Social Media and Humility

The juxtaposition of the words ‘social media’ and ‘humility’ may strike you as incongruous, but earlier this week I was privileged to attend the Social Spaces: Sacred Spaces conference in York (a study day for Anglican clergy).  Subsequently, in the monastery we have been reading chapter 7 of the Rule of St Benedict, on humility. I have therefore been mulling over some of the conference comments in the light of Benedict’s imperative, and I think it may be worth sharing my questions if not my conclusions.

To many, social media is just one long, self-indulgent exercise in self-advertisement; and I have to say, there are users of Twitter and Facebook, for example, I would probably not choose to meet in the flesh. You know the kind I mean. Those who are so busy collecting followers that they omit to say anything interesting themselves; those whose every posting has an element of Stalkie’s cry, ‘Hear me, hear me: I boast’. It is inevitable that any system that can be monitored by statistics (no matter how questionable some of those statistics may be) will attract those who are by nature competitive. Collecting ‘followers’ and ‘likes’ is really no different from collecting cigarette cards, except for the involvement of the ego; and that’s where the trouble begins.

When social media ceases to be social, when its use becomes detached from friendship (‘social’ comes from the Latin socius, meaning ally, companion or friend), it becomes a parody of itself, and often a rather sickening one. Yes, social media is great for sharing, not only among people who, in some sense, know one another. One has only to think of its impact on events (e.g. Egyptian Revolution) or attitudes (e.g. sexism, trolling). Yes, social media is great for bringing together people who would never otherwise meet (hello, friends in Australia and Japan). But ultimately, it is what its users make of it. So, it can be used for good or bad; to build up or tear down; as a vehicle for pride or humility.

Benedict has several wise things to say about the uses and abuses of speech, but he makes the point that true humility is manifested in every aspect of our lives, in the interior attitudes of mind and heart as well as our more exterior behaviour. So, my question for today is: how do we manifest humility in our use of social media? This is another way of approaching the old conundrum about how we integrate our online and offline persona, but sometimes posing the question in a different way can highlight things we have hitherto ignored. Over to you!

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September Sundays and the Rule of St Benedict

Here we are, on the first Sunday in September, with all around us the sights and sounds of late summer, from the drowsy hum of bees in the lavender to the crash and clank of the combine harvester over the way. It is all so English, so peaceful, so timeless somehow. Yet at the same time, we are very well aware of the situation in Syria, Egypt, and, nearer home, the desperate plight of many in Britain today. More and more, I think the world mirrors that of the sixth century in which St Benedict wrote his Rule for Monasteries (RB); and the questions St Benedict addresses in his Rule are more than ever relevant to us today.

We read through the Rule three times in the course of the year. Today we begin again with the Prologue. It reminds us that the search for God, for meaning, is never done. However old we may be, we must still bring to the quest a listening heart, a readiness to be changed. Only so can we share in the fruitfulness we see all around us this September Sunday.

Note: you can listen to the Rule of St Benedict being read day by day, as it is in the monastery, on our main website. Scroll to the end of this page: http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Community/Community/Rule.html (link opens in new window).

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The Problem with Being Perfect

Yesterday I made use of the Twitter hashtag ‘phrases that annoy’ in connection with a mild joke. I was surprised to be taken up by another Twitter user who said that he thought being annoyed was contrary to the spirit of the Rule of St Benedict. My reply, that it wasn’t the being annoyed that was the problem but what we did with it, and that the Rule is for those who are not yet perfect, probably didn’t cut much ice. However, in the context of today’s reading from the Rule, RB 7.62–70, the twelfth step of humility, I think it highlights a problem we are all familiar with: ‘religious people’, nuns especially, are expected to be ‘perfect’; and when we don’t measure up to the other person’s expectations, there is grave disappointment.

Part of the problem, I suspect, stems from the fact that most people think of perfection as something static whereas I think it is much more a process of endless becoming. Take that being annoyed again. Someone who is unaffected by others, whose temper is always calm and unruffled, is not necessarily exercising any virtue. He/she may simply be ignoring what is happening, refusing to engage, living a rather inhuman life. The person who is annoyed, admits it, tries to turn the annoyance into changing things for the better is, in my view, much more virtuous, much more human. He/she is also likely to experience repeated failure and so will need to keep on reaffirming his/her original choice. That, to my mind, is part of what it means to grow in virtue.

