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.

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Envy: Left Out of the Party

Today’s the day when lots of Christian folk who are enthusiastic users of social media and the internet will feel left out of the party. They will not be at CNMAC13, the Christian New Media and Awards Conference taking place in London. Having attended a couple of conferences in the past, I know it will be an excellent opportunity to learn from others, share ideas and generally be encouraged. So, we are who are not there physically will be doing our best to be there virtually, following the #cnmac13 on Twitter and any subsequent blogs and videos. But we shall still feel ‘left out’, and not only because we shall not be meeting old friends or making new ones in the intervals of talks and workshops. Whether we like it or not, we shall be in the grip of envy.

Envy is a dewy-eyed old hound in comparison with the green-eyed monster, jealousy. Envy desires what another has, whereas jealousy would rather destroy what another has if it cannot be its own. Envy longs to share; jealousy will brook no rival. The danger, of course, is that envy may easily become jealousy if allowed too free a rein. That is why the psalmist reminds us that our every desire is before God, who is constantly scrutinizing heart and mind — not to catch us out, but because he cares about us and wants us to live free and joyful lives. The jealous person is not free and not joyful: he/she lives in a shrunken universe bounded on all sides by self. But we who are ‘merely’ envious are not let off the hook entirely. The roots of the word ‘envy’ are to be found in the Latin for ‘looking maliciously’ and ‘begrudging’. Malice and begrudging are not attractive qualities. They lead to sin, so let us be on our guard. There is an even greater party none of us would wish to be left out of.

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Speaking the Good Word on Twitter

‘A good word is above the best gift’ (Sirach 18.17) and ‘A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver’ (Proverbs 25.11). Those two sentences are culled at random from the scripture I store in my head, and for me they pinpoint why a Twitter silence is likely to prove an inadequate response to the evil of trolling and abuse. Silence will not, of itself, change a culture of abuse — and that is what we have: not merely individuals who abuse, but a culture which tolerates such abuse. Indeed, a Twitter silence such as some are advocating may allow it to flourish all the more. Instead of walking away from Twitter and other forms of Social Media, I think we should engage with them for good. We must show how use of the good word, positive speech and engagement, is much more beneficial, in all senses of that word, than bad or angry/abusive words.

It is a challenge we can all take up, but as we do so, perhaps we need to examine our own conduct. We may not be trolls, but we may be a little too free in our negative comments about others, a little too inclined to assume that we are right and everyone else wrong, keener to lecture than to listen. The good word is born of a listening silence. Let’s not forget that.

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The Cloister of the Heart

Michaelmas, when we think about realities usually unseen, is a good day on which to respond to a question raised by a number of people about what we mean by our ‘cloister of the heart’ and the internet as its ‘fourth wall’.

I hope Sr Joan Chittister won’t mind my saying that I think we were using the phrase ‘cloister of the heart’ before she coined the phrase ‘monasteries of the heart’. Although there are similarities between the two, there are also major differences.

When we began life as a fully autonomous monastic community, we had practically nothing in material terms, but we did have a vivid sense of the importance of chapter 53 of the Rule of St Benedict, On the Reception of Guests. Benedict exhorts us to welcome the guest tamquam Christus, as if Christ. That means that the monastery must not only give to the guest, it must also receive: the guest should not only find Christ in the monastery but also bring Christ to the monastery. Hence, hospitality is a sacred duty, and a mutual duty. For us, without a physical space into which to welcome guests, the internet provided an opportunity to exercise Benedictine hospitality, no less real for occurring within a virtual space. That is why we have tried to introduce elements of interactivity and to create a space that is at once welcoming and imbued with a sense of the sacred. There is a lot still to do, but we have to work within the constraints of our resources, both human and financial.

We commonly refer to this virtual space as our ‘cloister of the heart’, and the internet, which is both the means and mode of its existence, as its ‘fourth wall’. To understand that, you need to have some knowledge of the role of the cloister in monastic history. Historically, the cloister is usually a quadrangular covered walkway, adjoining the three most important places within the monastery, church, chapter house and refectory. It links them all, and is traditionally associated with prayer and reading. In medieval times, it was often also the scriptorium, where monks and nuns worked at manuscripts.

