Words, Words, Words

Depending on your interests, today is remarkable for being Shakespeare’s 450th anniversary, the feast of St George (only it isn’t, because the Easter Octave takes precedence), or the day we read Luke 24.13–35 and our hearts burn within us as Jesus opens the scriptures to us. The connection between all three is words.

Words tumble from our lips, ooze out on the page, trip through our tweets and generally identify us as human — we are not so much homo sapiens as homo loquens. The trouble is, as Swinburne remarked, ‘words divide and rend’ as much as they unite. Misunderstandings, deliberate falsehoods, churlish or rude remarks, they all contribute to the world’s pain. Just as a word can illuminate, enchant, build up or otherwise contribute to another’s well-being, so a word can break down, destroy. The monastic practice of silence, the cultivation of ‘few and sensible words’, stems from a realisation that in Christ God has uttered the only word that is utterly loving, forgiving and redemptive. That is the Word we must embrace and allow to speak through us today.


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!


Idle Thoughts of an Idle Nun

Yesterday I did something I don’t often do: I trawled a number of Christian websites in search of a ‘topical’ subject for my next Universe column. I didn’t find one, so I fell back on something I have thought about for years, the relationship between Islam and Christianity (shameless plug for the 30 June edition). However, the exercise was not in vain, for it made me realise yet again how differently we all view the Church — and that holds true, whatever denominational label (or none) we attach to ourselves. Some of the sites even left me wondering whether we worship the same God!

In saying that, I am not condemning or contradicting, simply expressing my own inability to recognize common ground. I am much more interested in spreading faith than in defending it. Therefore, when I read angry condemnations of the shortcomings, supposed or otherwise, of this person or that, of nuns and religious sisters in particular, I want to ask whether some of the energy directed towards condemnation might be better directed towards prayer. That isn’t a cop out, a substitution of woolly religious niceness for theological rigour or doctrinal precision, it is a genuine question. How can anyone who has experienced the love of God in prayer attack another for not being all that he or she thinks they should be, especially when he/she has no authority to do so? St Benedict in his Rule was very aware of how we all like to assume authority over others, and he gives  short shrift to those who do. It is a failure in humility which leads, only too often, to a failure in charity.

Charity is, of course, the rub. Truth and charity are not opposed, but we can sometimes assert the truth in a way that is uncharitable and thereby negate much of the value of what we are saying. Living in a monastery, where we are encouraged to think twice before speaking and where words are weighed and pondered as expressing something of the Divine Word, I suppose this sort of mindfulness becomes habitual. We often fail (I know I do) but the ideal remains: to speak only such words as build up. That is a challenge we can all take on. It may mean we speak less. It certainly means we should speak more thoughtfully.

What words will you speak today?


Control of Speech

Earlier this week I wrote about silence, but control of the tongue, which Benedict addresses in the portion of the Rule we read today, RB  7. 56 to 58, refers to something different. It is, so to say, a preparation for silence, a precondition. It requires effort, self-knowledge, discipline; and it is an essential component of humility because, of course, we naturally think our own ideas and viewpoints interesting, worth sharing with others. To choose not to speak or write (or blog or tweet or whatever), is not an act of negativity but a deliberate choice of something other, what Benedict elsewhere calls taciturnitas, restraint in speech.

Now the interesting thing about restraint in speech is that it implies understanding and communication, but sometimes without words, without being voiced, and at other times a very careful choice of words, an apt expression of what we think or believe. The words we do speak must always be good and wholesome, such as build up. To ensure that they are, we need time for reflection. How many of us have spoken before we thought and lived to regret it? What Benedict is urging upon us today is precisely that weighing of our words which will sometimes lead us to speak out and at other times to keep quiet. It is all about speech, not silence; and until we have learned something about speech, I do not think we can ever begin to understand silence.