Feasting, Fasting and Good Nutritional Balance Online

We have probably all been shocked by the sight of empty supermarket shelves, people squabbling over packets of loo rolls or loading impossibly large amounts of food and drink into the back of their cars, not to mention the heart-wrenching photos of an elderly man or woman standing forlorn in the midst of the chaos, shopping-list and empty basket in hand. It has been a powerful reminder of how selfish we can be, how easily we return to the law of the jungle — only it isn’t the law of the jungle, but something much worse. It is the law of fear and anxiety. We are afraid that we might have to go without; afraid that there might not be enough to go round; afraid of a future we thought we could predict and control but now find we can’t. What we have been seeing is literally panic rather than panic-buying. The results are the same, but the origins lie deeper and are less susceptible of rational control.

We, of course, do not panic. In fact, we are inclined to take a rather severe view of those who do. So, instead, we tell stories of acts of unexpected thoughtfulness and kindness — strangers sharing scarce items, neighbours offering help or leaving little gifts anonymously, postcards through the letterbox to ensure that people know whom to contact in case of need. It is all heartening and reassuring of the decency of the majority of our fellow human beings. We smile over the jokes and clever memes on social media, enjoy clips of the balcony performances of opera singers, and share links to enchanting Youtube videos intended to keep our spirits up. The religiously-minded rush to Zoom and other platforms to maintain contact and provide cyber-worship while we all become a little starry-eyed over the possibilities opening up to us. Then a bubble-buster comes along with an inconvenient question. Is it possible to be a ‘panic-buyer’ in cyberspace as well as in a supermarket? Is there such a thing as feasting, fasting and maintaining a healthy nutritional balance online? I think the answer to both questions is ‘yes’.

If, like us, you live in a rural area, where the Broadband service is at best slow and at worst patchy or non-existent, you will understand the point I’m making more easily than if you live where blistering upload and download speeds are obtainable. Access to the internet is a resource like any other. Over the next few weeks and months it is likely that demand will go up hugely — just think of all those educational establishments taking classes online, for example. It is to be hoped that supply will be able to keep up. Even so, we know that there is an ecological cost involved, and that streaming video and audio uses more energy than other uses of the internet — about 50% of the total before the COVID-19 outbreak. So, there is more to be thought about than just, can we do something. The question is, should we do something?

That is one of the reasons we ourselves have decided not to add to the amount of religious audio or video being put online at the moment (there’s still quite a lot available on our main site, www.benedictinenuns.org.uk) and why we don’t often listen to, or view, the contributions of others (another is the need for silence and recollection in the monastery, which we protect as well as we can).

Perhaps it would be helpful to think of our (your) own internet usage in terms of feasting, fasting and maintaining nutritional balance. I myself think that the internet is a great way for those finding the isolation imposed by COVID-19 difficult to keep in touch with others and maintain some sense of normality, including, for many, worship. That I would liken to maintaining nutritional balance and good health. I also think it is a great resource for learning, dealing with boredom, and stretching the imagination. It can be glorious fun. That I would liken to feasting. And fasting? That is where discernment comes in. For example, I don’t think it necessary for us to add to our online engagement at present, and I don’t think that every parish, congregation or community needs to livestream everything every day. Nor do I think it quite in keeping with Lent to be spending unlimited amounts of time online (in the monastery we actually have rules about that, so it is easier for us to maintain some restraint). But that’s just me and the community here.

I’d be interested to know what you think.

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Putting the Social Back into Social Media

Quietnun in Digitalnun's Nest: going online
Quietnun in Digitalnun’s Nest: going online

Today is the feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, when we pray for the sick and those who have care of them; it is also Safer Internet Day, intended to encourage safer and more responsible use of online technologies and mobile phones. For me, there is a clear connection between the two.

Everyone knows, I think, that the community to which I belong chose to use the internet, including social media, as a way of responding to St Benedict’s concern for hospitality. Being short of money, physical space and numbers, and wanting to ensure that the monastic heart of our existence should not be compromised by too much noise or over-exposure to outside influences, the web offered lots of possibilities for engagement with others. It promised to be an excellent way of fulfilling the old idea of contemplata aliis tradere. By and large, I think it has fulfilled its promise and, as early adopters, I hope we have made a small but useful contribution to that.

Over time, many things have changed and the ugly side of the web has become more prominent. Think false information, anger, trolling, porn, hatred. These have made the community here more determined than ever to use online technologies for good. To a fellow believer I would express it as trying to take Christ into a situation, a world, from which more and more are trying to exclude him. In the early days we saw being active online as being where people were (and therefore where the Church should be). We now see it in rather starker terms. It is where a battle between good and evil is being fought, where we confront those principalities and powers of which St Paul writes. That sounds melodramatic, I know, but using traditional language to describe a current phenomenon does have advantages. It prevents us from seeing what we are experiencing now as completely without precedent and reminds us that the old disciplines of prayer and fasting may have something to say to us today that we need to hear.

