New Ways of Doing Old Things

Oblates Day 2013
Oblates Day 2013: busy with iPad and Macbook, as befits an internet-aware community

Yesterday we had the joy of oblating Margaret in Canada to our community here in England. We did so by means of a group videoconference, which meant that fellow oblates as far apart as Michigan (U.S.) and Norfolk (U.K.) could take part in real time, together with those attending Oblates’ Day at the monastery. The tradition of associating lay people and clerics with the monastic community as oblates or confraters is very ancient; using online technology to bridge the gap between countries and individuals is much more modern — although we can lay claim to having been doing so for several years.

New ways of doing old things: that is part of the challenge the Church, not just monasteries, faces in every generation. How are we to be faithful to what we have received in a world that is constantly changing? There is a temptation to do one of two things — either embrace the new and jettison the old, or stick with the old and resolutely refuse to change anything. That is not the Catholic way, nor is it the monastic way. One of the best parts of our online Oblate Chapter yesterday was a discussion about how the larger community of oblates and associates can be linked with and contribute to the work of the nuns, especially online. I’m not letting any secrets out of the bag yet, but the words ‘Fifth Column’ may take on a new meaning sometime in the new year.

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Digital Technologies and Christian Culture

I have been thinking about the way in which digital technologies are changing not just the expression but also the content of what we religious types put online. Here at the monastery we are contemplating some major changes to our web sites, use of social media, etc. One of the things that has struck me is how word (and Word) centred our practice is. Our main web site, like those of many Christian organizations, contains pages of text: information, reflection, explanation, the fruit of our thinking about monastic life and trying to express it in words.

Thinking, words, these are the traditional elements of Christian culture, requiring silence, time and the discipline of logic for effect. But the online world thrives on immediacy, brevity, the interplay of image and sound, action and reaction. I think we can truthfully say that we have tried to take the monastery into that world. The challenge we now face is how to engage more deeply, to be true to our Christian heritage yet at the same time interpret anew the truth by which we live. That raises all kinds of questions about authority and trustworthiness. It goes beyond language, touching on psychology and social attitudes that are not of the Church’s making.

There is no shortage of opinion about these matters. Resources of various kinds abound, with excellent work being done by CODEC and @xiannewmedia, for example. But ultimately, what we do online proceeds from our lives offline, from the prayer, lectio divina and common life of the community. I am not sure what we shall produce over the next few months but I have a hunch that it may be very different from anything we have attempted so far — not because the technology on offer makes new things possible, but because the world which has developed that technology requires a new approach.

As always, I’d love to know what you think.

 

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Steve Jobs, R.I.P.

Not long ago I wrote an article about how Steve Jobs and Apple had transformed the way in which we communicate and the debt we all owe in consequence, especially the Church. Today’s homepage on Apple’s web site demonstrates what is good about Apple products: it’s simple, stylish and extremely effective. If only all Church communication were equally so.

Steve Jobs was a showman, with a flair for knowing what people wanted and would buy. He was also autocratic, apparently not easy to work with. But among the many tributes to him pouring across the web, I like this reminder of the other side of Jobs, the man who had looked into the face of death and was not afraid:

Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.
Steve Jobs, 2005.

Requiescat in pace.

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How to Make a Holy Ringtone

Yesterday I spent a few moments creating a ringtone from the Salve Regina for the community iPhone. It occurred to me that others might like to do the same; so, if you don’t know how, here is a simple method using nothing but iTunes.

1. Choose your music and make sure that you have the legal right to copy it. Load the mp3 into iTunes.

2. Ctrl-click (right click) the file and select Get info.

3. Go to the options tab and look at the Start time and Stop time boxes. To work on an iPhone, your ringtone must be 30 seconds or less; so if the mp3 has a longer duration, set the start time at 0:00 and the stop time at 0:30. (If you want to use a section of the mp3 rather than just the beginning,  use Audacity or Garageband to get the section you want to use and load that into iTunes.) Click OK.

4. Ctrl-click (right click) your newly-clipped file and select Convert to AAC. (If your menu item does not read Convert Selection to AAC but says Convert Selection to mp3 (or some other format), please go to iTunes > Preferences > Advanced > Importing and change the Import Using drop-down menu to AAC Encoder).

5. From your iTunes music folder, drag the AAC file to your desktop. Then go back to iTunes and delete the item from your iTunes library. N.B. This is essential: it won’t delete the file from your computer, just from iTunes. To find out why, read on.

6. Ctrl-click (right click) the file on your desktop and select Get info. Go to the Name and extension tab and change the extension from .m4a to .m4r. (Alternatively, you could just retype the name on the desktop file, but this is the fool-proof method.)

7. Now double-click on your newly renamed file, which will automatically bring it into the Ringtones section of iTunes. If you don’t see it in the menu, go to iTunes preferences and make sure that you have checked Show ringtones.

8. Sync your phone with iTunes (make sure you have sync ringtones selected) and go on your way rejoicing.

9. Remember to uncheck the start and stop times on your original mp3 file, or it will only ever play the first 30 seconds of the recording.

There is another method using just Garageband, but the above is fine for all DRM-free files.

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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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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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Vatican Bloggers’ Conference

The Wonders of Technology

This afternoon 150 bloggers, of whom Digitalnun is one, will be meeting at the Vatican for the first ever formal meeting on Vatican territory. The programme has been published in outline and you will  find links to all the bloggers and their blogs here.

I hope you will join me for some live blogging from the Vatican Bloggers’ Conference on Monday, 2 May, beginning about 2.45 pm British Summer Time. If there is no livestream (video) but at least adequate wi-fi, as promised, Digitalnun should be able to provide some feedback from the Conference as it takes place. There may also be updates on Twitter (@Digitalnun using the #vbm11 hashtag) or on the Digitalnun Facebook page. However, there are sure to be bloggers with better resources and wittier insights who will be blogging, tweeting and Facebooking from the Conference; so it is worth doing a preliminary check to see what is available first.

Please pray for the success of the meeting, and perhaps even for Digitalnun’s ability to cope with the CoveritLive software using nothing more powerful than an iPod Touch! Just click the link to take part (you can comment, too, in real time.)

Click Here

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