1,000 Blog Posts and Reaching for the Stars

For someone who loves symmetry, it is rather nice that the 1,000th blog post to appear on iBenedictines should co-incide with the feast of All Benedictine Saints and our waiting to hear whether the historic landing of the Philae robot on Comet 67P is going to be as successful as we all hope it will. We are reaching for the stars at every level!

One of the most amazing things to have happened in my lifetime is the exploration of space. To have watched the moon landings as I did as a child; to have pored over those beautiful photos made possible by the Hubble telescope; to have looked at Mars or the grey surface of 67P is something undreamed of, a wonder and a joy that, to me, speaks of God. What mind, what heart, conceived these things and holds them in being? The Benedictine Saints we commemorate today did not see any of these astronomical wonders, but they knew ‘the Love that moves the Sun and lesser stars’. And because they knew that Love they have left us both example and encouragement.

‘Reaching for the stars’ may be a rather corny expression, but I think it captures that sense of voyaging into the unknown, of striving for holiness that characterises Benedictine life. People sometimes think that becoming a monk or nun must turn one in on oneself, makes one’s universe shrink. If it does that, there is something very wrong going on. The opposite should be true. One’s horizons should expand, just as one’s heart should expand with the inexpressible sweetness of love as one runs along the path of God’s commandments. (RB Prologue 49) Blogging, too, if it is all about seeking admiration or star-ratings is, for the monastic practitioner, another wrong turn. I am grateful that this blog has managed to pursue its own quirky path with what I hope is its own quirky integrity for 1,000 posts. You, the readers, help make it what it is, but any success it has cannot be measured in numbers, only in its ability, or otherwise, to make people think and, I hope, draw closer to God.

St Benedict ends his chapter on Good Zeal with the hope that Christ may bring us all together to everlasting life. That is the prayer of the community here today for all who light on these pages, and for all whose lives we touch or who touch our own.

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What We Don’t Blog About and What it Says About Us

Blogging, we are told, reveals what interests us and the kind of people we are. What we say and how we say it captures our essential essence. Le style est l’homme même indeed. But I wonder whether what we don’t say is just as revealing. The austere format of this blog suits me, but I know it puts some readers off. Perhaps, secretly, I don’t want the kind of readers who prefer visual imagery and catchy formats; so while I protest that I like the ‘monastic’ simplicity of the layout, I am actually trying to ensure that I only attract readers who are in sympathy with me? O devious Dame, if so!

You will find that I very rarely comment on what is going on in other churches. There has been no word from me on the subject of women in the episcopate or the doctrinal formulations of the Reformed or Protestant Churches, for example. That is not because I have no opinion, but because I do not want to be drawn into controversies I can never fully understand from the inside. I would need to be an Anglican or a Methodist or a Baptist to engage at any real depth. It is easy to see why. I may have read a fair amount of Anglican/Methodist/Baptist theology, but I have never lived as an Anglican/Methodist/Baptist so there is a gap between my theoretical understanding and my lived experience. Turn that back to front, and you may see why occasionally I am irritated by members of other churches making statements about the one to which I belong. It is not that I think they have no right to do so; it is just that I am not convinced they are always as well qualified to do so as I (note the ego!) think they should be.

I rarely comment on marriage or family life and have largely side-stepped the debate on same-sex marriage, yet I know that for many readers, they are questions of fundamental importance. My reticence stems from an awareness of my limitations. Why should I comment on that which is beyond me and about which others are infinitely better informed? Turn that around, and you may understand why I sometimes smile over comments that tell me how I ought to understand/live the monastic life. Many comments are helpful and make me examine my own practice, but there are a few that take us to cloud-cuckoo land!

I know I have many American readers, from both north and south, but I am very hesitant about commenting on U.S. politics. I have views, certainly, but I am not equal to the sheer intensity of American responses. The hatred of President Obama expressed by people I know to be good and kind leaves me speechless. I just don’t understand it — just as I don’t understand the apparent unwillingness to do anything about gun crime or the brinkmanship that has led to the latest shutdown of government. Turn that around, and as a European, I find the American tendency to think that what is good for Americans must be good for everyone else quite troubling.

Today you might have expected me to blog about St Thérèse of Lisieux, as I have done in the past; but I haven’t, because there are aspects of her life I find difficult. She was a great woman as well as a great saint, with more of steel in her than little flower, I think, but she plunges us into the stuffy world of the nineteenth century bourgeoisie, and I find that unattractive. I cannot relate to it in any meaningful way. In fact, I have never been drawn to Carmelite spirituality, much as I honour and hold dear those who are. I think that illustrates one final point about what we don’t blog about. No matter what we leave out, what we choose not to write about, someone, somewhere will have something to say that is worth reading, on precisely the subjects about which we ourselves are inadequate.

