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.


A Little Blog Housekeeping

Several weeks ago I canvassed readers’ opinions about possible changes to the blog. I think it would be fair to say that the consensus was ‘no change’. However, there were a number of things that needed tidying up, and I hope we have now dealt with most of them:

  • the RSS feed has been emptied of all bloated bits and pieces, so should work more speedily and reliably in future
  • the Facebook link has been redone so that it should post more reliably (it still can’t cope with scheduled posts, for some reason)
  • the sidebar has been re-ordered
  • the Google Translate widget has been made to work as it should (not before time)
  • the Donate Now button takes you to our Charity Choice link (so you can have second thoughts if you wish) rather than simply asking you how  much you want to give (no subtlety there)
  • the Amazon Shopping search bar has been corrected so that if you are in the UK and choose to use it for your online shopping, we get a referral fee
  • there is a tag cloud so you can see at a glance the subjects most often discussed on iBenedictines
  • the link to eBuzzing rankings is now displayed last of all, so you can have fun with it if you want.

There are a few more tweaks to make, but these are enough for now. And if you want a thought for today, how about some fasting and praying for the people of Syria and wherever there is violence? We may think we can do very little, but doing a little is better than doing nothing.


Routine Holiness

On 30 April 1993, four years after Sir Tim Berners-Lee had developed a technology to help physicists around the world share information, the European space agency CERN, where he worked, made the software public domain. Thus, what we think of as the world wide web (and less accurately, the internet) became part of geeky consciousness. It took time to become popular, but the speed at which it has developed since is astonishing — and that for many is the problem. We live in a world where change has become routine, and the speed of change seems ever increasing. Thanks to the web and the new communication technologies to which it has given rise, we are more than ever aware of these developments; but we still have the same intellectual and emotional power to process them all.

After a certain age, human beings are not very good at speed — or change, for that matter. Although we may deny the fact, we tend to be creatures of routine. From what we eat for breakfast to where we sit in church (if we go to church, of course), there is a certain predictability about us. Routine requires less effort and makes for a calmer kind of life. Those who mock it are usually much younger, not yet ready to assume the greyness of their elders; but for those of us who look at our thickening waistlines with barely a twinge of regret, there is a certain comfort in routine. It is what our life is.

I was thinking about these things, and the fact that today is May Day, the feast of St Joseph the Worker, and wondering how much routine there must have been in the hidden life of Jesus in Nazareth. The regular round of work and prayer, the routines of family and village life, formed Jesus as a person, made him the man we meet in the Gospels, richly human, gloriously holy. For most of us, work and family life dictates the shape of our day, and the holiness we strive after is attained (or not) through the fidelity and generosity with which we accomplish the everyday tasks laid upon us. The element of routine is not to be despised. Just like the www.protocol, it can open us to things we never dreamed of, things into which even angels long to look. And if you are asking yourself how change itself can become routine, remember Newman’s wise observation, that the Church must be constantly changing in order to remain the same:

In a higher world it is otherwise, but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.

(Development of Christian Doctrine)


St Catherine of Siena, Social Media and Prayer

When I was given the monastic name of Catherine, I was given a double inheritance: D. Catherine Gascoigne, first abbess of Cambrai, wise and valiant and, above all as Benedict would say, a true contemplative whose prayer was as large and generous as her vision for the nascent community entrusted to her care, and St Catherine of Siena (whose feast we celebrate today), another great contemplative, not afraid to ‘speak truth to power’ and challenge the ecclesiastical and political status quo. I wonder what they would have made of the world of social media and instant communication. They were great letter-writers and much in demand for their views on certain subjects, but both had their struggles and suffered put-downs and condescension from some of the very people they were trying to serve. Speculating on how they might have used Twitter or Facebook takes us into forbidden territory for a historian, alas, but one thing I think we can dare to assert. They would have found much to pray about.

We sometimes forget that social media is social. That is to say, the tools given us by Twitter, Facebook et al are merely tools, but they are used by people. It is we who determine whether they are used well or badly, to build up or tear down. A distressing aspect of social media today is the way in which some people are abusing the power social media gives them to wound and destroy. During the past week several people I admire in the Twittersphere have deleted their accounts or contemplated doing so because of some mean-spirited attacks they have received over a period of many months; others have given up their blogs because they have neither the time nor the energy to police the more extreme comments they attract.