Church, chapter house, refectory: where is the fourth place to encounter Christ? In the guest, of course; and how do we at Hendred chiefly encounter the guest? Through the internet. There is a further point to make. We speak of the internet as a ‘wall’ as well as a vehicle of welcome. That is because a life of prayer requires discipline and sometimes distance from many of the preoccupations of a more secular lifestyle. The internet is a way in which we can take the monastery to others and enable those who wish to share in our life of prayer to experience something of God’s love and explore with us some of the big questions of life; but it is also a way in which a small and ‘economically challenged’ community can protect itself from being devoured by the needs and demands of others.

We hope that readers of this blog and users of our various web sites will always feel welcome in our ‘cloister of the heart’. We cannot always meet your expectations or demands, no human being could; but we hope you will be encouraged to go further into God. It is the greatest of all journeys. May St Michael and all angels attend you on the way.

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Connecticut Connections

Bridgettines and Benedictines
Bridgettines and Benedictines in Darien, CT

Last week Quietnun and I made a return visit to the U.S.A. for a series of meetings which took us from Connecticut to Georgia in something of a whirlwind tour. As before, everyone was enormously kind and helpful, even the much-maligned Homeland Security staff who had the job of frisking us at every airport. In London one is accustomed to the occasional jibe or unpleasantness, but we never encountered anything like that in the States. So, lesson number one, the legendary friendliness of Americans, like the exquisite courtesy of Madrileños, is something we could all well emulate.

Our friend Meg made our visit very easy, helping us with transport arrangements and throwing open her home to us while she decamped elsewhere. So, for a few days, Derby CT had a small Benedictine community in its midst. The latter part of our stay was spent with the lovely Bridgettine community at Darien CT, from which it was  a short train journey into New York city. Mother Eunice and her sisters made us very welcome, and we enjoyed the quiet beauty of the Sound and the prayerful atmosphere of the community chapel.

Americans are much quicker to grasp the significance of what we are trying to do as a community and much more understanding of the struggle we face in trying to meet the demands of monastic life with the slender resources we have at our disposal. Indeed, several people asked whether we would consider moving to the States and I must say, by the end of our trip we were beginning to wonder whether that might be something we should think about.

We saw enough of New England on our travels to be charmed by its beauty. Digitalnun kept saying useless things like, ‘Ooo, listen to that lovely accent. I bet that’s what Shakespearean English sounded like,’ while Quietnun went native with her ‘Wows!’ and ‘Ay-mens’. Along with the business meetings went some rather more fun events, including a delightful evening spent with friends in Milford.

Georgia was hot and humid and we didn’t have time to venture beyond Atlanta, but again we were fascinated by the city’s architecture and the local accents. I don’t know why Americans keep saying they have no history to speak of. They have as much history as anyone else, it’s just that it’s recorded in different ways. Derby, for example, was ‘founded’ in the seventeenth century but that only refers to the date of settlement. Before then, as some of the local names indicate, Native Americans were in the area and their history is not recorded in books.

One of the great joys of our visit was to meet our New York discerner again. She has now formally applied to join the community, so please keep her in your prayers.

It will take a while for us to catch up with everything but in the meantime we thank God for our visit. May God bless all those we met on our travels and who gave so generously of their time, especially Meg, who welcomed us ‘tamquam Christus’. Were it not for our internet outreach, we would never have made the connection. Now that is a thought worth pondering, isn’t it?

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The Transfiguration

The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch
The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch, © Stanbrook Abbey

The Transfiguration is one of the most luminous of feasts. Whatever happened at Tabor, whether at night as many suppose, or during the day, something of Jesus’ glory as God was revealed to Peter, James and John. No wonder the Cluniacs made this feast peculiarly their own: it breathes a very Benedictine sense of the divine glory being in everyone and everything.

That is very far from pantheism or a lovely warm fuzzy glow about the essential niceness of everything. It is instead a call to action, to a way of being. The Transfiguration reminds us of the glory of being human as well as Jesus’ glory as Son of God. When we really take that on board, we cannot go on acting as we once did, using (and possibly abusing) others for our own ends. We cannot be rude or impatient or scornful. Or rather, we can, but if we are any of those things, it is a sign that we have not yet allowed the grace of God full scope in our lives.

Earlier this week I was involved in a series of emails with people who claimed to be Christian but were the reverse of courteous. The correspondence demonstrated something I have often remarked upon: unless we treat our online communications as seriously as our offline communications and observe the same standards of truthfulness and courtesy, those of us who claim to be Christian are doing a tremendous disservice to our Faith. The internet/email/social media are as much a sacred space as any other. Here, too, we must allow the glory of God to shine through, for the Transfiguration is here and now as well as in eternity.

