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.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Web Magisterium and Other Weighty Matters

Tonight, after first vespers of SS Peter and Paul, the pope is going to launch the long-awaited Vatican news portal, www.news.va. If the sneak preview we were treated to at the Vatican Blognic is anything to go by, it will be worth waiting for. Benedict XVI is not perhaps the most naturally web savvy of men, but under him the Vatican has made strenuous efforts to improve its online presence (in the case of the Vatican web site the verdict must be ‘could do better’, but at least it’s a start).

I was mulling over this when I found on my Twitterstream a link to Fr James Martin’s reflections on what the Church is/is not doing online. Taken together with the same author’s Ten Dos and Don’ts, and the wise words of Pete Phillips on engagement with social media, we have a helpful summary of how best to make our web presence constructive. Needless to say, Digitalnun nodded her head in agreement over most of it and wondered whether we, as a community, come anywhere near to living up to the ideal. Is there scope here for a seventy-fourth chapter of the Rule?

One particularly eye-catching phrase used by Fr Martin was ‘the web magisterium’. What a perfect way to describe a phenomenon most of us have encountered from time to time (and maybe even been guilty of ourselves on occasion): the self-appointed guardian of the Church, who knows how to castigate what is wrong with bishops, priests and religious; who has the solution to other people’s problems and believes in ‘speaking the truth in love’; who is blissfully unaware of his/her own feet of clay and regards disagreement as a form of martyrdom. I’m not sure which is scarier: the liberal or the conservative manifestation. All I can say is, I thought about it a little, and trembled!

Finally, a sad day for bloggers: Mouse is hanging up his laptop for while, to concentrate on Mrs Mouse and the Baby Mice. We shall be the poorer for his loss, but children grow up fast, so perhaps he will return to the blogging scene earlier than we realise. Hope so.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Prayer in a Digital Age

As I drove back from the excellent Church and Media Conference I was privileged to attend earlier this week, I found myself trying to think through in greater depth something I had only lightly touched upon in my own remarks: prayer in a digital age.

Everything we do as Christians has to proceed from prayer, and prayer presupposes a humble, persevering quest for God, day in, day out. This searching is part of our experience of God, and I believe that trying to communicate that experience is probably the biggest single challenge facing us in what we do online. Looking at some of the developing technologies showcased in the BBC’s Blue Room made me realise that it should one day be possible to move from ‘displaying ‘ online to ‘immersing’ online, and perhaps a lot sooner than we imagine.

At the moment we are all locked into display mode. We set out our resources online and do our best to proclaim the truths we live by in as attractive and responsible a manner we can. But no matter how many glitzy add-ons we may try – edgy videos, livestreaming worship, interactive webconferencing, snazzy little smartphone apps – we are still essentially proclaiming, and I trust you’ll forgive me if I say it is all rather noisy. It is also a little bit seductive. We can get sidetracked by the technology and end up a long way from where we want to be.

Perhaps it is here that monasticism can make a contribution to prayer in a digital age. The monastic world is largely silent, one we deliberately choose to make as free from distraction as possible. As monks or nuns, our first and most important contribution must be prayer itself – unseen, unheard, offline. But as a corollary, I think we must also try to work towards introducing people to a different kind of digital experience, a more silent, immersive experience.

Moving from display mode to what I call immersion mode is very like the movement we make in prayer, from vocal prayer to something more meditative in which no words are needed. I have a hunch – and it is only a hunch – that we* may be able to find a way of helping others to do this online, using some of the evolving technologies. If so, I think we shall have found a way of fulfilling St Benedict’s first requirement on meeting a guest, to pray together, then treat him or her with loving courtesy. I pray it may be so.

*By ‘we’ I don’t necessarily mean our community here but the Monastic Order in general, especially those parts of it which engage with the digital world in a thoughtful and innovative way, and those who, technically more gifted, can see the point of what we are trying to do.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

New York! New York! or A Nun Travels the World

Well, not quite; but with Bishop Crispian’s blessing, Digitalnun is about to take part in a couple of conferences which will see her out of the cloister and plunged into a world far removed from the leafy lanes of Oxfordshire.

Church and Media Conference 2011
First, there is the Church and Media Conference 2011 at the Hayes Conference Centre, 13 and 14 June, which promises ‘a unique opportunity for media professionals and faith leaders to engage in lively and informed debate.’ Being neither a professional nor a leader, and with no particular claim to being either lively or informed, this presents Digitalnun with something of a challenge, especially as she will be giving the closing keynote. However, debate is good and she is quite excited about listening to some of the very knowledgeable people who will be attending. Many thanks to Andrew Graystone and the Conference organizers for inviting her. An unintended bonus is that Quietnun and Duncan will have some quiet time while she is away.

The Benedictine Development Symposium

At Pentecost, the Church was endowed with the gift of tongues in order to make known the Good News. The internet and social media are simply another ‘tongue’ we must all learn to speak with some degree of fluency. This will be one of the subjects addressed at the Benedictine Development Symposium in Schuyler, Nebraska, 5 to 9 July, where Digitalnun has been invited to share some of the insights the community has gained during the past few years. The great generosity of Mike Browne, the Symposium members and the Priory of Christ the King in funding her visit is a mark of the seriousness with which religious organizations are now tackling what is, to many, still rather strange and new.

New York! New York!
And finally, from 10 to 17 July, a few days in New York, where Digitalnun will be meeting with a number of people who are interested in what the monastery is doing and who, hopefully, might look favourably on the community’s desire to obtain permanent accommodation. There are still a few free slots in the timetable if anyone would like Digitalnun to ‘sing for her supper’, as it were. Again, we are enormously grateful to those who have made this part of the trip possible, especially the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians who, not for the first time, have come to the rescue of Benedictines abroad by offering accommodation, and the kind friends and well-wishers who have underwritten some of the other expenses and smoothed the way for the visit.