When today Benedict talks of humility existing not only in the monk’s heart but also affecting our outward bearing, he is doing exactly the opposite of what most people expect. Nearly everyone thinks that one begins by practising humility outwardly and letting it percolate inwards. The reverse is true. We start by keeping the fear of God before our eyes and end, if we can ever be said to end, with a humility that is manifest to others — which is why most of us are going to go on appearing very imperfect to others. Moreover, the perfect love of God to which we aspire is not something in which we rest; it is something in which we move and act. For Benedict, the perfection of humility draws us into an ever more demanding observance in which the keynotes are love of Christ, good habit and delight in virtue. Nowhere does he say that we shall be free from temptation or that we shall not fail.

So, as we read Benedict’s words, I think we should take heart. Unless we are quite deliberately rejecting God, the messiness and imperfection of our lives is something to be treasured. If we were perfect, we would have no need of a Saviour; and I, for one, would much rather the Lord Jesus stooped to my need. Our struggles are transformed by grace, but even grace needs a chink or two to find a way in.

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Manners Online

Colm O’Regan is slightly irritated by the rash of chumminess which has infected online communications, especially the false intimacy characteristic of websites such as Facebook with its intrusive, ‘How are you feeling, Colm?’ (see http://bbc.in/WqYd5Q). I must confess that, by and large, it doesn’t bother me. Time was when I daresay we all had but a single name and were just Thomasina, Ricarda or Harriet to fellow members of our tribe and grunted and pointed our way through life, without adverting to any of the finer feelings. That, to me, sums up the process of shopping online; so those cheery emails which inform me that ‘Catherine! Your payment was successful!’ leave me quite happy; it’s those that say ‘Ooops! there was a problem with your card!’ that annoy.

There is, however, a whole area of life online where I think manners matter very much indeed: blogs and social media. We reveal a great deal about ourselves by the way in which we interact online. Yes, of course, we all have ‘off’ days or sometimes say things we regret or with a clumsiness we subsequently deplore and are chastened to think that those remarks are there for ever and ever. It is a challenge we have to work at: how to be ourselves, but in a genuinely social way.

Today is the two hundredth anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I defy you to find a single line where Jane Austen ever approves of arrogance or the wit that achieves its effect by wounding others. Today is also the feast of St Thomas Aquinas. It is said of him that, although he was often abstracted and did  not welcome interruptions, he was a true intellectual aristocrat and always answered others with politeness. St Benedict often referred to the need for courtesy in the monastery, seeing it as the outward manifestation of the humility and reverence at the heart. Centuries after Benedict and Aquinas, Chesterton defined courtesy as ‘the wedding of humility with dignity’ and declared that ‘the grace of God is in courtesy’.

I think there is something there for us all to think about, don’t you?

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Busy, Busy, Busy

Week-ends don’t happen in monasteries. We tend to be busier than ever, with more liturgy, more guests, more cooking and cleaning, more everything, in fact. It is always at such times that ‘the last straw’ occurs. You know the scenario. You have ringmarked some time to do such and such, which is really urgent, and at that point the boiler breaks down, Great Uncle Richard turns up, or you discover you have only a few hours left in which to submit your tax return/file your company accounts/extend your visa (delete as appropriate). It can be difficult to remain cool and cucumbery under such circumstances. Personally, I don’t even try. I find a quick squawk (to relieve my feelings), a fervent plea for help to the Most High and getting ‘stuck in’ is the only way to cope.

De Caussade dignified these situations with reference to the sacrament of the present moment, but it can be hard to recognize them as such when one is in the midst of them. That is why what we do at other, less pressured, times is so important. We have to work at cultivating a more receptive attitude. It isn’t difficult to see God in a beautiful sunset or a long, leisurely day doing something we enjoy. But to see God in the unpleasant tasks, the unexpected events that turn our world upside down or, at the very least, upset our plans, that requires something more. It requires us to be attentive to God at all times, to be listening for his voice in every situation; and as today’s reading from the Prologue to the Rule of St Benedict reminds us, that means life in all its fullness — and isn’t it that the real business of our lives on earth?

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Instruct, Inform, Infuriate

I very nearly called this blog post ‘Advice for Mothers-in-Law of Either Sex’. The desire to instruct and inform others is something most of us suffer from. Some are able to keep the desire more or less in check because we are afraid of showing our ignorance. Others are less cautious and quite happy to give everyone the benefit of our superior knowledge and wisdom. The trouble is, our generous-hearted instruction of others can be infuriating to those on the receiving end.