Take social media, for example. I have often urged prayer before we go online and especially before we make use of social media. I have not been quite so enthusiastic about digital fasts because, in my experience, they rarely work as a way of bringing long-term discipline into a situation we may feel has got out of hand. That said, I acknowledge that, for some people, the need to come off social media for a while is essential because it has taken over their lives. It is a kind of Lenten discipline that enables one to re-focus. Fortunately for me, my life as a nun takes precedence over everything else so I am not free to go online whenever I choose or would like to. There is a kind of built-in restraint that is invaluable. There is, however, another way of looking at things I would like to suggest as worth pondering and perhaps acting on: bringing the social back into social media.

It is very easy to forget what the word ‘social’ means. It comes from the Latin word for a friend or ally (socius). It gives us the name we use for the community of human beings in which we live, society (societas). For St Thomas Aquinas, what we now call the State was simply societas christiana. The idea of being connected with one another in a relationship of friendship, mutual support and sympathy, is thus culturally an important one for all users of social media, whatever our religious beliefs or lack of them. It is our disregard of that which I would say is at the root of much of our current unease with social media and the way in which they are used.

There is a very active Tweeter in the USA who does not seem to be unduly bothered by the truth or falsehood of what he tweets. As far as I can see, he is a narcissist whose main aim is to exalt himself at the expense of everyone else. There are some users of Facebook and Instagram who plainly see those platforms as being marketing opportunities. All they want from us is our money, whether in the form of cash or data. All this may strike you as being very cynical. I prefer to think of it as a kind of sickness in need of healing. We cannot turn the clock back to those heady and visionary days when the web was seen as a way of connecting everyone and the internet promised to make knowledge of all kinds freely available, but what we can do is ensure that our own use of the opportunities we are given is not merely responsible but creative and, I hope, healing.

We do not often stop to think of the creative and healing possibilities of social media, but they exist, and I believe we should each try to cultivate them. It isn’t only the lonely who go online. It isn’t only the dysfunctional. But we should not scorn them if they do. The community’s use of social media has brought us into contact with thousands of people who would never otherwise have got to know us. We have accompanied a few of them through some dark moments in their lives. I think — hope— we may have helped one or two find a happier way of being. Along with the photos of cats and dogs, and the little jokes that delight some and exasperate others, I think social media have enabled us to open the cloister to many who are not called to live there permanently but who have discovered that it has value, even for them in their busy, secular lives. What I write of here is not unique to us. Everyone who uses social media can use it for good or ill, to build up or tear down; and we do not always have to be solemn about it. Laughter is a good medicine, but let it be the right kind of laughter, not the kind St Benedict regarded as destructive. Let us make friends online by being friendly, by being truly social.

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Condemning and Condoning

Have you noticed how often there is a call to condemn something or other — the actions of an individual or an institution, or some historical event or behaviour that we now regard as wrong? Any failure to condemn is regarded as tantamount to condoning whatever is to be reprobated. That often leads to some very awkward apologies that appear intended merely to placate those with a sense of grievance rather than put right any real wrong.

For instance, if one is white British, one is sometimes asked to condemn and apologize for Britain’s part in the Black Slave trade. I can’t imagine that anyone approves of it or would want to try to justify it nowadays, but can one realistically be held to account for a wrong occurring in the past with which one may have no direct connection? Given many families’ lowly social and economic status during the years in question, it is difficult to say how many were actively involved. If one accepts that, simply because one is British, one shares in some sort of collective guilt for the suffering the trade inflicted, can one also claim credit for the work of the abolitionists? It’s difficult, isn’t it? Failure to speak out on the matter is regarded by some as evidence of complicity and has led to some ugly confrontations. I am sure you can think of other examples, but I use this because it will be familiar to many and concerns a genuine injustice and evil.

The advent of social media and the ease with which opinion can be expressed and shared has tended to make the urge to condemn much more prevalent. Look at Twitter, for example, and you will see rant after rant, accusation after accusation, often coming from those with more anger than information. The speed with which the Covington Boys were condemned online was astonishing. Even their home diocese did not wait to examine the facts of the case more carefully. The result has been unhappy all round. Today’s subject for condemnation will doubtless be different, because the world moves on, and the wreckage left behind by reckless accusations is of no consequence to those fuelled by a (misplaced) sense of righteous purpose.

