Until we came to live here, I had a rather distant relationship with net curtains. They adorned the windows of others. Occasionally I would remark on the fact that they were dirty or had hideous patterns woven into them, but, by and large, I scarcely noticed them. O blissful ignorance! O happy times long gone! Our monastery is a lovely barn conversion but it does have one drawback: lots of windows with net curtains that it is my job to launder and iron with somewhat dismal frequency. I would cheerfully consign them to the bin but for the fact that they serve a useful purpose in maintaining our privacy (and having suffered from the unwanted attentions of a photographer pointing her lens at us from the field across the way, I realise that our privacy can be invaded very easily).
Why do we worry about privacy when so much of our life is open to scrutiny by all and sundry? I think it has something to do with the need to have a safe space we can withdraw to when we have wounds to lick or simply want to spend time unobserved — when we don’t have to give explanations or justify what we are doing (or not doing) according to the standards of another. St Benedict doesn’t mention privacy as such in his Rule. In fact, he reminds us that our actions are always open to God and our deeds constantly reported by the angels; but he does allow for a private life for the community inasmuch as he gives the community the right to determine how it shall live, whom it shall admit, how it shall order its work and prayer and maintain its discipline. Privacy is thus protected, but it is never absolute. Neighbouring clergy and laity have a duty to intervene if things are going wrong, but they don’t have the right to impose their ideas on the monks just because they think that is how they should live. Our lives are open to observation, but not to prying or dictating.
The internet has opened up many previously private spaces to the public gaze, monasteries among them. On the whole, I think that is a good thing (although I must admit some people’s insatiable curiosity can be trying at times). Fortunately for us, we do not have the grand buildings and precious artworks that makes living in some monasteries peculiarly difficult. But I do wonder whether we need to think more deeply about the way in which we manage openness and privacy. Here at Howton Grove, for example, although we are happy to use Social Media, we draw the line at posting frequent photos or videos, preferring to give an occasional glimpse behind the scenes rather than streaming a monastic version of reality TV. We are online, but we don’t live online. There is a difference, and I think it’s important. My question for today, therefore, is: if we do away with the old net curtains, what shall we put in their place? How many of us could bear to live without any limits on public access? I know I couldn’t.