How do we make faithful sense amidst the racket and discord of digital media? How do we “pay attention” in these spaces? To what – and more importantly, to whom – are we attending?
There are many answers to these questions, but I have found my most fruitful conversation partners among those navigating the streams of mysticism. It might seem impractical to place media (which furiously ignite rapid exchanges across digital platforms) into conversation with mystics. After all, one stereotype of a mystic is of someone of great contemplative ability who withdraws from the world into a serene space of silent prayer. There are other more immediately pertinent ways of thinking about mysticism, though.
In her book “Silence: A User’s Guide,” Maggie Ross, an Anglican solitary (someone who lives a life of solitude and silent prayer), writes of this stance as one that is a transfigured perception of the ordinary. “To be centered in the deep mind is to have access to the direct and inclusive perception that everything is interconnected.” From this place of interconnection, of forgetfulness of self and remembering of our thorough relationality, comes a wellspring of love and power that fuels more than we can immediately conceive.
In the midst of the corrosive polarization that is so evident in our public spheres right now, we need to find ways to focus our attention that connect us to this relationality, that draw us out of ourselves and into interdependence and connection.
Creating space for stories
We are storying creatures. We tell stories to find out who we are, to describe the worlds we live in and to make sense of ourselves and all that is around us. Stories focus our attention. Right now we are in the midst of a lively competition over which stories will shape our shared reality. How do we make choices amongst these competing voices? How do we find and tell the stories that move us from raw data to information, to knowledge, to wisdom?
In centuries past, religious stories were at the heart of such wisdom-shaping. Yet today, fewer and fewer people know the stories of their traditions enough to find such stories helpful. Or even worse, what little they do know can be a constraint on their imagination and creative response – becoming what they think they “should” do and believe, rather than inviting them to find wisdom in the tradition which draws them out, and upon which they can grow and generate new forms of ancient stories.
There is little room today for stories that are large enough to encompass communities and communal action, for stories that connect to the deep wellsprings of which Ross reminds us. Far too often the stories we have around us are stories of individuals, of the “one who succeeded through hard work” – a fine story in itself, but not one which gives us insight into the contexts of the life that led to either the hard work or the success. Worse, there are increasingly loud voices sharing stories that provoke fear and distrust of difference. What can we do amidst this cacophony?
Religious communities tend stories through time, stories that connect and combine and bind people together. Some people have even suggested that the word “religious” might come from the root word religare — to bind together. But in an era in which institutions are regarded with deep suspicion and “community” is often defined as “a loose group of like-minded individuals,” this notion of “binding together” does not sit easily with many people.
We need to find ways to share our core stories through personal voices. It is time to return to testimony, to witness. There will always be room for such storytelling in congregations, but there is an urgent need today to reach out beyond our safe and familiar contexts to listen to and encourage such story sharing amidst profound diversity.
This is where digital media can be very fruitful. We no longer live in a world with sharp lines between being “online” and “offline.” More and more of us carry the net in our pockets in the shape of a phone, or even on our wrists in the shape of a watch. Even television and film are increasingly being accessed through the net. The challenge is one of shaping our attention, of finding the practices which bring us to the still point at the center which illuminates our relationality and which helps us to remain calm and connected.
Practices old and new
This is where the mystics are so helpful, and one mystic in particular – one whom I’m not certain would even claim that label – is Bryan Stevenson. You may be familiar with Stevenson from his TED talk, or from his recent book “Just Mercy.” He is an attorney and public educator who has long worked to transform our system of criminal incarceration. In doing so – a terrifically uphill battle with very few “wins” – he identifies four practices that are necessary for transformative change. These four practices are at the heart about how we “attend” to our lives: getting proximate, changing the narratives, identifying what gives us hope and embracing discomfort.
What is so striking to me in his work is that these same four practices are at the heart of what many Christian contemplatives through time have described as their journey with Christ. Robert Ellsberg’s “Blessed Among Us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses” is a calendar of saints that bears witness to two people for each day of the year who have been recognized through time as bearing these kinds of commitments to walking with Christ. His stories of these saints (whether officially recognized by the church, or raised up through communal consensus) describe how these people were drawn into close proximity with suffering – perhaps through walking with people in poverty, perhaps through caring for the sick, perhaps through visiting people in prison, or perhaps in some of the earliest stories, simply by being part of the Christian movement.