I daresay I shall be accused of sexism or worse when I say that, in my experience, men are actually more prone to giving unasked-for advice than women. I have sometimes listened enthralled as someone dug a deeper and deeper pit for himself, laying down the law on a subject about which I happened to be marginally better informed (that’s nunspeak for something less modest). With half an ear, I listened; meanwhile my mind was running along quite different channels. What had suggested to my interlocutor that I was in need of instruction? What had I said or done to prompt this outpouring? What sort of assumptions were at work and why?

I have never fathomed the mystery, but it has made me think about situations in which there is a very fine line to tread between giving instruction/information and infuriating one’s audience. Preaching the homily at Mass, for example, is reserved to priests and deacons, which means that we Catholics only ever hear from our pulpits the male view of the Gospel or Church teaching. At one level, I have absolutely no problem with that, so please don’t think you can sign me up to any dissident pressure group or similar; at another, I do wonder whether the result is that younger women in particular need to make a bigger imaginative leap than their male contemporaries. I remember when I was young being in an agony of laughter at Lavinia Byrne’s ironic description of how to describe oneself as a Catholic woman: ‘I am a child of God, well, son, actually . . .’ It is so true. Theologically, we understand being ‘sons in the Son’, but expressing our identity as sons of God does require a bit of a double-take (for me, at least).

I have, of course, no solutions to suggest and am not even sure that the problem I have identified is a problem for many. It affects me because I spend so much of my time working with Church documents, listening to homilies and dealing with  questions addressed to the community via our vocations portal or other online resources. I am wondering where the increasingly didactic tone of many Church communications is going to lead. Today’s section of the Prologue (vv 14 to 20) is about longing for life and a right use of speech and action which allows us to hear the voice of the Lord. That, surely, is what we are all aiming at. I just wonder whether we need to think more deeply about how we achieve our aim.

I’d love to know your views, but please, no trading of insults or imputing base motives to others (even if I have been a bit hard on the men myself).

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Listening

We begin the new year by celebrating the oldest Marian feast in the calendar and re-reading the Rule of St Benedict, starting with the Prologue. Just as the Rule begins with the word Obsculta, ‘Listen’, so Mary’s whole life was a constant listening to God in humble obedience to his will. Now that the fireworks and the partying are over, how will you spend 2013? Will you be listening, or will you be doing all the talking? If you want to know the answer, take a look at your new year resolutions (if you’ve made any). If they are mere wishes, things you’d like to happen, but with no serious attempt on your part to make them come about, it could be that you are mainly talking. If, on the other hand, they are serious attempts at improvement, which will require effort and commitment on your part, it could be that you’ve begun listening. Prospere procede!

Note
Last year I wrote about today’s feast as the hinge of the year. I think it’s still valid, see here.

 

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The Light of the Lord

There is an invitation in Isaiah 2 I have always found attractive:

O house of Jacob, come;
let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Have you ever asked yourself what that really means? To Isaiah it meant principally living by the precepts of the Lord, incarnating that integrity I spoke of yesterday. But I think for us as Christians it means something more. It means trying to see as God sees; and as we know, ‘God does not see as man sees’ because he sees the heart, which is so often hidden from us. There is a paradox here: that which is most hidden, most obscure, is also the most luminous. We see more clearly with the heart than with the eyes of the mind. The heart is, so to say, the fovea of the human person, that which sees without distortion, which can focus clearly upon God.

Advent is so full of activity that we can seem at times to be preparing for the coming of Christ in utterly contradictory ways. Today, for example, is Mega Monday, when internet sales peak; but one would have to be extremely strong-minded (or misanthropic or broke) not to take part in at least some of the pre-Christmas commercial activity. How, then, do we ‘walk by the light of the Lord’ in the midst of our everyday life when it seems to be pulling us in all directions? For me, part of the answer is to be found in RB 52, On the Oratory of the Monastery, which happens to be the chapter we read today. The oratory should be what it is called, says Benedict, and nothing else should be done or kept there. For most of us, there is no physical oratory we can withdraw to, but we all have hearts in which Christ prays unceasingly to the Father. From time time throughout the day, we can briefly, quietly, remember that and join our prayer with His. We can allow his light to shine on what we are doing and transform it.

