Shape Nothing, Lips; Be Lovely-Dumb

Monastics on the Web

The prayer of Esther, given to us as the first reading at Mass today, is beautifully crafted. I like to think that much of the work we have done online over the years has also been beautifully crafted, in intention at least. It has always begun in prayer, and I hope it has led to prayer in those it has reached; but I mentioned the other day that we are changing the nature of our online engagement in ways we did not envisage even a year ago. Since 2003/4 our online outreach has been a major expression of our Benedictine hospitality, but what was novel and virtually unique in the UK eighteen years ago (coding nuns making their own web sites, doing podcasts and videos, holding online retreats and what would now be called webinars) no longer is. Moreover, our greatest hope, that other monastic communities would commit to the ‘interwebby thing’ has been realised, and the quantity and quality of material now available is wonderful, stretching right across the globe. Monasteries online have become mainstream so that it is comparatively easy for anyone who wishes to have access to the riches of the monastic tradition..

Discarded plans

Originally, we had approached our second lockdown Lent with plans to expand our own online outreach, lured by the false promise of superfast Broadband coming to our area this spring. But installation has again been pushed back to some unspecified date in the future and our plans likewise. We just don’t have the bandwidth to give effect to them.

Once the gnashing of teeth was over, we thought again. We had fallen into a trap we often warn others against. The fact that we can do something doesn’t necessarily mean we should do something. We decided to take stock again, reflecting on both the positive and negative sides of our experience.

On the plus side, we have gained many, many friends, who are very supportive and a real blessing to us. Less positively, we haven’t been able to keep up with everyone in the way we’d like. The year I sent out 100+ emails with Lent Book suggestions and reading plans geared to the individual recipient, I realised we couldn’t go on at such a rate. We gave up producing audio books for the blind when advances in technology made them less useful yet balanced that by releasing a new series of podcasts, including a daily broadcast of the Rule of St Benedict. However, we could not hide from ourselves other, more important changes affecting the way our work was being received.

Changes we have noticed

In recent years our ‘audience’ has grown older, often requiring more personal responses, which takes time and commitment. There is much more curiosity about aspects of our life which, if directed at an ordinary person, could be regarded as intrusive. Although that doesn’t bother me greatly, it does bother other members of the community, who have a right to their privacy; and while we love seeing the Instagram accounts of other communities (dancing nuns et al), we know that isn’t a good fit for us. A lot of emotional energy can be taken up dealing with those who want us to be nuns after a pattern of their own, while some of the provisions of Cor Orans have left us wondering what the future holds for any of us. Add to that changes in community and the ever-increasing complexity of compliance with both governmental and ecclesiastical requirements and the time to do anything can be highly pressurised. How should we make the best use of such time as we have?

Everyone is speaking, but who is listening?

What has most affected us, however, is a change in people’s reading habits. Again and again we have noticed that words are hurried over, perhaps misread, sometimes used as a pretext for correcting us or, worse still, those who engage thoughtfully with our blog posts or tweets. It is part of our react rather than reflect culture. Someone will email a question we have already answered on one of our web sites or assume we have said/failed to say something and demand we explain ourselves. That can be amusing and frustrating in equal measure, especially when it happens again and again. For Benedictines brought up on the practice of lectio divina, of slow, attentive reading, it is also mystifying. It reinforces our sense that the web has become a very noisy place during lockdown, with everyone talking and few actually listening.

If that seems harsh, please consider your own experience. Every parish, every Christian community, seems to be holding Zoom meetings, live-streaming worship, sending out bulletins and generally making use of every bell and whistle in the digital toolbox, but how often do any of us stop to ask ourselves why? Are we trying to connect those who are not connected, spread the gospel, cheer people up, or advertise our wares, as it were? I’m sure all these apply, plus the feeling that we need to be seen to be doing something when our churches are stripped of people and our guest-houses are closed, but I want to ask whether we are using our busyness online to avoid facing a deeper question. Are we doing the reverse of what we intend, creating barriers to God with all our noise, no matter how imaginative or well-intentioned?

Put like that, the answer will be a resounding ‘no’; but it is still a question we must ask. Benedict was keen on taciturnitas, restraint in speech, because he was aware that too much speaking, too much noise, can lead us away from God. I think the same is true of our use of online resources also. My general rule of thumb has been half an hour’s prayer for every half hour spent online (uploading and downloading times excepted!) but I am coming round to the view that we (I) need to give more time to prayer if our (my) words are to have any point. That doesn’t mean we will give up our online engagement or go on a ‘digital fast’ as some call it, but I do think we’ll be more selective about what we give time to. I expect I’ll still go on tapping out blog posts and tweets and being frivolous on Facebook as long as I am able, but some of the community’s more ambitious multimedia projects are being placed on hold — and I myself am definitely stepping back from what I call fruitless disputes, especially here on the blog and in social media. We are re-centring, and not just as a Lenten exercise.

I end where I began, with today’s first Mass reading. Queen Esther’s prayer was heard. May ours be, too.

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