin, he saw them as they were, not as ogres or bullies but as men who were mistaken, perhaps, but basically people as intent on dong right as he was; and like his Master, he was filled with love for them. What Acts only hints at, his regular round of service as a deacon, must have taken up most of his time and exercised all those qualities of mind and heart we see at his end. It is tempting to forget the ordinariness of Stephen’s life as a whole because of the Caravaggio-style spotlight on his martyrdom, but doing that is to see only half the man and little of the saint. One of the lessons to be learned from Stephen is his utter selflessness, his desire to be conformed to Christ, and his graciousness in the face of adversity and opposition. It is a lesson I pray we may all take to heart — especially online.


The eRosary

The Vatican’s eRosary: expensive gimmick or aid to prayer?

Yesterday the BBC website ran a brief article on the Vatican’s launch of an eRosary bracelet — a snip at £85. I did what any twenty-first century nun would do, enquired of others via Social Media whether they had any experience of it. Of course, not one had, though I learned quite a lot about what they did have and what they thought about the principles involved (too expensive being a recurring theme).

I have often explained that, for us as Benedictines, the Rosary is a purely private devotion. I personally take the view that whatever helps someone to pray must be good, and a prayer that concentrates, as the Rosary does, on the life, death and resurrection of Christ and some of the doctrines that flow from that is of special value. But I’m not sure about expensive gadgets or an app that ‘checks’ how we pray. Big Brother and Loving God are not one and the same. If you have an eRosary or experience of using it, do please let me know what you think of it. It may encourage me to dust off an app I designed some time ago but never actually got round to releasing . . . .

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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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail