Feast of Christ the King
29 October 2017
Dear friends and Oblates,
I have for some time wanted to address something to you concerning a Benedictine oblate’s appropriate use of the internet and the social media. The use of the internet and of the social media is as much a part of life today as was the art of letter writing in past ages. I do not expect our oblates to refrain altogether from the use of the internet and of the social media. I do, however, hold that, in this regard, an oblate is bound to observe (1) restraint, (2) prudence, and (3) charity.
Guided by the Holy Rule
Ongoing daily meditation on the Holy Rule must inform and order your use of the internet and of the social media. I refer, in particular, to Chapters IV (What Are the Instruments of Good Works), VI (Of the Practice of Silence), VII (Of Humility), XLII (That No One May Speak After Compline), XLIX (Of the Observance of Lent), LXVI (Of the Porter of the Monastery), LXVII (Of Brethren Who Are Sent on a Journey), LXIX (That No One Presume to Defend Another in the Monastery), LXX (That No One Presume to Strike Another), and LXXII (Of the Good Zeal which Monks Ought to Have).
Just as there is a Benedictine approach to work, marked by diligence, sobriety, and attention to detail, so too is there a Benedictine approach to the use of the internet and of the social media. Saint Benedict says in Chapter III, “Let all therefore, follow the Rule in all things as their guide”. We are, then, to follow the Holy Rule even in those matters that the Saint Benedict does not address directly. Each oblate will do this by identifying the great overarching principles of the Holy Rule in order to apply them to his or her life. The purpose of this letter, dear oblates, is to help you do this. In Chapter IV (What Are the Instruments of Good Works) Saint Benedict gives us a series of seven principles that each one can readily apply to his or her use of the internet and of the social media.
48. To keep guard at all times over the actions of one’s life.
49. To know for certain that God sees one everywhere.
50. To dash down on the (Rock) Christ one’s evil thoughts, the instant that they come into the heart.
51. And to lay them open to one’s spiritual father.
52. To keep one’s mouth from evil and wicked words.
53. Not to love much speaking.
54. Not to speak vain words or such as move to laughter.
Refrain Even from Good Words
In Chapter VI, Saint Benedict says:
Let us do as saith the prophet: “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my tongue, I have placed a watch over my mouth; I became dumb and was silent, and held my peace even from good things.” Here the prophet sheweth that if we ought at times to refrain even from good words for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words, on account of the punishment due to sin. Therefore, on account of the importance of silence, let leave to speak be seldom granted even to perfect disciples, although their conversation be good and holy and tending to edification; because it is written: “In much speaking thou shalt not avoid sin”; and elsewhere: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” For it becometh the master to speak and to teach, but it beseemeth the disciple to be silent and to listen. And therefore, if anything has to be asked of the Superior, let it be done with all humility and subjection of reverence. But as for buffoonery or idle words, such as move to laughter, we utterly condemn them in every place, nor do we allow the disciple to open his mouth in such discourse.
Understand by this:
Let us do as saith the prophet: “I said, I will take heed to my ways, that I sin not with my computer, I have placed a watch over my keyboard; I became dumb and was silent, and held my peace even from good things.” Here the prophet sheweth that if we ought at times to refrain even from good words for the sake of silence, how much more ought we to abstain from evil words, on account of the punishment due to sin. Therefore, on account of the importance of silence, let leave to post on the internet be seldom granted even to perfect disciples, although their conversation be good and holy and tending to edification; because it is written: “In much Facebook thou shalt not avoid sin”; and elsewhere: “Death and life are in the power of the internet.” For it becometh the master to speak and to teach, but it beseemeth the disciple to be silent and to listen. . . . As for buffoonery or idle words, such as move to laughter, we utterly condemn them in every place, nor do we allow the disciple to use the internet for such discourse.
The computer, like the tongue, can be used to praise God and bless men. It can also be misused, even to the point of sin. The oblate seated in front of his or her computer screen must be vigilant, practicing restraint. At the click of a key, words can be disseminated over the face of the earth. Ill–considered words can cause irreparable harm, wound charity, foment division, and give scandal. Saint Benedict’s injunction that one “ought at times to refrain even from good words for the sake of silence” must be applied to the use of the internet and social media. The oblate will take care never to use wounding sarcasm or indulge in deprecating humour.
In Much Talking Thou Shalt Not Avoid Sin
In Chapter VII, Saint Benedict says:
The ninth degree of humility is, that a monk refrain his tongue from speaking, keeping silence until a question be asked him, as the Scripture sheweth: “In much talking thou shalt not avoid sin”: and, “The talkative man shall not be directed upon the earth.” The tenth degree of humility is, that he be not easily moved and prompt to laughter; because it is written: “The fool lifteth up his voice in laughter.” The eleventh degree of humility is, that when a monk speaketh, he do so gently and without laughter, humbly, gravely, with few and reasonable words, and that he be not noisy in his speech, as it is written: “A wise man is known by the fewness of his words.”
