When I was given the monastic name of Catherine, I was given a double inheritance: D. Catherine Gascoigne, first abbess of Cambrai, wise and valiant and, above all as Benedict would say, a true contemplative whose prayer was as large and generous as her vision for the nascent community entrusted to her care, and St Catherine of Siena (whose feast we celebrate today), another great contemplative, not afraid to ‘speak truth to power’ and challenge the ecclesiastical and political status quo. I wonder what they would have made of the world of social media and instant communication. They were great letter-writers and much in demand for their views on certain subjects, but both had their struggles and suffered put-downs and condescension from some of the very people they were trying to serve. Speculating on how they might have used Twitter or Facebook takes us into forbidden territory for a historian, alas, but one thing I think we can dare to assert. They would have found much to pray about.
We sometimes forget that social media is social. That is to say, the tools given us by Twitter, Facebook et al are merely tools, but they are used by people. It is we who determine whether they are used well or badly, to build up or tear down. A distressing aspect of social media today is the way in which some people are abusing the power social media gives them to wound and destroy. During the past week several people I admire in the Twittersphere have deleted their accounts or contemplated doing so because of some mean-spirited attacks they have received over a period of many months; others have given up their blogs because they have neither the time nor the energy to police the more extreme comments they attract.
I find that sad, but I don’t think we should just give up and abandon the world of social media altogether. Upholding decent standards of behaviour is something people of goodwill are always ready to do, whatever their faith or none, but I believe those of us who are Christians have a special duty of prayer and witness. We are called to be Christ in the world, and that holds good whether we are in the cloister or out and about among the teeming masses. So, I think we need both to pray (and pray hard!) and engage positively in social media. Sometimes, we may feel as though we are clinging on for dear life and receiving more of a battering than we are prepared to take, but if everyone who believes that we should be kind and courteous to one another goes from the social media scene, what will be left? Are we prepared to let the devil have not only the best tunes but also the best Twitter feeds?
There is a sentence from St Catherine I often think about whenever I look at a crucifix and which reminds me why we, as a community, continue to be in social media and the internet generally despite the knocks we sometimes receive. ‘All the nails in the world could not have held Christ to the cross had love not held him there.’ Along with the humour, the banter, the sharing of information and insights which make up ordinary human conversation online as well as off, there is that greater sharing of divine love we are called upon to make. It is a great trust placed in us.