It wouldn’t be honest to pretend that this will be all hard work and no play. A day off has been arranged, and it is quite likely that it will be spent either in the Met or at The Cloisters. Digitalnun is still a lapsed but unrepentant medievalist.

A serious question
Of course, all this invites reflection on the contribution monasticism can make to the world today. It would be a mistake to think that any activity, however good, could ever replace the quiet, persevering search for God we make in prayer, work and study. The cloistered life always has been, always will be, one that comparatively few understand and even fewer actually live. But because it is at the heart of the life of the Church and part of its missionary impulse, monasticism is a necessary part of the Christian world order and therefore must speak and pray in the language of the internet as much as any other.

How that is worked out varies from community to community. We don’t have a physical cloister here at Hendred but we think of the internet as the fourth wall of our cloister of the heart, somewhere we seek God and, on occasion, find Him.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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.

 

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Changing an Online Identity

Digitalnun photographed by James Pereira
Digitalnun photographed by James Pereira

We all do it. From time to time we change our online identities. We give our web sites makeovers; we change our profile pictures on Facebook; we find a new template for our blog; we redesign our avatars for Twitter or whatever. Having for years used an image of myself listening to an iPod (which the community did not then own), I think it is time to highlight another characteristically Benedictine activity, seeing.

The first word of our Rule is Obsculta, listen, but the idea of seeing, watching, opening our eyes to the light that comes from God, is also important. Both looking and listening are images of what we do in prayer. As it happens, the photo James took shows me reading the Divine Office, a form of lectio divina, carried out, not in choir on this occasion, but in a quiet interval at the RSA, close to the noise and bustle of the Strand. The fact is, all times and seasons are good for prayer; and it is just possible that the person sitting opposite you on the train, eyes glued to a small screen, or jogging along the pavement with earphones firmly attached, is actually somewhere else, in ‘the land of spices’, one with ‘church bells beyond the starres heard’, finding their deepest and truest identity in God.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Vatican Bloggers’ Conference

The Wonders of Technology

This afternoon 150 bloggers, of whom Digitalnun is one, will be meeting at the Vatican for the first ever formal meeting on Vatican territory. The programme has been published in outline and you will  find links to all the bloggers and their blogs here.

I hope you will join me for some live blogging from the Vatican Bloggers’ Conference on Monday, 2 May, beginning about 2.45 pm British Summer Time. If there is no livestream (video) but at least adequate wi-fi, as promised, Digitalnun should be able to provide some feedback from the Conference as it takes place. There may also be updates on Twitter (@Digitalnun using the #vbm11 hashtag) or on the Digitalnun Facebook page. However, there are sure to be bloggers with better resources and wittier insights who will be blogging, tweeting and Facebooking from the Conference; so it is worth doing a preliminary check to see what is available first.

Please pray for the success of the meeting, and perhaps even for Digitalnun’s ability to cope with the CoveritLive software using nothing more powerful than an iPod Touch! Just click the link to take part (you can comment, too, in real time.)

Click Here

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Beatification, Blogging and JP II

John Paul II uses the internet to publish
John Paul II uses the Internet to Publish, November 2001

On 22 November 2001, Pope John Paul II became the first pope in history to publish an official document via the internet (allegedly using the laptop pictured here). Today, on the Octave Day of Easter, he is being beatified, not because he was flawless but because he was demonstrably holy. Beatification is recognition of having lived a life of heroic virtue. For some it may seem too much, too soon; but goodness is a quality most of us find attractive, however much we may dislike the tackiness that surrounds some aspects of the process of beatification (vials of blood kept as relics, anyone?). I have no difficulty asking the prayers of Pope John Paul II and I pray that he may encourage many to aspire to holiness of life.

By the time you read this, Digitalnun will be on her way to Rome, not for the beatification (she arrives too late for that) but for the Bloggers’ Conference hosted by the Vatican — another internet ‘first’, but perhaps a rather overdue one. Please pray for all who are attending. If there is to be real dialogue, we shall need the gift of the Holy Spirit in abundance: to listen, to ponder, to argue with wisdom and respect, and all within a little space.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Religion and the Internet: a post conference view

Those of us who took part in the Faith 2.0 Religion and the Internet Conference at the RSA yesterday will each of us have carried away different memories of the event. I’m sure that (nearly?) everyone found it immensely worthwhile. It was great to be able to share what was happening in the auditorium with people around the world via the excellent livestream, and the organizers (Durham University and the Tony Blair Faith Foundation) are to be congratulated on their meticulous planning and attention to detail to ensure that everyone was looked after with real kindness.

There was, I think, a tremendous affirmation of the importance of real, face-to-face encounter alongside online or virtual meetings. As I travelled back, I could not help thinking that the internet has unleashed a power we haven’t yet truly understood. Like printing, it enables us to communicate more quickly and cheaply than ever before. Like nuclear fission, it can generate both heat and light. It is an energy, a force, and we are privileged to be shapers of what it will become and how it will be used. Perhaps we need another conference, not about how the internet can serve religion, but how religion can serve the internet to ensure that its power is used for good and peaceful purposes.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Faith 2.0: Religion and the Internet

On Thursday Digitalnun will be a guest of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation at the Faith 2.0 Conference being held in association with Durham University at the RSA . If you can’t be there in person, you can watch the livestream by following this link: http://www.thersa.org/events/watch-live. (Digitalnun is speaking in the graveyard spot after lunch so expect a background of gentle snores.)

The subject addressed by the Conference is important and the line-up of participants suggests it will be a lively event; but, as always, it is what we take away and put into action that will count. Watch this space.

Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail