Sunday, 20 November 2011

From the Cloister to the World

 "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed", wrote John Milton in  his essay Areopagitica in1634. I guess quite a few people know this quote, fewer may realise that Milton was expressing fairly controversial views about the use of the printing press- a technology that was his generation's equivalent to the Internet. It is hard for us to grasp now just how revolutionary the advent of printing was. A single Renaissance printing press could produce 3,600 pages per day compared to just a few produced laboriously by hand. Moreover, the printing press gave freedom of expression to those who might not previously have had a voice and it enabled people to access literature in their mother tongue, in particular that  radical and subversive book - the Bible. Milton saw the potential for printing as a means to allow freedom of thought and  disseminate "virtue" more widely. He acknowledged that wrong and dangerous ideas would be expressed, but he had a staunch belief that this was preferable to curtailing access to knowledge and communication.

  This is not going to be a post about press freedom, or The News of the World hacking scandals because that is more about responsibility and self regulation than censorship,  rather I want to think about the role of the Internet. This vehicle for communication does, it is true, contain many pitfalls and have negative aspects, but it can also be a force for good. Like many things in life, it is not the Internet itself, but how it is used in human hands that makes the difference. One of the blogs in which I love to read is the I-Benedictine blog run by the nuns of East Hendred. In the introduction to the blog, they write:
" We prefer to call ourselves cloistered rather than enclosed because the word “enclosed” may suggest a closed mind. We have a special interest in using contemporary technology to reach out to people who would never otherwise come to the monastery." And reach out they do. I commend to you two recent posts, the first is  Vacare Deo  which reflects on making space for God in our everyday lives and the second a short but  meaningful reflection on anxiety. This is online ministry in a very real sense. Perhaps it is because the nuns are apart from the world that they have so much to offer to the world and they truly use modern technology as a vehicle to bless others.
If Milton were writing today, I am sure he would praise their far from fugitive virtue.


  1. A great site, Sue and I too particularly noticed the Vacare Deo post.

  2. Good post, Sue: I wonder how the Internet will change the church, ministry & Christianity in the long term?

  3. There are parallels (tho’ not a direct comparison) with Islam over the past 100 or so years, to what happened in Christianity 400 or so years ago. The economies of many Islamic societies have moved from heavily agrarian societies to greater mercantile/manufacturing societies. This has resulted in greater literacy and in a greater ‘personalisation’ of religion. This has echoes with what happened at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe as both technology (printing) and a massive shift in the means of the production of wealth (via trading and nascent Capitalism, as opposed to feudal agrarian systems of wealth production reliant on the subjugation of whole societies in the name of the King and the Church). Hence it is no coincidence that religion itself also changed. A growing, literate mercantile class rejected Catholicism and embraced Reformed Christianity, with its emphasis on an individual relationship with God, augmented and mediated through personal access to the written word. Yet this did not result in an equity of religion, as literacy and the wealth needed to own books still meant it was not common for the labouring classes to have personal access to the ‘divine’ until well into the 19th century in England (the late 18th century in Scotland and the Netherlands).

    Whatever the details, it is certain that technology, literacy (of the written word and technological literacy) and the means of social and economic production have an impact in the manner in which religion is manifest, practiced and understood – and as we as individual members of a given society conceive ourselves. Both in Christianity (as the nuns and others demonstrate – not least blogs) and in Islam (and other faiths and denominations) the internet is resulting in an increasing privatisation of religion. For women in Islam the internet has allowed expression and access to considerable devotional and theological material and opinion that their circumstances would not have allowed only a view decades ago. Here in the West Christianity has been increasingly privatised (tho’ not nearly as much as the heralders of ‘secularisation’ foretold in the late 19th to the mid 20th century!).

    I think the question needs to be asked here: ‘What is the key component of the Christian religion?’ The New Testament makes a curious use of the Greek word ‘suma’= body; no where in Ancient Greek had the word been used to denote a body people (whereas ‘corpus’ in Latin had been used in this way); hence ‘Body of Christ’ would have read very oddly to a Greek speaker in New Testament times. It denoted a connection – even a mystical connection – between believers; a connection outside of space and time. But it is certain, reading the N.T. that this was also a physical connection, in the notion of a an assembly (ekklesia) and community (koionia) of believers in a given location with its own function and purpose. (See ++Michael Ramsey’s ‘The Gospel and the Catholic Church’ – a MUST read for anyone claiming to be an Anglican, for a fuller discussion on this).

    Continued in the next comments...