So, pray on — and blog on!

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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.

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Blog and Web Statistics

What is the point of monitoring web and blog statistics? I don’t just mean visitor numbers, but all the extra information one can obtain nowadays about where visitors came from, which page they landed on, which page they left from, what they did while on site, etc, etc. When I have my web developer hat on, I dutifully look at site statistics provided by Google and others because clients often obsess about them. It is a good way of establishing what does or does not ‘work’ on a specific site, especially if a client is adamant that something should be done this way and no other. (Fellow web developers will groan in sympathy if I add that the less  people understand statistics and rankings, the more they fret about them!)

Rarely do I check the site statistics for iBenedictines or our community web sites (e.g. www.benedictinenuns.org.uk) because I don’t see the point. We do the best we can to produce sites that reflect our purpose in being online, which is not the same as that of a commercial enterprise.  Some of the features most important to users (e.g. our email prayerline) are never going to attract much attention except when needed, so I wouldn’t know how to use their particular stats to improve visibility, usability and so on in any meaningful way. Much more important, from our point of view, is the testing process and feedback we get from individuals. That is what most radically affects what we do and how.

So, what are we to make of blog lists and rankings complied by eBuzzing and the like (a question prompted by @redjules’ compilation of stats for women bloggers: see http://bit.ly/OJHl6M )? Personally, I’d say don’t take them seriously. There are many excellent bloggers and writers on  the web who will never come very high on search engine lists or attain any degree of ‘influence’ on Klout. Most ranking bodies are a little coy about the algorithms they apply, so I question whether trying  to ‘improve’ results, especially if one is creating sites from a Christian perspective and with a Christian end in view, is ever worthwhile. Of course it is legitimate to try to raise awareness of a site and encourage people to visit it, but there is always a temptation to concentrate on the score card at the expense of the game itself. Chasing higher rankings sometimes leads people to lose sight of why they began writing or blogging in the first place and can result in self-absorbed and indeed fundamentally selfish behaviour online (e.g. commenting solely in order to get a link back to one’s own blog/site). Ultimately what matters is that the writer writes something worth reading; and that the reader is challenged, consoled or led to engage, as the case may be.

Whether you are challenged, consoled or just enraged by what I’ve written above, I do hope you’ll now engage.

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5 Suggestions for Self-Censorship (Blogs)

The idea of self-censorship is alien to many. Freedom of speech is something we value, rightly so, but there are times when, as Benedict says, melius est silere quam loqui, it is better to be silent than to speak. Words are dangerous, slippery things. Once let out of the cage, they cannot be whistled back again; and while they are on the loose, they can do untold harm. When should we put a clamp over our mouths or a lock on our keyboards? Here are a few suggestions. I am sure you can add to them.

1. Never turn an argument ad hominem. Good people sometimes do bad deeds, but a personal attack is never justified unless one is in possession of all the facts (unlikely).

2. Never give way to the temptation to be patronising or dismissive: you have lost the argument if you do.

3. Never state as fact what is merely opinion. Everyone has a right to their good name. If you want to make an accusation, make sure you have evidence to back it up.

4. Never forget that acts have consequences: before you write or comment, consider what the effect on others might be, especially those who may suffer as a result.

5. Never underestimate the importance of goodwill. Encouragement achieves more than condemnation, courtesy more than rudeness — no one was ever bullied into belief.

That is not an exhaustive list, but I’m sure there will be some who will see it as a limitation on their freedom, a forcing them to be something other than they are. I myself see it as a discipline, a way of ensuring that what one writes is responsibly written. Lurking behind my suggestions is, of course, an even bigger question than how we should conduct ourselves online but, sadly, it is too big to explore in a short blog post. Can you guess what it is?

 

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A Voice Crying

Isaiah’s image of a voice crying in the wilderness is one of the most evocative in scripture. No wonder that John the Baptist allowed himself to be merely the voice that precedes the Word. I often think that a blogger must also be just a voice: the message to be proclaimed, the essential Word, comes from the Holy Spirit. Our business is not to get in the way of that Word, not to falsify it, not to shrink it to our own comfortable assumptions about how things should be.

Reading again Isaiah chapter 40 this morning, I was reminded how the tenderness of God is not inconsistent with a wilderness experience, with huge efforts, much patience and uncertainty about results. We are called to make a highway for God in our hearts, and that means some exhausting labour to level the mountains of pride and fill in the valleys of fear. Those of us who blog from our Christian experience must expect it to involve us in hard work, misunderstandings at time, results quite the opposite of what we intended or hoped for: a kind of be-wilderment in fact. But we know that it was in the wilderness that Israel found God; that being a voice is important because we have the greatest of all messages to proclaim, Jesus Christ our Lord.

