Amanda Hutton Is Not Like Us

When Amanda Hutton, mother of little Hamzah Khan, was sentenced to fifteen years in prison on charges of manslaughter and neglect, there was uproar in some quarters of the press and internet. The general consensus seemed to be that hanging would be too good for her. Here was a woman, a mother, who had allowed her own child to starve to death in the most appallingly squalid conditions while she drank herself to oblivion. If you followed the trial reports, other details emerged that were almost equally troubling. She was the mother of eight (how feckless) and had claimed child benefit after Hamzah’s death (a benefits cheat). True, there was the fact that the child’s father had beaten her up and actually been prosecuted for doing so, but what is that in the general scale of things? He had pleaded with the authorities to look after his child and they had failed to do so. The fact remains that Amanda Hutton was a selfish and cruel woman, an unnatural mother, who deserves to die for what she did. Or so the mob would say.

I must admit I am uneasy about the reaction to Amanda Hutton. It strikes me as being rather like the reaction to the Mick Philpot case or those convicted of paedophilia. It seems as though we all need to be able to say, ‘Bad as I am, I am not as bad as he/she is.’ We may want to say it, but I wonder whether it is true. I am never convinced by those who say they would be incapable of doing such and such a thing for the simple reason that I know myself to be capable of any enormity or sin. Law, custom, a sense of shame or even self-preservation may hold us back, but we none of us have perfect control over our thoughts and feelings. It takes only a sudden flare-up of anger, the presence of a weapon and the potential to harm another is there — even a well-aimed dishcloth can deliver a surprising sting, though the effects are not usually deadly. Add to the mix illness, addiction, financial pressure or what have you, and the potential to harm becomes greater still. In Amanda Hutton’s case, she has committed the ultimate sin of failing to live up to our ideas of motherhood and we damn her for her failure as much as for her crime.

Of course, most people don’t do such dreadful things as Amanda Hutton has been convicted of. Most mothers do not neglect their children or allow them to live in squalour. Most fathers do not expect the State to exercise the duty of care in place of themselves as Aftab Khan did. But in the midst of all the vicarious anger Hamzah Khan’s death has provoked, one important fact is in danger of being lost sight of. Unless or until we each of us understand that the greatest gift of all is life itself, we shall go on experiencing such tragedies because, in a way, we are all implicated. We each of us have a duty to help others, never more so than when they seem to be failing in some way. It was not only Amanda Hutton who stood in the dock but, in a sense, all twenty-first century Britain, with its plethora of laws and regulations designed to make life safer and and better for all. Ultimately, however, it is the personal that counts. ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ is one of the oldest questions in the world, and still one of the most difficult to answer.

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5 Suggestions for Self-Censorship (Blogs)

The idea of self-censorship is alien to many. Freedom of speech is something we value, rightly so, but there are times when, as Benedict says, melius est silere quam loqui, it is better to be silent than to speak. Words are dangerous, slippery things. Once let out of the cage, they cannot be whistled back again; and while they are on the loose, they can do untold harm. When should we put a clamp over our mouths or a lock on our keyboards? Here are a few suggestions. I am sure you can add to them.

1. Never turn an argument ad hominem. Good people sometimes do bad deeds, but a personal attack is never justified unless one is in possession of all the facts (unlikely).

2. Never give way to the temptation to be patronising or dismissive: you have lost the argument if you do.

3. Never state as fact what is merely opinion. Everyone has a right to their good name. If you want to make an accusation, make sure you have evidence to back it up.

4. Never forget that acts have consequences: before you write or comment, consider what the effect on others might be, especially those who may suffer as a result.

5. Never underestimate the importance of goodwill. Encouragement achieves more than condemnation, courtesy more than rudeness — no one was ever bullied into belief.

That is not an exhaustive list, but I’m sure there will be some who will see it as a limitation on their freedom, a forcing them to be something other than they are. I myself see it as a discipline, a way of ensuring that what one writes is responsibly written. Lurking behind my suggestions is, of course, an even bigger question than how we should conduct ourselves online but, sadly, it is too big to explore in a short blog post. Can you guess what it is?

