The Gift of Understanding

Today, in our novena to the Holy Spirit, we pray for the gift of understanding. Have you ever stopped to consider what that really means? The meaning of wisdom, for which we prayed yesterday, is fairly obvious, but understanding? It is more than mere comprehension. When Solomon prayed in the temple for an understanding heart, he was praying for the grace of discernment, the grace of right judgement, that he might govern his people Israel wisely and well ( 1 Kings 3. 7–12). To understand requires humility, the ability to let go of one’s own ideas and absorb another’s. But it doesn’t mean letting go of one’s crictical faculties, far from it. To understand implies a sifting out of true and false, important and unimportant, of coming to a decision about the matter to be understood; but because it is a work of the Holy Spirit, it is a process accompanied by love and compassion.

There is a French saying to the effect that to understand all is to forgive all; and there is a lot of truth in that. So many of our disputes are based on misunderstandings, on our determination always to be ‘right’, always to have the upper hand. I like the fact that in English we have to stand under in order to understand. That is contrary to almost everything that contemporary society values. We no longer prize humility or the slow and patient work of the saint or scholar. We want immediate results. We sell ourselves as a big success even when we aren’t. We mistake aggression for courage, point-scoring for argument, sound-bites for solid reasoning. That is why I think we need understanding more than ever today. We all know how lovely it is to have a friend who ‘understands us’ but we sometimes forget that we need to be understanding too. Let us pray today that the gift of understanding may be given us in abundance.

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Through Lent with St Benedict: 3

Today we reach the final section of RB 49, although it is not Benedict’s last word on Lent (we’ll look at that tomorrow):

Each one, however, must tell his abbot what he is offering up, for it must be done with his blessing and approval. Whatever is done without the spiritual father’s permission is to be attributed to presumption and vainglory, unworthy of reward. Everything, therefore, must be done with the abbot’s approval.

I wonder how many readers of this blog consulted anyone before deciding what to give up or take on for Lent? In community we write a Lent Bill — a statement of what we propose to do — and hand it to the prioress, asking her permission and blessing. It is not unknown for something to be added or taken away, and very humbling the experience can be!

The point Benedict is making here is important: we are not always the best judges of ourselves, nor do we always choose wisely, especially where Lent is concerned. We are often muddled about what it is and how we should meet its demands. Pride and competitiveness can easily creep into our decisions. We get hold of the idea of penance then whip ourselves up into an ungodly fervour. ‘I will fast. I will keep vigil. I will . . .’ I, I, I. The whole purpose of monastic life is to lead us closer to God, which means forgetfulness of self. Very often what we think would be best is anything but. We believe we can ‘go it alone’, not realising that we go to God together or not at all.

For us, as Benedictines, it is comparatively simple. We have chosen to live according to the Rule, under a superior, so we submit our ideas to him/her — and take the consequences.  The encouraging part is knowing we shall have our superior’s prayers, and that can be a great comfort when things get bumpy (as they certainly will).

All very well for a monk or nun, you say, but what about those outside the cloister? I think there is value in talking over our ‘Lenten programme’ with someone we trust, not necessarily a priest or religious but someone whose judgement is sound and whose instincts are good. Articulating what we intend to do can sometimes make us aware that it isn’t quite sensible or will end up making us completely batty. Lent isn’t about punishing ourselves or making dramatic  gestures. It is about quietly and perseveringly focusing upon God and allowing him to transform us. That is why it is so joyful.

If you feel you have begun Lent wrong, take heart. To admit that we’ve made a false start is the beginning of grace. And if you feel you have begun in the right way, thank God, and ask him to protect you from all pride and presumption. It isn’t fashionable to say so, but this is the season when we must wage war against the principalities and powers of this present age. Whatever else Lent is, it isn’t dull.

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Contemplative Computing

From time to time, someone asks how long I spend online. It is the wrong question. A better question would be, how am I online. My questioners often assume that the way in which they relate to technology, the way in which they use blogging and social media, must necessarily be the same for me, but I don’t think it is. The idea of  contemplative computing has been around for a while, but it is one that appeals to me because it complements my sense of the internet as a sacred space. I suspect that, like M. Jourdain babbling prose, I have been practising it all my computing life but it may be worth trying to tease out some of its characteristics.

