St. Benedict and the Gift of Presence

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By Randy OHC [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I know that some of my readers are curious about my week at St. Gregory’s Abbey, an Episcopal Benedictine monastery in Three Rivers, Michigan. In the week since I’ve been back, I’ve been trying to sift through what emerged during my time there. Much of it is too personal for publication, suffice to say that unplugging from work and electronics gave me the space I needed for some internal things to float to the surface, where I could deal with them.

One of the things that amazed me about this time was my experience of sharing space and time with others in silence. There were a few other visitors in the guest house with me. We were present with each other often, but talked very little. We slept in adjacent rooms, ate together, worshiped next to each other several times a day, read next to each other in the library, but said almost nothing.

This experience was quite unfamiliar to me: being present with each other without exchanging information. I got to know these neighbors of mine throughout the week, but there is almost nothing that I know about them. This was new for me, especially considering that I am a chatty, extroverted, social butterfly. Shutting up and just being together in the silence was agony for me at first, but I came to appreciate it by the end of the week.

What strikes me about that experience in retrospect is that it is the polar opposite of what happens with human interaction via social media, where relationship is entirely made up of information exchange and utterly void of real presence. I have Facebook friends and blog readers who I have never met, but we exchange information regularly. Most of it is quite pleasant or amusing. But when I read the comments on a YouTube video, I see the dark side of people whose humanity gets temporarily lost in arguments that are rich in data exchange but poor in intimacy. Spammers and Trolls do not see the humanity in the people on the other side of the screen. Hiding behind the comfortable curtain of anonymity, they say things they would never say to someone they loved, respected, and had to interact with. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I am not totally innocent of this offense myself.

Reading the Rule of St. Benedict this morning, I came across this passage from chapter 2:

Furthermore, those who receive the name of prioress or abbot are to lead the community by a twofold teaching: they must point out to monastics all that is good and holy more by example than by words, proposing God’s commandments to a receptive community with words, but demonstrating God’s instructions to the stubborn and the dull by a living example.

Benedict is the anti-troll in this sentence. He leads by example, especially with those who are resistant to what he has to say. He makes no attempt to argue; he has nothing to prove. He reserves talking for those who are already on the same page with him, so that they might develop and refine their ideas together.

It occurs to me that there is almost no capacity for this kind of leading by example online. Quiet presence offers no exchange of information, therefore no relationship (at least as far as the internet is concerned).

The recovery of sanity and civility requires that each of us recognizes and acknowledges the humanity we share in common with each other, especially those with whom we disagree in matters of politics and religion. Let us recover the lost art of being present with each other when information is not being exchanged, that our conversation might be all the more rich and fruitful.

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