The Paradox of Christian Celebrity

We are currently re-reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. (You can listen to the daily readings from the Rule here on our main website.) It is a chapter that means more and more to me as I see both the possibilities and the challenges inherent in any attempt to live a truthful life. This autumn re-reading happens to coincide with the announcement of the shortlist for the Christian New Media Awards (CNMAC13: see here) which has generated some interesting debate about the nature of Christian celebrity and the place of awards for blogging, tweeting, websites, etc. Let me say straight away that it is the notion of Christian celebrity I want to explore here, not CNMAC or the awards it will be making. An earlier post on social media and humility may also be of interest (see here).

There is a paradox in the whole idea of Christian celebrity, for we all have the idea that Christians ought to be ‘retiring’, shunners of the limelight; but it might not be so paradoxical if we could free the concept of celebrity (= known, honoured, frequented) from the trappings of the celebrity culture we see all around us. To be known as a Christian is something every Christian should aspire to: our whole manner of being should proclaim the fact, not just our words or our dress, and it should be apparent whatever we are doing (cf. St Benedict’s Twelfth Step of Humility). Why then the unease? Is it because there are people who make a business out of their Christianity, who parade their Christianity for ends other than God? People who want to be recognized, applauded, for what is, in fact, a work of grace and not their own doing? Empty vessels making a lot of noise and ultimately proving they are not what they seem or want to seem?

I was pondering this in relation to some popular American preachers and came to the conclusion that we must distinguish between active and passive celebrity, that which is sought and that which is ‘imposed’ —or maybe ‘bestowed’ would be a better word. Popular acclaim is not in itself indicative of anything other than that someone or something has been noticed by others. No outsider will ever really know how truly humble or otherwise an individual may be. We tend to project onto others our own likes and dislikes, fears and fantasies, confuse the person with the position/office and generally muddle along as best we can, admiring X and ignoring Y. It is hero worship translated to the religious sphere. The Catholic Church has always known how to handle this, but she prefers her heroes (= saints) dead so she can apply certain tests of authenticity. ‘The good that men do is often interred with their bones’ is indeed true. Hero worship can be useful. It can inspire us to emulate the virtues of others. It can also be harmful, leading to idol-worship, the setting-up of that which is less than God in the place of God.

I am really undecided about Christian celebrity. There is potential for good and potential for harm. Ultimately, it is not the Christian celebrity (= person) who is responsible for what we make of him/her, but we ourselves. That surely is the paradox at the heart of this question: what we choose to honour may be Christian or it may not. It is we who need humility to keep us grounded in truth, love and service. What do you think?

Note on CNMAC13
Do have a look at the conference programme and, if you can, attend. You will learn  a lot. This blog was nominated by someone, I don’t know who, and is on the shortlist for Blogger of the Year. Check out the other entries. They are well worth reading if you don’t already know them.

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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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Saints Not Celebrities

What the Church needs is saints, not celebrities. When I tweeted that this morning in reply to a comment someone had made, I was indeed thinking of St John the Baptist whose solemnity we keep today. I have blogged a lot about him in the past (do a search in the sidebar if you are interested in any of the earlier posts) so perhaps I ought to restrict myself this morning to a single thought. John could easily have become a celebrity: the wild holy man whom even Herod liked to listen to despite his uncompromising views could have become the first-century equivalent of some of today’s mega pastors. But he didn’t. He became a saint instead and met a martyr’s death. A passionate, joyful love of God marks everything he said and did. There is a tenderness and humility about John that those who concentrate on the garment of camel’s hair or the stinging rebukes to the corrupt and extortionate easily miss.

Love, joy, tenderness and humility: these are not qualities we associate with celebrities, but they are qualities that bring us closer to God. Locusts and wild honey are optional asceticisms. The real asceticism, the one that counts, is loving and faithful obedience: daily taking up the Cross and following.

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Manners Online

Colm O’Regan is slightly irritated by the rash of chumminess which has infected online communications, especially the false intimacy characteristic of websites such as Facebook with its intrusive, ‘How are you feeling, Colm?’ (see http://bbc.in/WqYd5Q). I must confess that, by and large, it doesn’t bother me. Time was when I daresay we all had but a single name and were just Thomasina, Ricarda or Harriet to fellow members of our tribe and grunted and pointed our way through life, without adverting to any of the finer feelings. That, to me, sums up the process of shopping online; so those cheery emails which inform me that ‘Catherine! Your payment was successful!’ leave me quite happy; it’s those that say ‘Ooops! there was a problem with your card!’ that annoy.

There is, however, a whole area of life online where I think manners matter very much indeed: blogs and social media. We reveal a great deal about ourselves by the way in which we interact online. Yes, of course, we all have ‘off’ days or sometimes say things we regret or with a clumsiness we subsequently deplore and are chastened to think that those remarks are there for ever and ever. It is a challenge we have to work at: how to be ourselves, but in a genuinely social way.