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The Tools of Good Works 63 to 78

With this final section of chapter 4 of the Rule, we come to some very searching admonitions. We might expect to be told to observe God’s commandments and be chaste; but to put God’s commandments into practice every day and to love chastity is to go further.(63, 64) It is to open one’s heart to every single demand God makes. There follows a series of practical expressions of that openness. We’re not to hate anyone, nor be jealous; we’re not to act from envy, nor love quarrelling; we’re to shun self-exaltation, revere the old and love the young.(65 to 71) Hatred, jealousy and envy close the heart; concentration on self does the same; and it is dangerously easy to close one’s heart against the ‘other’, the old or the young, as the case may be. But even here, where Benedict is dealing with human nature at its rawest, there is invocation of the love of Christ. It is in his love that we are to pray for for our enemies and make peace.(72, 73) Finally, if all that has gone before should seem too hard, we are never to despair of God’s mercy.(74) Benedict is gently reminding us that we live by the mercy of God who will never fail us, no matter how often we fail him.

Benedict’s concluding remarks are probably of more interest to monks and nuns than anyone else. He refers to what he calls the spiritual craft,(75) for which he has just given us the tools. This is no high-fallutin’ spirituality, all mist and schism, so to say: this is hard labour in the vineyard of the Lord. We are to use these tools ‘unceasingly, day and night’ and render account for them on the day of judgement.(76) If they have been used well, we shall be rewarded. The monastery is likened to a workshop in which we must work carefully.(78) We might take the analogy a little further. Out of the material of our ordinary, humdrum lives it is possible to create something both useful and beautiful, but only if we are willing to serve our apprenticeship, learn our craft and practise it faithfully. For a Benedictine the dimensions of this workshop are precisely stated: they are ‘the enclosure of the monastery and stability in the community.’ (78) Let’s unpack that a little.

The enclosure of the monastery may be a constraint to some or freedom to others. Those who live a cloistered or enclosed life (both are technical terms) know how it concentrates mind and heart. To do the same things days after day, in the same setting and with the same people (most of whom, if one is honest, one would not choose to live with), does tend to dispel illusions about oneself. It makes one realise that one is as much put up with as putting; that learning to live charitably within a small group is much harder than generalised goodwill to all people; that to be a Christian is not a question of doing this or that, for the time will come when we are too old or frail to do anything in particular, but to allow the Holy Spirit free rein in our lives. To let go and let God be all in all is, indeed, the work of a lifetime. It is, incidentally, the only craft worth spending our whole lives mastering.

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The Tools of Good Works 32 to 62

Today I’d like to consider those of ‘yesterday’s tools’ I didn’t write about along with those we read today, hence the longer than usual reference in the post heading.

Tool 32 echoes 31 and shows how important Benedict thought the right use of speech. We are not to return curse for curse but ‘pay back’ our antagonist with a blessing instead. Getting even, insisting on our rights, these are not qualities Benedict admires or wants to see in his monks. Self-control isn’t exactly fashionable since almost any excess can be pardoned on the grounds that we are ‘just being ourselves’, but Benedict will have none of it. We’re not to eat too much, drink too much, sleep too much or think too much of ourselves. We’re not to get angry that the world isn’t as we think it should be (grumbling) nor are we to congratulate ourselves that we are better than others in any respect. We are to acknowledge that God is the author of all that is good in us. (32 to 42).

That is a code of conduct which largely deals with the exterior manifestation of our beliefs, but Benedict probes deeper, to the spiritual core. Fearing judgement, having a horror of hell and keeping death daily before one’s eyes would seem to many macabre; but in the midst of this chilling sequence (44 to 47) Benedict inserts a wonderful motivation: to desire eternal life with all possible spiritual longing (46). He goes on to spell out how this may be done in practice and it is at this point that the chapter takes on a vibrant sense of living always in the presence of God. Hence that control of thought and tongue which at first seems so difficult (5o to 54) and the antidote to superficial living — prayer, lectio divina and a disciplined life-style (55 to 59) which underpins the obedience at the root of monastic life (60 to 61). Only thus can we attain true sanctity, though even in our striving to be holy there may be something of self left (62).

The source for chapter 4 of the Rule is a series of exhortations meant for those about to receive baptism, but with his additions and deletions Benedict gives a subtly different cast to the whole. This is instruction in monastic living and, as such, it presupposes community and order. However, to be a good community member, the individual must first get a grip on himself, aware that his/her personal holiness of life affects the holiness of all. Sometimes when we criticize ‘the Church’ we forget that we make up the Body of Christ. So, my thought for today is this. If we perceive the Church to be less holy than it should be, shouldn’t we be asking ourselves some hard questions?

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