 

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Widowhood

The feast of St Monica is a good day for thinking about widows and widowers and the whole concept of widowhood. For some, it is a mournful subject, best hurried out of sight along with the widowed themselves. We believe in a world where love is eternal and youth everlasting, where no shadow of mortality or change can sully our happiness. The brutal truth is, of course, that being widowed is an experience many must undergo in every generation. The rest of us acknowledge the sadness briefly and move on: ‘going forward’, we call it. Is that why so many widowed people find it difficult to adapt to life without a partner, because society allows little time for grief or adjustment and is unsympathetic about loneliness and the (often) straitened circumstances in which the widowed, especially women, may find themselves?

St Monica is, in some ways, the archetypal widow; I sometimes wonder whether our ideas about widowhood, and our expectations of the widowed, are the result of her story. She was married to an impossible man, had a drink problem, and spent most of her life trying to save a brilliant but wayward son. If it weren’t for Augustine, I daresay she would be forgotten today. Her life is defined in terms of her relation to others (husband, son) while she herself is, in an important sense, invisible. Her good works are noted, but apart from the struggle with alcohol, we really know nothing of her.

Today we might think of the widows and widowers we know. Do we see beyond the state of being widowed to the person? The Church has always had an uneasy relationship with widows — female, at any rate. On the one hand, we have the ancient Order of Widows, dedicated to prayer and good works; on the other, there are plenty of exhortations, from St Paul onwards, to contain the bad behaviour to which the widowed are said to be prone. For myself, I can only say how grateful I am to the many widowed people who have figured in my life. I have learned something important from each of them, not least how to draw the circle of love wide enough to embrace more than family. That is a great gift and a reminder not to overlook or undervalue the uniqueness of every individual, widowed or not.

Church Times
This week’s edition of The Church Times contains an article about the community and its online work.

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Five Loaves, Two Fish and a Lonely Place

Yesterday’s gospel (Matthew 14. 13 to 21) describes the feeding of the five thousand as occurring in a ‘lonely place’ to which Jesus and his disciples had retired ‘in order to be by themselves’. For those for whom the week-end is as busy as, if not busier than, ordinary week-days, it is worth pausing over that reference to a ‘lonely place’ and ‘being by themselves’. It is a reminder that finding time for prayer and meditation is not a selfish act but absolutely necessary for a truly Christian life.

For most of us, the lonely places have to be interior; and although we don’t necessarily expect them to be invaded by clamouring crowds, we mustn’t be surprised if they are. Paradoxically, it is where we expect least that we often receive most. If yesterday was too busy then today, on the ‘bus or the train into work perhaps, we might try to find a little time to be by ourselves with God. How else shall we have anything of value to share with others?

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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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Prayer in a Digital Age

As I drove back from the excellent Church and Media Conference I was privileged to attend earlier this week, I found myself trying to think through in greater depth something I had only lightly touched upon in my own remarks: prayer in a digital age.

Everything we do as Christians has to proceed from prayer, and prayer presupposes a humble, persevering quest for God, day in, day out. This searching is part of our experience of God, and I believe that trying to communicate that experience is probably the biggest single challenge facing us in what we do online. Looking at some of the developing technologies showcased in the BBC’s Blue Room made me realise that it should one day be possible to move from ‘displaying ‘ online to ‘immersing’ online, and perhaps a lot sooner than we imagine.

At the moment we are all locked into display mode. We set out our resources online and do our best to proclaim the truths we live by in as attractive and responsible a manner we can. But no matter how many glitzy add-ons we may try – edgy videos, livestreaming worship, interactive webconferencing, snazzy little smartphone apps – we are still essentially proclaiming, and I trust you’ll forgive me if I say it is all rather noisy. It is also a little bit seductive. We can get sidetracked by the technology and end up a long way from where we want to be.

Perhaps it is here that monasticism can make a contribution to prayer in a digital age. The monastic world is largely silent, one we deliberately choose to make as free from distraction as possible. As monks or nuns, our first and most important contribution must be prayer itself – unseen, unheard, offline. But as a corollary, I think we must also try to work towards introducing people to a different kind of digital experience, a more silent, immersive experience.