Rather than hiding from that proximity, rejecting it and seeking other stories, these saints, these ordinary mystics, “got proximate” – they got close, they walked alongside, they even sought out those who were in travail. And then they changed the narratives.
Changing the narratives
Just as Stevenson helps us to attend to the stories behind the stereotypes, Christian saints through the centuries have helped us to see our way into connection with people, to refuse the shaming, the isolation, the alienation, and instead to walk together. I think we have a tendency in 2017 to neglect these stories, categorizing them as “exploitation of suffering,” or as an unhealthy attraction to self-denigration, but in doing so we miss something else. Yes, there are ways in which the stories we tell of Christian saints have been told in unhealthy ways – but we can change the lens, change the perspective, and in doing so see anew the courage, the love and the deep realization of interdependence that lives in those stories.
This move is very much what I believe Stevenson is doing in his work. And it is also very much what digital media are making newly possible and accessible. Stevenson uses very current media to help us change these narratives. His Equal Justice Initiative uses the web, digital video and other newly emerging tech to share stories of the people with whom he works. Another very immediate example is the digital hashtag #BlackLivesMatter, which sparked the most recent movement to change the narratives of injustice around us. This very small piece of electronic code, when floated out into the sea of interconnected spaces defined by the web, helped to make visible a vast network of people who are waking up to the pervasive systemic violence aimed at people of color.
In doing so, this one small piece of code became a visible way to change the narratives. It gave us access to many, many stories that we would otherwise not hear. Digital video has become a medium in which shared stories have the power to transform.
There is danger here, however, as in any medium in which human beings function and human sin is active. The competition over which stories will shape our common spaces, over which stories are “true” and which are “fake news,” is particularly volatile right now. And the temptation to enclose our meaning-making, to refuse deep connection, to find the spaces where we can hang out with like-minded individuals is very seductive.
Here again is where I turn to the contemplatives, to mystics, for help. Stevenson’s third step is “finding what gives you hope,” and here the mystics are particularly clear about the necessity of the practices of silence, of contemplation.
“The way to salvation is through the work of silence, the re-centering of the person in the deep mind, signaled by the word behold (rarely translated from its various forms in Greek), where human beings share the life of God. This entails living the morals and ethics inherent in the process that we examined earlier: the primacy of attentive, responsive, receptivity (beholding), global attention, non-violence, inclusiveness, refusal to judge in an absolute sense (as distinguished from the judgement necessary to discernment), seeking to live ongoing incarnation-transfiguration-resurrection in this life amid the world’s destructiveness, and so forth – the en-Christing process that leads to paradise in this life as far as that is possible.”
Perhaps that quotation is still somewhat opaque, but what Ross is signaling is a response to the deep sense of connection to all, to the awareness of utter relationality that arises when one is able to sink into silence and through that silence into relationship with all.
It is powerfully seductive to feed our insatiable appetite for adrenaline by living in a state of constant “being on” in our digital lives. We turn to our devices as some kind of promise of security. But what the mystics teach is that the only certain security is to rely on God. They promise that in doing so, we are drawn beyond ourselves into an experience of relationship that sustains through even the most unimaginable suffering.
I used to turn to Facebook every morning, as my first step into the world, and as a form of prayer. I would read the stream of posts coming from friends and organizations, and use it to spark intentional prayer. I still turn to social media each day, but in this era of profound uncertainty, before I turn on my computer, before I reach for my phone, I remember Psalm 46 – “be still and know that I am God” – and I seek to take some deep breaths, and to remember that no matter what emerges from that digital news stream, no matter how urgent or how surreal or how anxiety-provoking, or how joyful, enlivening and hopeful, no matter what emerges from that stream, my first prayer is that I might be present to God’s work in the world.
Stevenson – and all of the saints through time – reminds us that the fourth element of this practice, the fourth step, is to embrace discomfort.
In some ways, for those of us who read magazines such as this one, those of us who have studied and learned, one of the most painful kinds of discomfort to embrace is that of not knowing.