A few years ago I noticed that when I checked my email, I found it quite stressful. I was reluctant to deal with the ‘difficult’ emails and so became tense. Yet that isn’t how I usually am with people or when I go to prayer — I am much more relaxed and ‘open’. Once I realised that and deliberately slowed down, the ‘difficult’ emails became much less troublesome. They were no more demanding than anything else. The problem arose from the fact that I saw checking email as something that should be done quickly. Our culture values speed, places a premium on ‘getting things done’, but monastic life works on different principles. Time is a gift to be lavished on whatever is necessary; and what is necessary may be as ‘unproductive’ as gazing at a cloud or focusing attention on a single word or sound. In other words, a more contemplative approach to the use of technology gradually transforms the experience of using that technology.

At #cnmac11 and subsequently, the idea of the digital sabbath came up again and again. Some people clearly felt that a regular break from using technology is necessary and beneficial, citing such positive goods as being more involved with family and friends, more attentive to what is going on around them and so on and so forth. One or two were frank enough to admit that they thought they had become addicted to their smartphone and having a ‘dry day’ from time to time helped them feel more in control.

There are two different issues here: [fear of] losing control and [fear of] losing focus. The connection is fear. If you are over 40, can you remember what it was like to use a smartphone for the first time? How anxious you probably were about pushing the right buttons, getting your text abbreviations correct, learning how to do smileys? It was a mildly alarming business and only when you felt master of the process could you forget yourself and actually enjoy using your phone to text, video or whatever. Then when your phone became like a fifth limb, a different anxiety came into play. What happens if the battery gives out or I misplace the phone, can I continue to function as normal? Am I too dependent? There we have fear again, which can only be allayed by a sense of control.

As any novice will tell you, the first lesson anyone learns in a monastery is that we are not in control. It is all right not to be in control. In fact, that is how we are most of the time, only we try not to acknowledge as much. Being in control is something our society admires, but it doesn’t take much to prove how illusory our control is. A break in the power supply, a failure of wi-fi access, and our wired world ceases to exist.

Lack of focus is another fear, but again, I think our problem arises from the fact that we have a very restricted way of looking at things. Much of my work is done at the computer and at various times during the day I respond to, or initiate, tweets on Twitter. It is not a distraction. If something requires concentrated energy, e.g. writing a letter, I switch Twitter off. At other times, my twitterstream is part of my work — as a community we are committed to using contemporary technology to try to reach out to others and are constantly exploring new ways of doing so: it’s a new twist on the old contemplata aliis tradere. The nearest analogy I can find to express this kind of multi-focus is that of playing in a string quartet. Every player must listen even when not playing himself, but the ebb and flow of sound doesn’t produce strain or a feeling of divided attention, rather it contributes to a sense of the quartet as a whole: the individual is taken up into the music created by all four. Silence, observing rests, is as much a part of this whole as actually playing.

Of course, I have a purpose in being online. I am not there simply to gratify curiosity or assuage boredom, so the question of focus may be easier for me, but I suspect many will be able to resonate with what I am saying. Just as lectio divina can be likened to Slow Reading, so a more contemplative approach to computing can be likened to Slow Living; and the amazing thing is, it doesn’t mean that we get less done (that concern with productivity again!) but that what we do is done better and more pleasurably. It may take a while, but I think contemplative computing may become more and more important to ensure that technology remains at the service of humanity rather than the other way round.

I should love to know what you think.

Update:
There must be something in the airwaves. I found this link this morning about a contemplative computing project: http://bit.ly/gtncVH

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Dominus veniet

Dominus veniet, the Lord will come: we sing those words over and over again this week, but I sometimes wonder whether we ever really think what we mean by them. Those who have recently experienced the death of someone they love will know what they mean without necessarily being able to articulate their understanding. They have experienced that moment when the Lord takes command and no amount of human effort is of any avail. We pray for the Lord’s coming at the end of time but, to be honest, most of us are happy to have it put off to an indefinite future. The Second Coming is, quite literally, too awful to contemplate.

In Advent and at Christmas we celebrate the three comings of the Lord: in time, in his birth as a Baby at Bethlehem; at the end of time, in his coming as Judge; and his coming to us now, at every moment of our lives, as the Word who gives life. The first and third comings are ones we grasp, or think we can; but the Second Coming baffles us, scares us even. It would be a good Advent exercise to spend a few minutes thinking about the Second Coming and how we are to prepare for it. If the idea of God as Judge paralyzes us, we can take heart from another image, equally demanding, but with happier overtones. ‘At midnight the Bridegroom’s voice was heard. Go out to meet him.’ We can so easily forget that that the Church is the Bride of Christ and in the Second Coming awaits her nuptials. No wonder we are urged to live lives which hasten the day of the Lord’s coming.