Thus far, most of you will probably be in general agreement, but here’s the rub. Christians are just as bad at condemning others as anyone else. True, we may not use the profanity-littered language of the angry tweeter nor make the rash accusations of the furious Facebook-er, but we jump to conclusions just as readily and answer back equally curtly. We may not demand apologies as such, but we can make it plain we expect submission to our views rather than respectful debate. I have often argued that if we pray before we go online, we can avoid many of these things. We are not called to solve all the world’s problems, only those we can actually do something about. Raving and ranting about injustice achieves very little; working to put right what we see to be wrong is less dramatic and much harder, but it is also much more in line with the gospel’s teaching. Today, if you are tempted to say something harsh or make an accusation based on hearsay, please think twice. One day we shall answer for every word we have spoken. Every word.

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Envy: Left Out of the Party

Today’s the day when lots of Christian folk who are enthusiastic users of social media and the internet will feel left out of the party. They will not be at CNMAC13, the Christian New Media and Awards Conference taking place in London. Having attended a couple of conferences in the past, I know it will be an excellent opportunity to learn from others, share ideas and generally be encouraged. So, we are who are not there physically will be doing our best to be there virtually, following the #cnmac13 on Twitter and any subsequent blogs and videos. But we shall still feel ‘left out’, and not only because we shall not be meeting old friends or making new ones in the intervals of talks and workshops. Whether we like it or not, we shall be in the grip of envy.

Envy is a dewy-eyed old hound in comparison with the green-eyed monster, jealousy. Envy desires what another has, whereas jealousy would rather destroy what another has if it cannot be its own. Envy longs to share; jealousy will brook no rival. The danger, of course, is that envy may easily become jealousy if allowed too free a rein. That is why the psalmist reminds us that our every desire is before God, who is constantly scrutinizing heart and mind — not to catch us out, but because he cares about us and wants us to live free and joyful lives. The jealous person is not free and not joyful: he/she lives in a shrunken universe bounded on all sides by self. But we who are ‘merely’ envious are not let off the hook entirely. The roots of the word ‘envy’ are to be found in the Latin for ‘looking maliciously’ and ‘begrudging’. Malice and begrudging are not attractive qualities. They lead to sin, so let us be on our guard. There is an even greater party none of us would wish to be left out of.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

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?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

St Paul and Silence

Yesterday Pope Benedict issued a message for World Communications Day which has been deservedly well received (text here). Inevitably, everyone has taken from the message what they most want to hear. Those of us who have embraced social media as a way of exploring and sharing Faith were heartened to find the pope acknowledging the importance of contemporary means of communication and endorsing their use. The deeper message, about the relationship between word and silence, was one which contemplatives were particularly glad to hear because in the rush and tumble of words and images that fills every waking hour, our cultivation of silence and (apparent) emptiness is not only contradictory, it is incomprehensible. It was good to find the pope reminding us all of this essential silence and humility before the Word of God.

How does this link with St Paul? I think there has never been a more eloquent preacher of the gospel than St Paul. His words whip and weave through all the intricacies of Christian life: the theological heights and depths, the moral dilemmas, the complications of the missionary journeys. One minute he is meditating on the meaning of the Cross, the next fussing about a cloak he has left behind, writing with warmth and tenderness to some, excoriating others. Words are his stock in trade as once the needles of the tent-maker had been. And yet. And yet. One does not have to read very much of St Paul to realise that beneath all those words was a profound silence, a profound humility. What happened to Paul on the road to Damascus changed him for ever. His eloquence and zeal remained but were transformed by an experience of God we can only guess at. His words henceforth were to proceed from a union of prayer and obedience that could only be attained through silence and listening.

In the presence of God all human eloquence falls dumb. Only silence can embrace the absolute holiness of our Creator and Redeemer. That is something to bear in mind as we read St Paul today.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

The Transfiguration

The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch
The Praying Christ by D. Werburg Welch, © Stanbrook Abbey

The Transfiguration is one of the most luminous of feasts. Whatever happened at Tabor, whether at night as many suppose, or during the day, something of Jesus’ glory as God was revealed to Peter, James and John. No wonder the Cluniacs made this feast peculiarly their own: it breathes a very Benedictine sense of the divine glory being in everyone and everything.

That is very far from pantheism or a lovely warm fuzzy glow about the essential niceness of everything. It is instead a call to action, to a way of being. The Transfiguration reminds us of the glory of being human as well as Jesus’ glory as Son of God. When we really take that on board, we cannot go on acting as we once did, using (and possibly abusing) others for our own ends. We cannot be rude or impatient or scornful. Or rather, we can, but if we are any of those things, it is a sign that we have not yet allowed the grace of God full scope in our lives.