Do not think that Saint Benedict is opposed to good cheer; in another place (Chapter V) he writes, “God loveth a cheerful giver”. Cheerfulness and good humour facilitate the practice of virtue. Saint Thomas treats of eutrapelia, the virtue of pleasantness or playfulness. The life of Blessed Abbot Columba Marmion, O.S.B. provides us with a most winsome example of charity in speech and in writing, delightful wit, and verbal restraint. The internet can, however, be an occasion of sins of harsh judgement, bitter censoriousness, prideful criticism, and murmuring. In much blogging and in much posting thou shalt not avoid sin. The use of the internet must be considered in one’s daily examination of conscience and in preparation for Confession.
The Hours of the Night
In Chapter XLII, Saint Benedict says:
Monks should love silence at all times, but especially during the hours of the night. Therefore, on all days, whether of fasting or otherwise, let them sit down all together as soon as they have risen from supper (if it be not a fast–day) and let one of them read the Conferences [of Cassian], or the lives of the Fathers, or something else which may edify the hearers. Not, however, Heptateuch, nor the Books of Kings for it will not profit those of weak understanding to hear those parts of Scripture at that hour: they may, however, be read at other times. If it be a fast–day, then a short time after Vespers let them assemble for the reading of the Conferences, as we have said; four or five pages being read, or as much as time alloweth, so that during the reading all may gather together, even those who may have been occupied in some work enjoined them. Everyone, then, being assembled, let them say Compline; and when that is finished, let none be allowed to speak to any one. And if any one be found to evade this rule of silence, let him be subjected to severe punishment; unless the presence of guests should make it necessary, or the Abbot should chance to give any command. Yet, even then, let it be done with the utmost gravity and moderation.
The oblate, quite like his brethren in the cloister, is bound to regulate his use of time, particularly with regard to time spent on the internet. It is not uncommon for persons to slacken in commitments to their marriage and family, to their professional duties, and to their personal rule of daily prayer, in order to spend time on the internet. People will even deprive themselves of sleep in order to satisfy the itch of internet curiosity. What sort of things drive a person to undiscipled or excessive use of the internet? One person may be driven to the computer by loneliness, another by boredom, and still others by a kind of low–grade depression. One must be uncompromisingly honest in identifying the things that drive one to an inordinate use of the internet. I recommend, then, that oblates regulate their use of the internet by adopting a discipline analogous to the Great Night Silence of the Holy Rule.
At All Times a Lenten Character
In Chapter XLIX (Of the Observance of Lent), Saint Benedict says:
Although the life of a monk ought at all times to have about it a Lenten character, yet since few have strength enough for this, we exhort all, at least during the days of Lent, to keep themselves in all purity of life, and to wash away, during that holy season, the negligences of other times. This we shall worthily do, if we refrain from all sin, and give ourselves to prayer with tears, to holy reading, compunction of heart and abstinence.
Saint Benedict would have us practice a kind of Lenten austerity in every season and on every day of the year. Prayer with tears, holy reading, and compunction of heart are incompatible with an inordinate use of the internet and of social media. Interior freedom and cleanness of heart are costly graces. One must learn at certain hours to turn off the computer and walk away from it. “Where thy treasure is, there is thy heart also. The light of thy body is thy eye. If thy eye be single, thy whole body shall be lightsome” (Matthew 6:21–22).
In Chapter LXVI (Of the Porter of the Monastery), Saint Benedict warns against the dangers of wandering outside the monastic enclosure. He says:
The Monastery, however, ought if possible to be so constituted that all things necessary, such as water, a mill, and a garden, and the various crafts may be contained within it; so that there may be no need for the monks to wander abroad, for this is by no means expedient for their souls. And we wish this rule to be frequently read in the community, that none of the brethren may excuse himself on the plea of ignorance.
Even oblates are bound to observe a kind of enclosure, one appropriate to the particular state of life of each one. Enclosure protects a monk’s vow of stability and is an indispensable condition of his vows of obedience and conversion of manners. Holiness of life in the married state also requires imposes a certain enclosure: the married man or woman is not free to wander outside the sacred enclosure of the marriage. Family life requires a certain enclosure. Just as a monk must be amator loci et fratrum (a lover of the place and of the brethren), so too must the married oblate find his or her happiness at home and in the company of one’s spouse, children, and guests. Indiscriminate use of the internet facilitates “wandering abroad” without even leaving one’s house or room. For the oblate, as for the monk, misuse of the internet and social media can constitute a sin against the spirit of enclosure.
Things Seen and Heard Outside the Monastery
Chapter LXVII (Of Brethren Who Are Sent on a Journey) develops the principles set forth in Chapter LXVI (Of the Porter of the Monastery). Saint Benedict says:
And let no one presume to relate to another what he may have seen or heard outside the Monastery; for thence arise manifold evils. If any one shall so presume, let him be subjected to the punishment prescribed by the Rule. And he shall undergo a like penalty, who dareth to leave the enclosure of the Monastery, or to go anywhere, or do anything, however trifling, without permission of the Abbot.
No longer is it necessary to embark on a journey outside the monastery to see or hear things giving rise to manifold evils. Even blogs and discussion groups that label themselves “Catholic” or “Traditional” can become the occasion of sins against charity, truth, and justice.