Moving from display mode to what I call immersion mode is very like the movement we make in prayer, from vocal prayer to something more meditative in which no words are needed. I have a hunch – and it is only a hunch – that we* may be able to find a way of helping others to do this online, using some of the evolving technologies. If so, I think we shall have found a way of fulfilling St Benedict’s first requirement on meeting a guest, to pray together, then treat him or her with loving courtesy. I pray it may be so.

*By ‘we’ I don’t necessarily mean our community here but the Monastic Order in general, especially those parts of it which engage with the digital world in a thoughtful and innovative way, and those who, technically more gifted, can see the point of what we are trying to do.

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New York! New York! or A Nun Travels the World

Well, not quite; but with Bishop Crispian’s blessing, Digitalnun is about to take part in a couple of conferences which will see her out of the cloister and plunged into a world far removed from the leafy lanes of Oxfordshire.

Church and Media Conference 2011
First, there is the Church and Media Conference 2011 at the Hayes Conference Centre, 13 and 14 June, which promises ‘a unique opportunity for media professionals and faith leaders to engage in lively and informed debate.’ Being neither a professional nor a leader, and with no particular claim to being either lively or informed, this presents Digitalnun with something of a challenge, especially as she will be giving the closing keynote. However, debate is good and she is quite excited about listening to some of the very knowledgeable people who will be attending. Many thanks to Andrew Graystone and the Conference organizers for inviting her. An unintended bonus is that Quietnun and Duncan will have some quiet time while she is away.

The Benedictine Development Symposium

At Pentecost, the Church was endowed with the gift of tongues in order to make known the Good News. The internet and social media are simply another ‘tongue’ we must all learn to speak with some degree of fluency. This will be one of the subjects addressed at the Benedictine Development Symposium in Schuyler, Nebraska, 5 to 9 July, where Digitalnun has been invited to share some of the insights the community has gained during the past few years. The great generosity of Mike Browne, the Symposium members and the Priory of Christ the King in funding her visit is a mark of the seriousness with which religious organizations are now tackling what is, to many, still rather strange and new.

New York! New York!
And finally, from 10 to 17 July, a few days in New York, where Digitalnun will be meeting with a number of people who are interested in what the monastery is doing and who, hopefully, might look favourably on the community’s desire to obtain permanent accommodation. There are still a few free slots in the timetable if anyone would like Digitalnun to ‘sing for her supper’, as it were. Again, we are enormously grateful to those who have made this part of the trip possible, especially the Daughters of Mary Help of Christians who, not for the first time, have come to the rescue of Benedictines abroad by offering accommodation, and the kind friends and well-wishers who have underwritten some of the other expenses and smoothed the way for the visit.

It wouldn’t be honest to pretend that this will be all hard work and no play. A day off has been arranged, and it is quite likely that it will be spent either in the Met or at The Cloisters. Digitalnun is still a lapsed but unrepentant medievalist.

A serious question
Of course, all this invites reflection on the contribution monasticism can make to the world today. It would be a mistake to think that any activity, however good, could ever replace the quiet, persevering search for God we make in prayer, work and study. The cloistered life always has been, always will be, one that comparatively few understand and even fewer actually live. But because it is at the heart of the life of the Church and part of its missionary impulse, monasticism is a necessary part of the Christian world order and therefore must speak and pray in the language of the internet as much as any other.

How that is worked out varies from community to community. We don’t have a physical cloister here at Hendred but we think of the internet as the fourth wall of our cloister of the heart, somewhere we seek God and, on occasion, find Him.

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Blogosphere and Twittersphere Ghettos

Have you ever asked yourself whether you limit the blogs you read on a regular basis or the people you follow on Twitter to a very narrow group? I ask myself that question often, especially as I don’t have much time for blog reading. When I do, I try to make sure that I include blogs whose writers hold very different opinions from me, but I am not sure I always succeed. It requires effort. Similarly, in order to make sure I actually read what is on my Twitterstream, I only follow approximately one tenth of the people who follow me, but although my Twitterati are definitely weighted in the direction of religion and technology, I always aim to include a few whose views are ‘challenging’.