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Religious Language and the Web

You can see how important Benedict thought the right use of speech by looking at today’s section of the Rule, RB 7. 60 to 61. The eleventh step of humility is concerned with speaking little but making every word count. It might have been written with Twitter in mind! The things Benedict condemns, either outright or by implication — harshness, mockery, the obscenity and cruelty we discussed yesterday, vapidity  and mere clamour — are temptations at any time but especially when we go online. Our nearest and dearest may long ago have given up listening to us, but online it’s another matter. We can express our opinions, however outrageous, to our heart’s content; but with that freedom comes responsibility, and it’s worth thinking about how we exercise it.

One of the things that has always interested me is how much religious language is used online. Does familiarity with such language in an online context cheapen our understanding of it elsewhere? I refuse to have ‘followers’ on Twitter, for example, because I’m a follower of Christ and of Him alone. But I think some people actually enjoy the messianic overtones and are for ever calculating how many followers they have, as though that conferred validity on what they say. We regularly use words like ‘authority’ in connection with anything from search engines to blogs; we have ‘communities’ for every interest under the sun; even the most blatantly commercial web site will have a ‘mission statement’; and we devoted (note the word) Apple products users are usually described as subscribing to the ‘cult’ of Apple.

Which brings me back to Benedict. He urges that when we do speak, we should do so gently, humbly, seriously, in a few well-chosen words. There is a quietness about his approach that is immediately attractive. I wonder what his voice was like. Judging by his Rule, I imagine he spoke gently, in a low tone of voice for the most part, but with immense authority, the kind that is innate rather than cultivated. Perhaps today we might think about our own voice on the web. Shrill? Frivolous? Or a voice which allows the Word to speak in and through us?

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Fraternal Correction and Forgiveness

‘Fraternal correction’ is very popular in some corners of the blogosphere, as it is in life. ‘Speaking the truth in love’ is a key text, with the emphasis on truth often seeming to obscure the love. For Benedictines, fraternal correction is not an abstraction but a lived reality. It is also, or should be, extremely rare because St Benedict understood how much we all enjoy putting others right and hedged the power to correct round with some important restrictions and qualifications. In essence, only the abbot or those authorized by him should correct. It is assumed that the abbot and spiritual elders will have discernment and act only for the good of the other (whether an individual or the community as a whole). Any abuse of this authority will meet with severe punishment in this life and the next.

Although Benedict was clear-eyed about the need for correction, he was much more interested in encouraging his monks to grow in virtue. His comments on the Lord’s Prayer repay careful thought. He directs that the prayer should be said at the conclusion of every Office ‘because of the thorns of contention that are wont to arise’ in community and reminds the brethren of ‘the covenant they make in those words’. Now what is it that we find in the Lord’s Prayer? Every sentence is about God’s action and holiness save one, where we pledge ourselves to the work of forgiveness: ‘as we forgive those who sin against us.’ Interesting, isn’t it, that the most important Christian prayer, the pattern of all prayer, lays upon us this one duty, forgiveness — not correction?

So, are we just to ‘forgive and forget’ and not bother with correction at all? By no means. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting; it means transforming a source of injury into something life-giving. The body of the Risen Christ still shows the marks of his Passion, but they are no longer death-dealing wounds but a source of life and healing. That is something we all can and must emulate ourselves. Similarly, correction is still necessary: the truth must be upheld, anything contrary to the gospel must be challenged. The question here is: am I the right person to do the correcting? Do I have enough knowledge, is my judgement sure enough, do I have enough love? This last often gets forgotten. In the desire to ensure that truth is served, we sometimes overlook the importance of love. It isn’t easy to correct in the way we should, which is why Benedict links correction with authority. Those with responsibility for others are, or should be, more mindful of the consequences of what they say and do. As Horace once said, ‘A word once let out of the cage cannot be whistled back again.’ If we are to speak the truth in love we must also take care to speak only such words as build up; and the words which really build up are those of forgiveness and love.

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