  4. (Continued from above)

    Hence why I would express a note of caution about such internet ministries. Are they fostering community or individualism? And on a personal note, when I read of nuns talking about anxiety (nuns in the West rarely have to think about where their next meal comes from, or how they’ll pay the electricity bill, or whether they will have a job next month etc.) rather nauseating (I am at present desperately looking for a job as my academic research funding ends in January – so it hit a raw nerve!). As someone who has lived the Enclosed, Contemplative Religious Life, I always advise anyone enamoured by the lives and ministry of monks, nuns and priests to remember that much of our knowledge of the religious life is founded on myths we have in our heads rather than any solid evidence of the actuality of the religious life. Moreover, nuns, monks and priests are rather good at perpetuating these myths! We presume the Religious has a quality of relationship with God, spirituality and each other when few of us have had firsthand knowledge of the realities of live in a convent or monastery. My own feeling, reading some of the posts of the nuns – and yes I admit my feelings are tainted by my own experiences – is that great care is needed not to make presumptions about the monastic life that are in effect just a means of ascribing to others the virtue and faith we foolishly believe are lacking in ourselves. I like the blog, but I am also wary of it; the contemplative monastic life is more about ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’ and sometimes the less said the better, when it comes to monastic ministry. Moreover the individualistic medium of the internet relationship with a monastery can be dangerously limiting! It is only through our relationship with each other that we have a sense of ‘The Body’ – and part of the relationship is to see the failings, weakness and fragility of ourselves and others. Yes, I am sure the nuns may talk about this, but like it or not, they are also the censor of what we see and how we see it. Yes, take what you can from the site, but remember also that true ‘community’ involves a mutual vulnerability and risk. A ministry via the screen and keyboard may be useful, but has particular, substantial limitations and could just increase a sense of individualism rather than the reverse....

    (I will add that even visiting a monastery or convent is limiting, as monks and nuns (and priests!) are very careful about their ‘public’ image – and as noted we as the ‘public’ often see what we think we should see, or want to see, which is certainly not the same as reality – but that is the nature of the human condition and has always been so!)


  5. I'd forgotten you'd been a monk, Peter. (Well, I hadn't, what I mean is that I wasn't really thinking about that when I wrote this post. I should have been really given you are a regular commenter!)I was very interested in that blog post you wrote about how the monastic life is widely accepted in the mainstream and yet can have the same effect as a cult - brainwashing, trauma, burnout etc.
    I don't see the monastic life, or online ministry as without flaws or limitations, just as I don't see churches, or Christian groups or indeed any institution or organisation as without flaws or limitations. I also agree with you that we can imagine them to be what we would like them to be, or believe them to be without our own imperfections and deficiencies - it is a good point.
    I am so sorry to hear your academic research funding finishes in January. I suppose it is not particularly surprising given the cuts. Many academic and educational institutions are facing cuts and job losses - and not just in HE. I do hope you will find something soon. I know offering my hope is wholly inadequate and unlikely to help much. Do let me know how things go.

  6. Thanks – I don’t think there is much chance of getting an academic job this side of the PhD hand-in, so now my research funding is coming to an end I have signed up with a few social work agencies while I get on with ‘write-up’. Like supply teaching the money is quite good (£850 a week in London) but when agencies have seen my CV and professional qualifications they keep offering my management positions (MUCH better money!!) but I’ve told them I just want a bog standard adults’ social work post – doing something like hospital discharges or the like – but certainly not mental health work. Ideally a part time hospice social worker job would be brilliant, but palliative care jobs (my specialism) don’t come up that often. I also don’t want to work for some crap inner London borough. I’ve always tried to work for Tory controlled councils (despite never voting Tory in my life!) as they are often much better employers and (ironically, given the bleating of the opposition) provide a much better level of service provision – this is partly because they are often affluent areas and so don’t have the same strain on local government finances as poor boroughs, but there is also an element of just using resources better and not playing ideological politics with local government. Part of the reason some of the inner London boroughs struggle is because in the 80s & 90s staff were recruited to meet ideological goals (e.g. positive discrimination, rather than appointing people on merit) and this has left these councils with a legacy of staff and a culture that is just not up to par.

    I saw a part time teaching post at the local further education college (Hendon) on its preparation for social care courses (social work/nursing foundation courses etc.). The pay was not what I’d get doing agency social work and is not the academic world I’ve been working in for the past few years, but I think I’ve something to give when it comes to teaching about social care. Whether I would feel the same when confronted by a load of 17-20 year olds who just want the qualification, I don’t know. Whatever, I don’t really think I am cut out for full time higher ed academic work... I just can’t get as enthusiastic about ‘theory’ in the same way as many of my peers! The latter is a place of intense egos - the rows are all the more vicious because the stakes are so small!