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10 Rules for Online Engagement

Yesterday I was privileged to take part in the Christian New Media Conference in London. I’ll write about the conference when I have had more time to digest what I learned. For now, I’ll just share with you part of my own contribution. I call it ‘Ten Rules’, but that is merely a nod in the direction of my monastic heritage. Like the ‘Ten Simple Rules for the Spiritual Life’ of Diadochus of Photice, these are merely guidelines, suggestions, for ensuring our online relationships are truly Christian. They make no claim to novelty: I am grateful to everyone who has helped define them.

Two points to remember as you read them. Before we go online, we need to ask ourselves why we are doing so and what our purpose is. A little reflection will show that the ‘friend’ model of online relationship I’m writing about is not suitable for every situation; and if you are wondering what the ‘friend’ model is based on, I can’t do better than quote St Aelred: ‘You and me, with Christ making a third.’

  1.  Pray. Bring Christ into the relationship at the very beginning, and let your prayer have more of the ‘Speak, Lord, your servant is listening’ than ‘Lord, open my lips that I may declare your praise . . .’
  2.  Listen. Engage with others, don’t preach at them. Know when to be quiet. It’s O.K. to have nothing to say!
  3.  Respect. Don’t abuse anyone or vent your anger online. It will scare off some people and make others feel uncomfortable in your presence.
  4.  Encourage. Give help when you can; affirm, compliment, if appropriate.
  5.  Spend time: you can’t build good relationships in just a few minutes. You have to be serious about wanting to build a relationship and prepared to commit yourself.
  6.  Share: not only what you are doing, but also what others are doing. This particularly applies to Twitter — don’t use it just for self-advertisement!
  7.  Be welcoming: you need people who disagree with you.
  8.  Be grateful: whingers are not very attractive, nor are those who take things for granted.
  9.  Be yourself: truthfulness is essential. ‘You’ online should be the same person as ‘you’ offline.
  10.  Love. Like prayer, it’s obvious, but unless you pray, unless you love those with whom you come into contact online, you’re wasting your time as well as theirs.

The digital revolution has created a new kind of eternity. What we do online is there for ever, so let’s make sure it is worthwhile and consistent with what we believe.

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Summer Colds

Summer colds are annoying, both to the one with the cold and those without. They tend to spread a pall of gloom over everything. No prizes for guessing that the snuffle season is upon us here at Hendred. We shall do the wise thing: announce a short blogcation, turn off Twitter, flip the switch on Facebook, ignore Google+ and retire to a life of indignant meditation until we regain our usual sunny disposition. (Some hope. Ed.)

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Blogosphere and Twittersphere Ghettos

Have you ever asked yourself whether you limit the blogs you read on a regular basis or the people you follow on Twitter to a very narrow group? I ask myself that question often, especially as I don’t have much time for blog reading. When I do, I try to make sure that I include blogs whose writers hold very different opinions from me, but I am not sure I always succeed. It requires effort. Similarly, in order to make sure I actually read what is on my Twitterstream, I only follow approximately one tenth of the people who follow me, but although my Twitterati are definitely weighted in the direction of religion and technology, I always aim to include a few whose views are ‘challenging’.

One of the great dangers of belonging to a group, any kind of group, is that one never looks outside. One takes all one’s ideas and values from within the group and creates a comfortable ghetto for oneself. I am utterly convinced of the truth of Catholicism and think there is nothing more exciting than exploring Catholic orthodoxy, but I treasure the insights of those who don’t. Perhaps the problem is that most of us are aware how little we know and are a bit reluctant to admit it. The other side of engaging with those whose views conflict with our own is the need for persevering prayer to the Holy Spirit and the hard work of making sure that we are genuinely informed. In these last few days before Pentecost it might be useful to reflect on the ghettos we have created for ourselves. Sometimes they are the result not of conviction but of laziness; and somehow, I don’t think the Holy Spirit is very keen on laziness.

Benedict XVI on World Communications Day, 5 June 2011

I liked this extract from the pope’s message but omitted to include it yesterday.

There exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others.

To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christian are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

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Minimal Geekdom: Blogging by Request

A reader asked if I would do a post on ‘what it means to be “tech savvy” as a regular person, not as a blogger or professional’. She went on to say, ‘What should a person know, and what should a person be able to do in their personal lives, in terms of the tools they use and how they use them (cell phones-computers-televisions-printers and more advanced devices and other things on a stand-alone and integrated basis)
What are the must-haves and the nice-to-haves, for example.’

