Saturday, March 7, 2009

Social Networking - Web 2.0

When I first came to the monastery no one had e-mail, there wasn’t a monastery web site and the people who invented Facebook were probably still in elementary school. Back in the Dark Ages of the late 90’s much of what we take for granted today was still relatively new. Admittedly we at the monastery were still slow on the technology curve even then but it was a different, much less connected world.

Today our community communication is largely by e-mail, everyone who needs a computer for work has one and we focus on keeping our website up to date. However, the new phenomenon of “social networking” is a little slower to catch on. A few of us are trying Facebook, although personally this “friending” business gives me some very traumatic flashbacks to the junior high school social pecking order. As far as I know there have not been any “Tweets” coming out of the monastery although someone may have a secret Twitter life I don’t know about. Some of this reluctance or cluelessness about the new networking styles may be age related, some this stuff makes more sense if you’re under 30. But I also wonder about how all this fits with being monastic.

In some ways Benedict invented social networking. When you live together, 24/7, for the rest of your life, you don’t really need a virtual post to tell everyone what you are doing at any given time. Even if they had computers I suspect that Brother Maurus never would have needed to answer the Facebook question: “What are you doing right now?” Everybody would know what he was doing, he would be at prayer, he would have his week as kitchen server, it would be time for lectio (prayerful reading) or everyone would know that he was sneaking behind the kitchen for a cigarette or trying to get a few more minutes of sleep before the bell. In community everyone knows what you are doing at any time.

But our society in general has lost any sense of connection. We live alone or in small families. We value our separateness, our “space.” We want lots of land around our houses, sound-proofing in our apartments. We value our autonomy and independence. We bristle at anyone making decisions for us. We hop from one relationship to the next while both fearing and longing for commitment. In the web of social relationships we are society of spiders dangling from the end of the web not sure how to get back to interconnectedness.

This is probably where the new social networking phenomenon comes in. We have become so isolated, so independent that we don’t really know how to relate in person. We don’t live together. We are fearful of strange people while at the same time we don’t live close to our friends and family. And so we reach out in “virtual” relationships. We long to feel connected, to share ourselves, to know we aren’t alone, that someone is interested in who we are and what we are doing. We are assuaging a deep loneliness we don’t want to admit we have.

In the monastery there are real connections. Not easy connections, not always “nice” connections. The relationships can be as painful as they are profound, sometimes they are superficial, sometimes they reflect a deep sense of God’s presence. But they are very real. This monastic version of social networking is how we are transformed. We live together, pray together, work together and hopefully learn to see the presence of God in one another. It is a struggle, it is hard work, but what is at stake is nothing less than life. Our “network” in the monastery is nothing less than how we travel together on the spiritual journey. In the words of Benedict: “Let them prefer nothing whatever to Christ, and may he bring us altogether to everlasting life.” This is the ultimate “friending.”

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