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I defy you to find a single line where Jane Austen ever approves of arrogance or the wit that achieves its effect by wounding others. Today is also the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. It is said of him that, although he was often abstracted and did  not welcome interruptions, he was a true intellectual aristocrat and always answered others with politeness. St Benedict often referred to the need for courtesy in the monastery, seeing it as the outward manifestation of the humility and reverence at the heart. Centuries after Benedict and Aquinas, Chesterton defined courtesy as ‘the wedding of humility with dignity’ and declared that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’.

I think there is something there for us all to think about, don’t you?

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Doing the Impossible

Doing the impossible comes naturally to Benedictines: we have a whole chapter of the Rule devoted to it, RB 68. Anyone able to fulfil its requirements is undoubtedly guilty of heroic virtue. First, the impossible command must be accepted with perfect gentleness and obedience, not easy when one sees its impossibility (RB 68.1). Only if absolutely clear about the inability to comply can one raise an objection, and even then, one can’t just blurt out the objection, one has to choose an appropriate moment to explain everything calmly and politely to one’s superior (RB 68.3). Any form of argumentativeness is ruled out, and if the superior declines to accept the validity of the objection, tough. We must obey, ‘and, trusting in God’s help, out of love obey.’ (RB 68.5)

I think this short chapter of the Rule which we read today gives the lie to those who think that there is anything ‘moderate’ about RB. We are asked to transcend our normal way of acting, to strive for an obedience which truly reflects the obedience of Christ. Heroic virtue, as I indicated, is never popular. It can be uncomfortable to others, challenging their attitudes and expectations, but note the characteristic note of  humility and love with which Benedict concludes his chapter. That is the key to understanding what it is all about: allowing Christ to act in and through us.

Doing the impossible is not an ascetic feat, an attempt to be superhuman, it is rather an acknowledgement that God can do so much more than we could ever think or dream, and au fond, all that we do is done in love or it is worthless. I think I’d like to be guilty of that, wouldn’t you?

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Overdoing Things

Lots of people are prone to overdoing things, but those in the so-called caring professions are probably more prone than many. For clergy and religious overdoing things seems to be a given. People have very high expectations of us and in an attempt to meet those expectations, we can sometimes exhaust ourselves and those closest to us. Often we feel we have no choice. We know we should rest, but someone comes along and asks us to do something and we feel obliged to respond. It does not help when a well-wisher says, ‘Vicar, you should rest,’ or ‘Father, take things easy for a bit.’ Experience shows that if the tired vicar or parish priest does take a rest, there are very soon some disgruntled comments being made about selfishness and other undesirable qualities.

I was pondering this mini-problem when I came across an interesting blog post entitled 15 Things You Should Give Up To Be Happy. Although apparently written from a secular/New Age standpoint, it has some reminders about the need for forgiveness, humility and so on with which no Christian would disagree. At the end comes a reminder about freeing ourselves from the expectations others have of us. That was the point where I realised how different the Christian perspective is. We do not seek to be ‘in control’ but to surrender to whatever the Lord is asking of us in any and every situation. Our problem is that when we overdo things, we are doing the wrong thing for the right reason, which is why it is so hard to break ourselves of the habit.

It could be a useful exercise to scrutinize one’s own motivation, particularly if one knows one has a tendency to overdo things. I cheerfully admit to trying to do too much and getting cross with myself whenever I fail (which is often) or feeling a bit crushed when others get cross with me for not doing what they have asked or expect of me. I don’t think there is any ‘solution’ this side of heaven except practising humility and patience. Perhaps it is because they are such quintessentially Benedictine qualities that I am still struggling!

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A Feast of Fatherhood

Celebrating the Solemnity of St Joseph the day after Mothering Sunday, as we do this year, seems very apt. Like his Old Testament prototype, Joseph is sea-green incorruptible, the wise steward who provides for his family, the father-figure who quietly and effectively ensures that Jesus and Mary are kept safe. He, too, is a  man of dreams, but his dreams echo the voice of God and conscience, in obedience to which he is prepared to risk all his own hopes of happiness. There is something very great about this humble Jewish man, as there is something great about fatherhood.

Today, let us pray for all fathers, especially those who feel they don’t know how to be good fathers or who are scared of their responsibility. I suspect there were times when Joseph felt completely unequal to the task he had taken on, yet he was the man, above all others, from whom, consciously or unconsciously, Jesus took his own idea of what a man should be. Joseph’s greatness is the greatness of fatherhood lived generously. There is something we can all ponder in that.

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A Different Way of Acting

Yesterday’s post looked at some aspects of the cellarer’s duties and the personal qualities needed to perform them well. The second half of RB 31 goes into greater detail about how the cellarer should behave in various demanding situations.