Ross reminds us:
“These problems are but irruptions of a more fundamental problem: in any human population there are those who are far more interested in accruing power and control than living in an integrated way that requires a certain tolerance of, if not reliance on, uncertainty and ambiguity.”
In our current moment, amidst the vicious polarization and sheer surrealism of our public spheres, “not knowing” can be physically painful. But it can also be a spiritual discipline that opens us up to deeper relationality. I have found the work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, writing from within the explicitly secular world of organizational dynamics, peculiarly pertinent here. In their book, “How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work: Seven Languages for Transformation,” they argue for a stance of openness to learning that moves through a connected set of assertions. These assertions have become my mantra as I seek to engage neighbors and other people with whom I interact – both online and in person – who have vastly differing political beliefs:
- There is probable merit to my perspective.
- My perspective may not be accurate.
- There is some coherence, if not merit, to the other person’s perspective.
- There may be more than one legitimate interpretation.
- The other person’s view of my viewpoint is important information to my assessing whether I am right or identifying what merit there is to my view.
- Our conflict may be the result of the separate commitments each of us holds, including commitments we are not always aware we hold.
- Both of us have something to learn from the conversation. We need to have two-way conversation to learn from each other.
- If contradictions can be a source of our learning, then we can come to engage not only internal contradictions as a source of learning but interpersonal contradiction (i.e., “conflict”) as well.
- The goal of our conversation is for each of us to learn more about ourselves and the other as meaning makers.
These assertions offer me a ground upon which to do the hard work of knitting back together the fabric of our relationality. They also point me to practices that I seek to enact in the midst of digital media.
What media am I consuming?
At a very basic level, these assertions drive me to ask: What media am I consuming? Scholars have pointed out that it was easier to determine for whom one voted in the last presidential election by asking which media one consumed than by more typical demographic markers. I seek to diversify my news stream and get proximate to some of these very different sources. Rather than dismissing specific news media, for instance, I seek to understand what commitments lead to their specific perspectives. In learning about the “other,” I may indeed come to a sense that the perspective they are ensconced in is dangerously suffused with oppressive hermeneutics, but I have a better grasp of why and how they came to that place, as well as a deeper sense of connection and relationship to them. This connection offers a bridge, a different narrative. Humility is not passivity, but rather an opening to deeper fellowship and discipleship.
Similarly, each time I am tempted to reject new media out of hand (I think of my initial reaction to Snapchat, for instance), I now pause, take a deep breath and seek to understand its affordances. What does a specific medium make possible? What does it make plain, and what does it obscure? Smartphones and texting, for instance, make it possible to feel “in touch” with those whom we most want to be able to reach. That is a remarkable embodiment of relationship. But they also disrupt our taken-for-granted patterns of public gathering. I need to see both dynamics, and pause long enough – enter into silence long enough – to be discerning about the practices I use to engage these media. I need to accept that change brings with it discomfort, and that discomfort can offer useful insight.
I need to find the hope that grounds my living amidst media. This seeking is at the heart of practices of Christian community through time. Many of these practices are newly vibrant in this era. Fasting from social media during Lent, for instance, can actually lead to new energy for activism, rather than being a way to retreat from life. Prayer understood as active conversation with God can be lived out even in very small moments every day – changing your password into a prayer you must type to access your computer, for instance, can be a daily prompt.
More than any of these kinds of practices, however, I want to urge you to find ways to get proximate to practices of silence, to change the narratives around silence (it’s selfish, it’s impractical, it’s privileged), to find your way into the hope that is present there, and to embrace whatever discomfort might be found as you seek to enter into deep silence in the world you inhabit.
Let me conclude by noting Ross’s reminder:
“The tendency of ancient, late antique, and medieval writers to resort to story, myth, and metaphor are designed to engaged the imagination, to move readers into liminality, to open them to the resonance of the deep mind, to stimulate the desire to persevere – all of which enrich and deepen engagement with the deep mind and its context of silence and the capacity to receive its gifts.”
Finding our ways into the stories of our traditions, and then from those stories into hearing each other’s deep stories, is the most pragmatic way I know to make faithful sense amid the daily racket.
Mary E. Hess is the Patrick and Barbara Keenan Visiting Chair of Religious Education at the University of St. Michael’s College in the University of Toronto.