St Benedict and Data Protection

Today is the Transitus of St Benedict, the day when we commemorate his entry into heaven. For us, it is the great feast of the saint, infinitely more important than the Translatio or Translation of his relics, which we celebrate in July. You might therefore expect a paeon of praise in iBenedictines, but that is not what you are going to get, or only incidentally.

St Benedict was a practical man and I think he would have had something useful to say about one of today’s hot topics, data protection, especially as it affects millions of Facebook users. Contrary to the belief of many, I don’t think St Benedict was particularly reclusive in his mature age. The monastery at Monte Cassino is high up, certainly, but it commands an important crossing-point, and I think what the Rule has to say about guests and visitors is a clue to the sheer numbers the community had to deal with in the course of a year. Benedict expected to have to engage with others but the way in which that engagement is surrounded with prayer and common-sensical safeguards for the peace and unity of the community is striking (see, for example, RB 53, 61). Within community Benedict had some tricky situations to deal with also, but he was always discreet and urged that the senpectae, for instance, should be such that they could support the weak and wobbly without publicising their difficulties (RB 46.6). Throughout the Rule, we find references to the need to be considerate, circumspect, and careful about what we say and how we say it. In short, Benedict expects everyone in the monastery to keep the good of others in mind and do nothing that would hurt or harm them.

How does that apply to today’s world, where the buying and selling of information is at the basis of so much commercial activity? You may question that reference to ‘buying and selling’ , but if you use any ‘free’ service on the internet, you are trading some information about yourself in return for what is offered. A problem arises when the amount of information demanded is excessive or put to uses that go far beyond what we could reasonably expect. Who would have thought, for example, that doing quizzes on Facebook could have led to the current debacle with Cambridge Analytica? I myself have always steered clear of such quizzes and limited the amount of information I allow Facebook to have access to (plus I download my Facebook data from time to time) but is it enough? Am I at risk? The answer must surely be, yes, to some extent; but on the other hand, being on Facebook allows me to have a page for the monastery which many people find useful, and a group for our oblates which makes contact between us very easy. The trade-off is thus clear, isn’t it? Well, not quite, because what we have learned about the uses to which Cambridge Analytica allegedly put the information it gathered is worrying.

Here in the West we place great store by democracy, freedom of speech and our reliance on a justice system we believe to be essentially fair, no matter how much we may dispute individual instances of its workings. However, it must be clear to everyone that these things do not exist in a vacuum, nor are they ‘eternal verities’. They are vulnerable to change and even destruction. They can only continue because we support them, i.e. we as individuals hold precious the values that underlie their existence. That is where I think St Benedict still has much to teach us. His insistence on the right of everyone in the monastery to be treated with love and respect, and the duty of everyone to exercise what we today might call a duty of care towards others, is a very sound basis on which to consider how we use the information we hold. That isn’t ‘pi in the sky’ thinking. It is something that affects all of us and is part of the nitty-gritty of creating and sustaining a just and humane society.

I said I wouldn’t be praising St Benedict today, but perhaps awareness of how much we owe him, his Rule, and the influence of his disciples is reason enough to celebrate. Much that we value in Western society is attributable to his wise and kindly emphasis on human as well as divine values. He never used the term ‘data protection’ but he certainly understood the need for privacy and its importance in protecting everyone, especially the most vulnerable. May we do the same.

A Little Bit of Data Protection of Our Own:
If you wish to receive our occasional email newsletters, please don’t forget to sign up here: http://eepurl.com/dlQ7x5. This is to make sure we conform to the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation, which comes into effect in May 2018.

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Nun Coshed in Facebook Fight

At the week-end I posted on Facebook a link to Esquire‘s Style Blog which has named Pope Francis the best dressed man of 2013. (You can read the article here.) Little did I realise the storm that would ensue, both on Facebook and even more via email. By Sunday evening I was beginning to feel I had been coshed. What would happen were I to post something SERIOUSLY controversial?

The first thing I noticed was that most people were uninterested in why I had posted the link. Fair enough, but also quite revealing. They either assumed they knew (most of them didn’t), or used the opportunity to put forward their own views on the subject and on others they linked with it (sometimes rather tendentiously). Normally, that can be quite entertaining and sometimes really illuminating, although I do have reservations when the argument turns nasty or personal. What struck me most forcibly, however, was how many people seemed to read the original article selectively and reacted to certain phrases without considering the import of the whole. I think that is becoming more and more noticeable in all forms of online engagement. We talk about ‘surfing’ the web, but increasingly we seem to be skimming through arguments, too. As an advocate of ‘slow reading’ (a.k.a. lectio divina), I’m not very happy about that. If we can’t even absorb the argument of a short piece like that in Esquire, what hope is there for more densely argued pieces?