Defending and Striking
Chapters LXIX (That No One Presume to Defend Another in the Monastery) and LXX (That No One Presume to Strike Another) are remarkably applicable to inter–personal relations mediated by the internet.
Care must be taken that on no occasion one monk presume to defend another in the Monastery, or to take his part, even although they be connected by some near tie of kinship. Let not the monks dare to do this in any way whatsoever; because therefrom may arise the most grievous occasion of scandals. If any one transgress this rule, let him be very severely punished.
Let every occasion of presumption be banished from the Monastery. We ordain, therefore, that no one be allowed to excommunicate or strike any of his brethren, unless authority to do so shall have been given him by the Abbot. Let such as offend herein be rebuked in the presence of all, that the rest may be struck with fear.
Anyone who has participated in online exchanges, discussions, and debates knows that “therefrom may arise the most grievous occasion of scandals”. Saint Benedict uses the word “scandals” here in its biblical sense: a scandal is something that causes another to stumble or even to fall. The so–called “comment boxes” on blogs are often rife with murmuring, criticisms, rumours, and pernicious intimations. The internet and social media can become a deadly weapon at the fingertips of people in the grip of unforgiveness, bitterness, old hurts, and hatred. Computers allow people to strike their brethren, not with the clenched fist, but with fingers flying over the keyboard. Even comments written innocently can be misconstrued, fomenting enmity and division.
A Good Zeal
Chapter LXXII of the Holy Rule is, I think, the fairest flowering of Saint Benedict’s doctrine. It contains much that is immediately applicable to the oblates’ use of the internet and social media.
As there is an evil zeal of bitterness, which separateth from God, and leads to hell, so there is a good zeal, which keepeth us from vice, and leadeth to God and to life everlasting. Let monks, therefore, exert this zeal with most fervent love; that is, “in honour preferring one another.” Let them most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of mind. Let them vie with one another in obedience. Let no one follow what he thinketh good for himself, but rather what seemeth good for another. Let them cherish fraternal charity with chaste love, fear God, love their Abbot with sincere and humble affection, and prefer nothing whatever to Christ. And may He bring us all alike to life everlasting.
The internet and social media can become toxic with “the evil zeal of bitterness, which separateth from God, and leads to hell”. The internet and social media can also become a means of promoting all that is good, true, and beautiful. Saint Paul puts it this way:
And now, brethren, all that rings true, all that commands reverence, and all that makes for right; all that is pure, all that is lovely, all that is gracious in the telling; virtue and merit, wherever virtue and merit are found—let this be the argument of your thoughts. (Philippians 4:8)
Even while engaged in exchanges on blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and I know not what else, Benedictines, be they monks or oblates, are bound to “most patiently endure one another’s infirmities, whether of body or of mind”. The injunctions of Saint Benedict are simple, direct, and luminous: “Let no one follow what he thinketh good for himself, but rather what seemeth good for another. Let them cherish fraternal charity with chaste love, fear God, love their Abbot with sincere and humble affection, and prefer nothing whatever to Christ”. By way of example, oblate Brother Gregory’s fine blog, Inclina aurem cordis tui is an outstanding example of Benedictine blog–writing.
Discretion, Prudence, and Charity
I appeal to all of you, dear oblates of Silverstream Priory: use the internet and the social media with discretion, prudence, and charity. Allow yourselves to be guided in this by the teaching of our father Saint Benedict. You may find yourselves surprised by a new harvest of spiritual fruits just where the world least expects to find them.
Whereas the spirit yields a harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, forbearance, gentleness, faith, courtesy, temperateness, purity. No law can touch lives such as these; those who belong to Christ have crucified nature, with all its passions, all its impulses. Since we live by the spirit, let the spirit be our rule of life; we must not indulge vain ambitions, envying one another and provoking one another to envy. (Galatians 5:22–26)
To help us in this regard, I asked the Father Master of oblates to compose a prayer to sanctify our use of the internet and social media. Here is the prayer Dom Benedict wrote for us:
O God, who hast taught us to make use of the things of this life as if we used them not (1 Cor 7), grant me wisdom and discernment in my use of the tools of knowledge and communication, for the form of this world is passing away (ibid.). Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth (Ps 140); preserve thou my mind from aimless curiosity; turn away my eyes from beholding vanity, and pierce thou my flesh with thy fear (Ps 118). Chasten thou all my discourse, lest any word of mine bring harm to me or to my neighbour. Make my heart like unto a fortified city, that filled with thy loving mercy, I may praise thee with pure lips: Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come (Apoc 4), who in perfect Trinity livest and reignest, throughout all ages of ages. Amen.
Holy Mary, Virgin most prudent, pray for us.
Ye holy Angels, save us from spiritual harm.
Holy Abbot Benedict, teach us silence.
Holy Doctor Isidore, keep us from falsehood.
All ye saints of God, intercede for us.
With my blessing,
Note: The translation of the Holy Rule is that of the Right Reverend Dom David Oswald Hunter–Blair, O.S.B., Saint Benedict’s Abbey, Fort Augustus, 1886.