A note on the illustration
The illustration comes from a reprinting of the card D. Werburg Welch designed for the Abbé Couturier’s movement for Christian Unity before World War II. It was originally issued in several languages with a prayer he had composed. When I was printer at Stanbrook, it was reissued both on handmade paper and in a commercial edition.

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Love of Solitude

As a community we are happy about using the internet to share something of our monastic life with others. Our use of Facebook, Twitter, Google + and so on isn’t random (though it may sometimes appear so): we are doing our best to exercise the traditional hospitality of Benedictines in all the ways open to us. So why am I writing about solitude, and more precisely, love of solitude? For the simple reason that our online engagement presupposes an even greater degree of engagement with God and the things of God in silence and seclusion. Love of solitude is an important element of monastic life that no amount of ‘connectedness’ can or should obscure, but I think it may be something those not called to live the monastic life might gain from thinking about.

One of the problems contemporary culture confronts us with is that of discerning how much of ourselves to share with others, especially online. Do we ‘do’ social media, and if so, what limits do we need to observe? Are professional/semi-professional networks like Linkedin or BranchOut as necessary as having a business card once was, or do they blur the distinction between public and private? During the last few months there has been an explosion of interest in the use of social media by the Churches and some very acute observations have been made. I particularly commend anything written by P. M. Philips (Methodist) or Antonio Spadaro (Catholic). However, I’m not sure that we have yet covered all necessary aspects. Worrying about our personal safety, the security of our online data, or the longevity of some of our sillier postings/comments on blogs and so on, is essentially self-regarding. As Christians, we are called to look beyond ourselves, to God and others; and that’s where it all becomes a little complicated. Is all this online buzz really good for anyone? What part does solitude play in our lives?

Solitude, as we all know, can be good or bad: it can be selfish or selfless, creative or destructive. A lot depends on our attitude and intention. That is why I emphasize the need for a love of solitude. Some people are afraid of silence, of being alone; yet we all need to experience what it is like to do nothing in particular, to spend time being receptive rather than assertive, otherwise whatever we  say or do, online or offline, will be shallow or vapid. A solitude which is not loneliness or emptiness is not achieved without some sacrifice, but in a world where we are endlessly available to others via the internet/smartphones/whatever, solitude seems to me increasingly necessary.

Prayers please
We heard this morning that our founder and Ordinary, Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth, has bowel cancer. Please keep him in your prayers.

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St Benedict, Patron of Europe

One of my private heresies is that Benedict was an Englishman. The minor fact of his having been born in Italy at a time when the English did not exist is cheerfully brushed away. How could someone with such reserve, such dry humour, such administrative genius have been anything but English? Of course, even I have to admit that no one nation has a monopoly on these characteristics. I suppose it would be better to say he was a fin-de-siècle Roman, without any fin-de-siècle nastiness.

Europe is very much in Benedict’s debt. His sons and daughters have, over many centuries, prayed and worked and studied their way to holiness; and in the course of doing so, have changed the face of the continent. We think of them today as missionaries and scholars, teachers and people of prayer. Europe is in urgent need of re-evangelisation, and although many wonderful Orders and Congregation have arisen in the Church, there is still a need for Benedictines, perhaps today more than ever. What we bring to the Church is hard to define, but easily recognized when encountered.

After thirty years in monastic life, I think I am just beginning to understand what it is all about: what it means to be a contemplative and a missionary, to be a cloistered nun and someone who reaches out to others with the Word of Life. We have espoused the internet and associated technologies in the same way that our predecessors embraced the quill pen and the printing press, and for much the same reasons; but we know that without the persevering life of prayer, which is largely unseen and unnoticed, everything we do on the net would be pointless. If Europe ever becomes a Christian society, it will be because prayer allowed God full scope to work his miracle of conversion.

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Farewell Nebraska, Hello New York

The Benedictine Development Symposium at Schuyler, Nebraska, has come to an end and I’ll shortly be on my way to New York. It’s been a good conference: lots of ideas, professional expertise generously shared, and the genial kindness that marks Benedictines en masse. The monks of Christ the King have been unstinting in their hospitality and one has had the happy sense of being ‘at home among the brethren’. Most of the people I’ve met during the past few days, possibly all of them, I’m unlikely to meet again except online. It’s a reminder to me of how enriching the internet and associated technologies can be. As I give thanks for all I have received during the past few days, I also want to give thanks for the internet, which was both the cause of my being here and will be the means of my sharing what I have learned.

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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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