This morning I posted on Facebook the reply that I gave most of my email correspondents. I said that the article had interested me because of what a secular magazine had to say about clothes and their meaning and the way in which the writer had interpreted papal dress. Without necessarily sharing the writer’s view, I thought it was good for those of us who wear some form of distinctive dress for religious reasons to think about how it appears to those outside the circle of church and monastery. Most people are interested in what we wear and how; they rarely ask why. I found it interesting that a secular magazine had made a stab at trying to understand. In fact, I found it encouraging. What I didn’t find encouraging was the reaction of many (not all) of my fellow Christians, which ranged from the dismissive to the aggressive. In effect, the variety of replies actually confirmed what the Esquire writer had said: dress does matter; it does make statements; but how they are interpreted may not be what the wearer intended.

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Social Media and Humility

The juxtaposition of the words ‘social media’ and ‘humility’ may strike you as incongruous, but earlier this week I was privileged to attend the Social Spaces: Sacred Spaces conference in York (a study day for Anglican clergy).  Subsequently, in the monastery we have been reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. I have therefore been mulling over some of the conference comments in the light of Benedict’s imperative, and I think it may be worth sharing my questions if not my conclusions.

To many, social media is just one long, self-indulgent exercise in self-advertisement; and I have to say, there are users of Twitter and Facebook, for example, I would probably not choose to meet in the flesh. You know the kind I mean. Those who are so busy collecting followers that they omit to say anything interesting themselves; those whose every posting has an element of Stalkie’s cry, ‘Hear me, hear me: I boast’. It is inevitable that any system that can be monitored by statistics (no matter how questionable some of those statistics may be) will attract those who are by nature competitive. Collecting ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ is really no different from collecting cigarette cards, except for the involvement of the ego; and that’s where the trouble begins.

When social media ceases to be social, when its use becomes detached from friendship (‘social’ comes from the Latin socius, meaning ally, companion or friend), it becomes a parody of itself, and often a rather sickening one. Yes, social media is great for sharing, not only among people who, in some sense, know one another. One has only to think of its impact on events (e.g. Egyptian Revolution) or attitudes (e.g. sexism, trolling). Yes, social media is great for bringing together people who would never otherwise meet (hello, friends in Australia and Japan). But ultimately, it is what its users make of it. So, it can be used for good or bad; to build up or tear down; as a vehicle for pride or humility.

Benedict has several wise things to say about the uses and abuses of speech, but he makes the point that true humility is manifested in every aspect of our lives, in the interior attitudes of mind and heart as well as our more exterior behaviour. So, my question for today is: how do we manifest humility in our use of social media? This is another way of approaching the old conundrum about how we integrate our online and offline persona, but sometimes posing the question in a different way can highlight things we have hitherto ignored. Over to you!

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Religious Nerdism

A few years ago trying to get a church or religious institution to take the internet or social media seriously was uphill work. Many took the view that it was something the Church didn’t need to bother with or could safely leave in the hands of a few eccentrics who liked messing about with computers. There were exceptions. Early adopters of podcasting, for example, were frequently fired with evangelistic zeal. Most of us can probably also remember some rather inept YouTube videos with similar messages. It wasn’t so much the Word that drove the technology as the technology that drove the Word. To members of the mainstream Churches, it was all slightly shady. Now, religious nerdism has become respectable. The resources available online have multiplied, many of them excellent (e.g. those provided by Premier), and conferences on Christian engagement in the media are two a penny.

The question no one seems to be asking is, to what purpose? Our stated purpose, that we want to proclaim Christ online, is not always the real driver. Sometimes when I look at Twitter I am made uneasy by the number of Christian pastors and teachers who use it as a form of self-advertisement and wonder whether it is becoming also a form of self-advancement. Facebook and Pinterest tend to be light-hearted by their very nature, but just occasionally I look at a day’s religious offerings and the word ‘drivel’ comes to mind. When everyone has a voice, it can be difficult to hear what is worth listening to.

These somewhat negative thoughts may be attributable to incessant rain or dyspepsia or something, but I am working on a relaunch of our own websites and doing so has made me think again about what we are trying to achieve. Our online engagement began when we sat down as a community and prayed about how to interpret the teaching of St Benedict on hospitality. I have an inkling that it is that more receptive model that will ultimately prove the most fruitful. It is not exhortation but experience that draws people to Christ. The challenge is how to create an opportunity for that to happen online.

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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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A Question for Formators

Yesterday an interesting question arose (one among many) concerning use of the internet by those in monastic/religious/priestly formation. Our own policy here at Hendred is clear. Essentially, during the novitiate access to the internet will be restricted. Emails to family and friends (within reason), Skype calls to parents, occasional use for study purposes, yes. Facebook, Twitter, surfing YouTube? No. There is so much that needs to be done during the novitiate if we are to understand and co-operate with the graces being offered us to grow in prayer that there really isn’t time for anything more. We need to focus, even become ‘bored’ with God if the novitiate is to do its work — at least, that’s our view and our policy for now.

Other Benedictines present at the Symposium here at Schuyler spoke of a much more liberal use of the internet allowed to those in formation, including active use of Facebook. The question raised was ‘how much does this usage lead to real engagement with others?’ To an observer it looked as though there was an over-concentration on uploading and commenting on photos. Is this good or bad? Well, I have already said that at Henred we’d be rather sceptical, but ultimately it is a case of ‘by their fruits shall ye know them’. God has a habit of making saints by some unlikely means.

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