My first thought was, one doesn’t actually need anything; but then I began to reflect  how we shop and do our banking, how we research subjects we do not know about (from how to repair the flap-valve on a water cistern to the theology of Theodore of Mopsuestia), how we communicate with others, how many Government services have to be accessed online, and so on and so forth, and began to see that, in fact, we do need to be ‘tech savvy’ if we are to accomplish everyday tasks safely and well.

Being ‘tech savvy’ is not the same as owning equipment. Skills are more important. If you live in the UK, for example, your public library (where it still exists) will usually offer you free access to a computer and the internet, but it will not teach you how to use them. I’d say that everyone ought to be able to work a computer, get online and observe basic safety drills to avoid viruses, phishing sites and the compromising of any passwords. As to software, I’d hope everyone could use some form of text processing (writing to the rest of us), a simple spreadsheet, simple photo editing for those who love photography, and email. Those are the basics, and for many people they are quite enough. They are the three ‘r’s for our age.

It is consideration of what is desirable that is interesting, because that is where technology and skill come together. An old Windows computer + printer would enable you to do all the things I think essential; its Mac cousin would enable you to do them more enjoyably and intuitively: the main problem would be the built-in obsolescence of hardware accessories such as printers and the limitations and security risks of aging operating systems.

I am a great fan of OpenSource software, which will provide you with office software such as OpenOffice or NeoOffice, for example, at negligible cost. Keep an eye on sites that do a round-up of what is currently available: you might be surprised by how much is on offer. Alternatively, if you don’t mind becoming part of the Google empire and possibly running up your broadband bill, you can access all your software online, in ‘the cloud’. A firewall is essential, and if you use Windows, some form of anti-virus software, which must be kept up to date. (Macs do get viruses but not so often.) Often your computer will come with pre-loaded software, some of which you may actually use.

If you want to connect with a wider world via social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc), express yourself via blogging/podcasting/video-making, run a business online or simply find a way of reducing all the paperwork you store at home, you are plunged into a more complex world, but it needn’t cost a fortune.

I find both Facebook and Twitter useful but have never got around to LinkedIn or any of the other networking possibilities. We self-host our blog, but there are free platforms such as Blogger and WordPress.com which are perfectly adequate, depending on what you want to do. Audioboo is great for short podcasts, but for longer items, you can record onto your computer using its internal microphone, process the results using the free Audacity software and feed to iTunes without much difficulty. Similarly, if you have a video camera of any description, you can upload to YouTube and share your genius with the world. Video conferencing is now widely available (think Skype or Tinychat) and requires negligible technical skill: even five years ago that was not the case. Only if you want a more professional edge to your productions do you need to think about more sophisticated input and editing methods, and you must expect to pay accordingly.

Archiving documents and storing information is important. Backups are essential. I always say that, after the computer itself and a printer, the most essential item is an external hard drive on which to make a copy of everything on the computer, and some form of online backup for when, not if, the hard drive fails. (We have multiple hard drives here, and multiple off-site backups plus backups online because we run a business.) To keep these safe, one has to acquire some knowledge of encryption. After all, what is the point of having backed your information up, only to have the hard drive stolen and accessed by a thief who didn’t even have to crack your password?

I think everyone should have a mobile (cell) phone. If you can afford an iPod Touch or something like it, there are an enormous number of useful little apps/books/music that you can carry round with you. For example, when out of the monastery, I always have the bible and the whole of the Divine Office with me, plus a free SatNav, a First Aid guide and various other ‘essentials’ in digital form.

And so we come to dreamland. I think an iPad would be first on my list of luxury items, but there is quite a lot of software we cannot afford that I would also like to have. It is just as well that we have strict rules about these things! If I look back on how our community has used computers and developed its online presence in the past few years, I can say that everything has been done on a minimal budget, with no formal training, but it has been time-consuming. Online forums and search engines have been a great help but we have often wished we could have gone on a course or two in order to understand how certain things work. Now I think that less necessary. The use of computers and online services has become simpler and more accessible to all.

Ultimately, however, one has to ask oneself: why do this at all? For us, it was a no-brainer. How could a small and financially challenged community fulfil the obligation of hospitality except online? Personally, I am no great fan of surfing the internet aimlessly or filling other people’s inboxes with cute video clips or animations. For me, the computer is the modern scriptorium and the internet as much a sacred space as any other. I hope we bring to our use of technology some of the traditional Benedictine values, including a sense of restraint and minimalism. Perhaps the most important part of being ‘tech savvy’ is to recognize that we are the same people at the computer as we are away from it. We reveal more about ourselves than we realise.

 

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