One of the great dangers of belonging to a group, any kind of group, is that one never looks outside. One takes all one’s ideas and values from within the group and creates a comfortable ghetto for oneself. I am utterly convinced of the truth of Catholicism and think there is nothing more exciting than exploring Catholic orthodoxy, but I treasure the insights of those who don’t. Perhaps the problem is that most of us are aware how little we know and are a bit reluctant to admit it. The other side of engaging with those whose views conflict with our own is the need for persevering prayer to the Holy Spirit and the hard work of making sure that we are genuinely informed. In these last few days before Pentecost it might be useful to reflect on the ghettos we have created for ourselves. Sometimes they are the result not of conviction but of laziness; and somehow, I don’t think the Holy Spirit is very keen on laziness.

Benedict XVI on World Communications Day, 5 June 2011

I liked this extract from the pope’s message but omitted to include it yesterday.

There exists a Christian way of being present in the digital world: this takes the form of a communication which is honest and open, responsible and respectful of others.

To proclaim the Gospel through the new media means not only to insert expressly religious content into different media platforms, but also to witness consistently, in one’s own digital profile and in the way one communicates choices, preferences and judgements that are fully consistent with the Gospel, even when it is not spoken of specifically. Furthermore, it is also true in the digital world that a message cannot be proclaimed without a consistent witness on the part of the one who proclaims it. In these new circumstances and with these new forms of expression, Christian are once again called to offer a response to anyone who asks for a reason for the hope that is within them (cf. 1 Pet 3:15).

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Changing an Online Identity

Digitalnun photographed by James Pereira
Digitalnun photographed by James Pereira

We all do it. From time to time we change our online identities. We give our web sites makeovers; we change our profile pictures on Facebook; we find a new template for our blog; we redesign our avatars for Twitter or whatever. Having for years used an image of myself listening to an iPod (which the community did not then own), I think it is time to highlight another characteristically Benedictine activity, seeing.

The first word of our Rule is Obsculta, listen, but the idea of seeing, watching, opening our eyes to the light that comes from God, is also important. Both looking and listening are images of what we do in prayer. As it happens, the photo James took shows me reading the Divine Office, a form of lectio divina, carried out, not in choir on this occasion, but in a quiet interval at the RSA, close to the noise and bustle of the Strand. The fact is, all times and seasons are good for prayer; and it is just possible that the person sitting opposite you on the train, eyes glued to a small screen, or jogging along the pavement with earphones firmly attached, is actually somewhere else, in ‘the land of spices’, one with ‘church bells beyond the starres heard’, finding their deepest and truest identity in God.

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Washing Up a Way to Heaven

For once we begin reading RB 48, On Daily Manual Labour, on Monday, the day when the working week begins for most people. The first line of this chapter, Otiositas inimica est animae, ‘Idleness is the enemy of the soul’, is much beloved of monastic cooks as they plonk yet another huge pan in front of the novice assigned to washing-up duties. Irony apart, it is a sentence worth pondering, as is the rest of the chapter.

Our society exalts the value of leisure. Until comparatively recently, the idea of earning enough to be able to retire early was widely seen as a positive goal. Advertisements exhorted us to ‘relax’ with this product or that (does that explain the ads for discount sofas one finds in every newspaper these days? Ed). The good life was seen, not in Platonic terms, but in terms of having as much as possible for as little effort as possible. Credit card companies had a great time and very few bothered about the mountain of debt we were piling up.

We know better now. We know that Mr Micawber was right, although we still wish he weren’t. I will probably be under siege for saying so, but protests against public sector cuts are a little unrealistic. Cutting the deficit isn’t just a mantra of the Coalition Government, it is essential and there is bound to be pain for all of us. I’m not suggesting that Benedict’s meditation on the value of work is a corrective to all the sloppy thinking we have indulged in, but I do think it says something we don’t hear often enough. What we do has spiritual value. It has value whether the world thinks it important or not. Knowing that won’t lessen the grease on the pan, but it does make cleaning it, potentially at least, a noble and gracious act. What price washing-up as a way to heaven?

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