I find that sad, but I don’t think we should just give up and abandon the world of social media altogether. Upholding decent standards of behaviour is something people of goodwill are always ready to do, whatever their faith or none, but I believe those of us who are Christians have a special duty of prayer and witness. We are called to be Christ in the world, and that holds good whether we are in the cloister or out and about among the teeming masses. So, I think we need both to pray (and pray hard!) and engage positively in social media. Sometimes, we may feel as though we are clinging on for dear life and receiving more of a battering than we are prepared to take, but if everyone who believes that we should be kind and courteous to one another goes from the social media scene, what will be left? Are we prepared to let the devil have not only the best tunes but also the best Twitter feeds?

There is a sentence from St Catherine I often think about whenever I look at a crucifix and which reminds me why we, as a community, continue to be in social media and the internet generally despite the knocks we sometimes receive. ‘All the nails in the world could not have held Christ to the cross had love not held him there.’ Along with the humour, the banter, the sharing of information and insights which make up ordinary human conversation online as well as off, there is that greater sharing of divine love we are called upon to make. It is a great trust placed in us.


A Prayer for the Christian New Media Conference #CNMAC12

I haven’t time yet to post about the Conference, but some people have asked for a copy of the concluding prayer, so here it is. For those of you not lucky enough to be at the Conference, this year’s theme was The Power of Story in a Digital Age.

Father, Creator God,
You sent your Word, Jesus Christ, to reveal your love and compassion to the world; you have called us to be his disciples, true images of your beloved Son,
proclaiming his Gospel to all creation.
His story is now our story.
Keep us faithful to what we have received, and generous in our sharing.
Holy Father, we thank you also for the gift of the Holy Spirit
whom you sent to sanctify and bless all you have created
and be the bond of love that unites all of us with you and your Son.
Send forth your Spirit upon us now.
Purify our hearts and make us attentive to your promptings
that we may be true missionaries in the digital world.
Grant us the humility to seek you above and before all other things
that all we say and do may be done in your name and for your glory.
We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen


Transfiguration 2012

On 6 August 2012 NASA scientists successfully landed its rover robot Curiosity on Mars. Amid the rejoicing over such a stupendous feat darker memories surface, for on 6 August 1945 the U.S.A. dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima; on 9 August 1945 they dropped another on Nagasaki (observed by Leonard Cheshire, V.C.). It seems that in modern times this great feast of the Transfiguration is always to be marked with the colour of blood. Exploration of the Red Planet is a more acceptable use for nuclear technology than the destruction wreaked in 1945, but the juxtaposition of these events with the feast of the Transfiguration strikes me as thought-provoking.

What is it about the Transfiguration that captures our imagination? For myself, it is that combination of light and silence in a dazzling darkness on the mountainside; the bafflement of the disciples; the strange intensity of the revelation of Christ’s glory. It is almost as if there were something of a nuclear explosion on Tabor. But this extraordinary revelation, this glimpse of the Godhead, leads inexorably to Christ’s utter self-giving on the Cross. It is salvific. Historians argue, and will continue to argue, whether the use of atomic weapons was in some way necessary to end the Second World War: a ‘lesser’ evil to prevent a greater evil continuing. So, parallel or parody, who would dare to say?

The exploration of Mars may seem less overtly political, less likely to involve complex moral decisions, but it is not value-free. The decision to spend money and resources on this project rather than another is a choice with implications — not just for the U.S.A. but for everyone on earth. We do not know how other nations, especially China, view the undertaking. What to us may look like scientific research, pure and simple, may seem to others an attempt to lay claim to something that, in fact, none of us has a claim to.

The vision of the Transfiguration ended with the words, ‘This is my Beloved Son; listen to him’, and the person of Jesus being all the disciples saw. Maybe if we listened more, if we allowed Jesus to take a more central place in our lives, we would experience less confusion, less doubt. I hope that Curiosity will teach us more than geology (though I shall be delighted to learn more geology in the process). I hope it will increase our sense of wonder and gratitude, and perhaps remind us how very small and fragile we human beings are in the scale of creation. Small and fragile, yes, but infinitely precious, too.