Benedict has already reminded us that everyone and everything is, potentially at least, holy — imprinted with the divine image and to be treated with the utmost respect. Now he says that the cellarer should ‘above all’ possess humility and answer kindly if he is unable to meet a request (RB 31.13, 14). There is real psychological insight here. When someone is responsible for the welfare of others, not being able to provide what is necessary can be hard to bear. A crotchety manner, a rough answer, apparent indifference, they are all ways of masking the inadequacy and failure that the person feels. Benedict will have none of it. The cellarer must have an interior freedom about his service which will enable him to answer mildly and with patience. Moreover, just because he has the power of giving or withholding goods, the cellarer mustn’t think he can behave in a superior manner, as though he were conferring a benefit on others. There must be no arrogance or delay in giving the brethren their food, for example (RB 31. 16).

Benedict is aware, however, that the cellarer himself must be treated with consideration or nothing will get done as it should. The proper times for asking for things must be adhered to, and there should be assistants if the community is comparatively large (RB 31.17, 18). What Benedict aims at is, above all, peace and harmony in community.

I have myself been cellarer in a large and comparatively rich community as well as in a smaller and poorer one. I’m not sure which presents the bigger challenge. Mediocrity has always been the bane of Benedictine life. Monks and nuns in richer houses become too comfortable, forgetting the fervour and zeal with which they began. What was once enough becomes in time not quite sufficient, so that yesterday’s luxury becomes today’s necessity. In poorer houses, the need to economize and make do becomes in time a kind of institutionalized miserliness. It is not too much to say that the cellarer bears a great responsibility for steering a middle course, ensuring that legitimate needs are met but no luxury or excess creeps in, not even in inverted form.

There is only one way of ensuring that the cellarer is equal to his responsibilities: fidelity to prayer and constant watchfulness over his own behaviour. To some, what Benedict has to say may sound naive. All right for monks and nuns, perhaps, but not for people in the ‘real world’. It depends what you think is real, I suppose. Benedict’s recommended way of acting is different from that of some of our corporate mega-stars, but I have a hunch that it makes for greater happiness in this world and the next. It certainly makes for greater fairness. What do you think?

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Admin as a way to Heaven

I am much later blogging today for the simple reason that I have been up to my eyes in admin. Most people find admin a necessary evil: something that has to be done, but not the kind of task to make one leap out of bed, full of eager-beaver enthusiasm. It can be dull and difficult, something one begrudges as encroaching on what ‘really’ matters.

Benedict didn’t see it like that. He devotes a very thoughtful chapter (RB 31) to the cellarer or business manager of the monastery. He starts out by defining the qualities such a person ought to have, and they make impressive reading: the cellarer should be wise, of mature character, abstemious, not greedy, not conceited, not a trouble-maker, nor offensive nor lazy nor wasteful, someone who is God-fearing and may be like a father to the whole community (RB 31. 1, 2). It gets worse (for the cellarer). He is to be meticulous in his care for everyone and everything, especially those who are in some sense powerless: the sick, the young, guests and the poor (RB31.3,9).

The cellarer’s brief is all-encompassing: ‘take care of everything’, but do nothing without the abbot’s authorization, and always in accordance with his instructions (RB 31.3). So far, so corporate, but what about these

He should not upset the brethren. Should any brother chance to make an unreasonable request, he is not to upset him by snubbing him. Instead he should refuse the unreasonable request in the proper way, with humility (RB 31.6,7).

All the monastery’s utensils and goods he should regard as if sacred altar vessels (RB31.10)

Clearly, Benedict’s cellarer is no mere bean counter, working at a thankless task. He is an administrator, with a charism given him by the Lord for the building up of the church, whether domestic, local or international. I think I rather like the idea of admin as a way to heaven. We’ll look at the second half of the chapter tomorrow, God willing.

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A Book for Lent

One of the Lenten disciplines required by the Rule of St Benedict is that we should each receive a book from the library which we are to read straight through, in its entirety (cf RB 48. 15, 16). I think this one of the best ways of trying to draw closer to God. It is something we can all do, and although it demands no special skill or resources, there are several points to note.

First, the book is not chosen by us but by another. We don’t decide for ourselves what would be a good book to read, we submit to another’s judgement. That is harder than it sounds, especially for those of us who like to think we are ‘educated’, but I have often discovered books I might otherwise not have known simply because I had been told to read them. We begin by humbling our intellectual pride, and isn’t there a reason for that when we look back on the sin of Adam and Eve?

Secondly, the book is read ‘straight through in its entirety’, with no judicious skipping, no lengthy recourse to commentaries, explanations and additional material. It is not academic reading on which we are engaged but lectio divina. Now, there is a debate about what is meant by ‘a book from the library’. Benedict probably meant a book of the Bible; so we read a book of the Bible chosen for us by the superior — easy enough if her choice falls on Deutero-Isaiah, not quite so easy if she lights upon Numbers.

Lent is a time for meditating on the Word of God, allowing it gradually to sink in and change us. It is probably rash of me to say it, but if you have no one to choose a book of scripture for you, by all means email the monastery and one of us will make a suggestion. A ‘book for Lent’ is like a kind word, the best of gifts.

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