Earlier this week I was involved in a series of emails with people who claimed to be Christian but were the reverse of courteous. The correspondence demonstrated something I have often remarked upon: unless we treat our online communications as seriously as our offline communications and observe the same standards of truthfulness and courtesy, those of us who claim to be Christian are doing a tremendous disservice to our Faith. The internet/email/social media are as much a sacred space as any other. Here, too, we must allow the glory of God to shine through, for the Transfiguration is here and now as well as in eternity.

A note on the illustration
The illustration comes from a reprinting of the card D. Werburg Welch designed for the Abbé Couturier’s movement for Christian Unity before World War II. It was originally issued in several languages with a prayer he had composed. When I was printer at Stanbrook, it was reissued both on handmade paper and in a commercial edition.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Love of Solitude

As a community we are happy about using the internet to share something of our monastic life with others. Our use of Facebook, Twitter, Google + and so on isn’t random (though it may sometimes appear so): we are doing our best to exercise the traditional hospitality of Benedictines in all the ways open to us. So why am I writing about solitude, and more precisely, love of solitude? For the simple reason that our online engagement presupposes an even greater degree of engagement with God and the things of God in silence and seclusion. Love of solitude is an important element of monastic life that no amount of ‘connectedness’ can or should obscure, but I think it may be something those not called to live the monastic life might gain from thinking about.

One of the problems contemporary culture confronts us with is that of discerning how much of ourselves to share with others, especially online. Do we ‘do’ social media, and if so, what limits do we need to observe? Are professional/semi-professional networks like Linkedin or BranchOut as necessary as having a business card once was, or do they blur the distinction between public and private? During the last few months there has been an explosion of interest in the use of social media by the Churches and some very acute observations have been made. I particularly commend anything written by P. M. Philips (Methodist) or Antonio Spadaro (Catholic). However, I’m not sure that we have yet covered all necessary aspects. Worrying about our personal safety, the security of our online data, or the longevity of some of our sillier postings/comments on blogs and so on, is essentially self-regarding. As Christians, we are called to look beyond ourselves, to God and others; and that’s where it all becomes a little complicated. Is all this online buzz really good for anyone? What part does solitude play in our lives?

Solitude, as we all know, can be good or bad: it can be selfish or selfless, creative or destructive. A lot depends on our attitude and intention. That is why I emphasize the need for a love of solitude. Some people are afraid of silence, of being alone; yet we all need to experience what it is like to do nothing in particular, to spend time being receptive rather than assertive, otherwise whatever we  say or do, online or offline, will be shallow or vapid. A solitude which is not loneliness or emptiness is not achieved without some sacrifice, but in a world where we are endlessly available to others via the internet/smartphones/whatever, solitude seems to me increasingly necessary.

Prayers please
We heard this morning that our founder and Ordinary, Bishop Crispian Hollis of Portsmouth, has bowel cancer. Please keep him in your prayers.
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The Web Magisterium and Other Weighty Matters

Tonight, after first vespers of SS Peter and Paul, the pope is going to launch the long-awaited Vatican news portal, www.news.va. If the sneak preview we were treated to at the Vatican Blognic is anything to go by, it will be worth waiting for. Benedict XVI is not perhaps the most naturally web savvy of men, but under him the Vatican has made strenuous efforts to improve its online presence (in the case of the Vatican web site the verdict must be ‘could do better’, but at least it’s a start).

I was mulling over this when I found on my Twitterstream a link to Fr James Martin’s reflections on what the Church is/is not doing online. Taken together with the same author’s Ten Dos and Don’ts, and the wise words of Pete Phillips on engagement with social media, we have a helpful summary of how best to make our web presence constructive. Needless to say, Digitalnun nodded her head in agreement over most of it and wondered whether we, as a community, come anywhere near to living up to the ideal. Is there scope here for a seventy-fourth chapter of the Rule?

One particularly eye-catching phrase used by Fr Martin was ‘the web magisterium’. What a perfect way to describe a phenomenon most of us have encountered from time to time (and maybe even been guilty of ourselves on occasion): the self-appointed guardian of the Church, who knows how to castigate what is wrong with bishops, priests and religious; who has the solution to other people’s problems and believes in ‘speaking the truth in love’; who is blissfully unaware of his/her own feet of clay and regards disagreement as a form of martyrdom. I’m not sure which is scarier: the liberal or the conservative manifestation. All I can say is, I thought about it a little, and trembled!

Finally, a sad day for bloggers: Mouse is hanging up his laptop for while, to concentrate on Mrs Mouse and the Baby Mice. We shall be the poorer for his loss, but children grow up fast, so perhaps he will return to the blogging scene earlier than we realise. Hope so.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail