STILLPOINT Archive: last updated 12/14/2009

Facebook in a Monastery

By John  Skillen

I know the subtle compelling pull of the Internet. Yesterday, preparing for a class on Dante, I noted how the belatedly penitent souls described in the Canto 8 of the Purgatorio sang together the Te lucis ante terminum (To thee before the close of day), the ancient hymn included in the evening service of Compline. I wondered if I could find the full text in Latin and English on the Internet, and a recording of the hymn on YouTube. So I Googled it. Yes, I hit the jackpot. But somehow, a half hour later, still glued to YouTube, I was watching clip after clip of my favorite characters from the Muppet Show: the Swedish Chef and Sam the Eagle. All this may sound wholesome enough; we’re not talking pornography here. But how in the world did I get from Dante’s chorus of penitents to the Swedish Chef making turtle soup? I don’t remember. One thing led to another.

I can recognize the weakening of the will in the early morning when, descending to a quiet corner of the living room with my Bible or my Italian Franciscan prayer book in hand with every good intention of praying matins, I allow myself to fire up the laptop just for the merest quick check of email (after all, it’s already noon in Orvieto). And suddenly it’s 45 minutes later, the prayer book is unopened, and I’ve got time only for a quick shower and a bowl of cereal.

Yes, I have a Facebook account. It sits mainly unopened except when I accept invitations from the far-flung Gordon in Orvieto alumni to be “Facebook friends.” Reluctantly I have decided that Facebook provides the best medium now available to keep track of these several hundred alumni. Now I’m “social networking” often enough to experience the temptation to a sort of voyeurism in moving from one photo in which I have been tagged, to the source album, to the albums and then profiles of others tagged in the same photo, to the photos of friends of friends, to . . . Where and when does it stop? Is this harmless curiosity?

The English word comes from the Latin curiositas, which the medieval moral theologians considered distinctly a vice. It was often described as the besetting temptation of the pilgrim, losing his focus on the goal of the journey by gawking at all the novelties along the way, lapsing into the titillated but uninvolved gaze of the tourist. Curiositas is a desire for the sort of aimless knowledge that comes with no moral strings attached, no responsibility for caring for the person seen. Such idle curiosity, in the medieval view, was related to acedia or will-less sloth, to which one is more vulnerable precisely during those periods of the day when zeal and fortitude are weakened by lethargy.

I began with personal illustrations, but they get at some of the reasons why Facebook isn’t invited to become much of a friend at monastery San Paolo, where the Gordon in Orvieto program is situated. It is, after all, not a “trip” that surfs over the surface of famous Italian cities; rather, it’s a full semester of cross-cultural immersion that urges students to let the local culture of a small and intimate town and its people get under their skin in deep and lasting ways. As Sybil Coleman and Bryan Auday’s study indicates, a third of our students spend one to two hours a day on Facebook. Such a habit can translate into 200 hours of a semester supposedly spent “in Italy”; 200 hours: 20 daytimes’ worth—one-fifth of the semester’s opportunities—lost for learning another language, for making real friends in Orvieto, for touching real tufa, for praying with real nuns.

The many American university programs in Italy are all reporting their students are measurably less engaged in their local settings than they were 10 years ago. The three main factors of such disengagement are significant amounts of time on the Internet and on the cell phone—now with the distractions of texting, Facebooking, photographing, and iPodding all contained in the same seductive device; and touristy weekends in Paris or London or Barcelona, taking advantage of cheap flights on Ryanair and EasyJet.

Second, the Orvieto semester is intended to counter the disembodied, multitasking quality of so much of our contemporary life: earbuds plugged in, viewing our surroundings mediated through a camera lens with an eye not on the thing itself but on how it will appear packaged when we put up our Facebook albums within minutes of having the experience. All of these distract us from focused bodily attention to the people, the smells, textures and sounds directly in front of us.

Hence the “new monastic” flavor of our program’s stated intention: “To give students an experience of rhythms of life slower and simpler than the forms of contemporary American life (with its speed and size, its barrage of visual images, and its pervading sense of impermanence). We do this by dining together, encouraging sustained conversation, experiencing the traditional liturgies of religious life and civic celebrations, living more closely to the earth in the midst of vineyards and olive groves, and by trading the automobile for the foot.”

Third, we wish our students’ experience in Orvieto to counter the weakening of the will that the addictive clicking of a Facebook culture can aggravate. Life in the monastery and in Orvieto is, on one side, more structured, with the Internet signal limited to an hour in the late afternoon, with leisurely meals taken together at precise times, and so forth. On the other side, without hour-by-hour campus obligations, and without the ever-present likelihood of unplanned interruption by the ring of the cell phone or new email message, one faces long stretches of uninterrupted time, the filling up of which is decided by no one but one’s self.

Fourth, in contrast to a Facebook culture in which cybercommuning with one’s untouchable cyber friends by definition takes one out of the community where one actually IS, the Orvieto semester is a pretty forceful experience of intentional community living. Twenty or so people are obliged to look one another in the face with little relief over four months, developing patience (or not) with one another’s quirks and mannerisms, knowing with the body who has done their chores and who has not, inescapably encountering someone’s need for a shoulder to cry on or a joy to share. When the kid across the dinner table is rambling, one must deal with him. And such training in courtesy and patience is, of course, training in love.

Facebook—face it—allows the slippery evasions of hitting “Reply” with an ersatz “That’s so cool!” or “I wish I could be there!!!” or “I LOVE your photos!!!!!!” The medium itself requires trite responses and sabotages any substantive conversation. How revealing is the Facebook function of “poking” someone—supposedly a tender signal that you are thinking of the friend at that very moment; but really just a watered-down imitation of a real hug and an hour of patient conversation. 

John Skillen, Ph.D., is a professor of English and director of the Gordon in Orvieto program. He is also the editor of Palimpsest, the journal of the Studio for Art, Faith and History.


Duomo graphic
Laptop user
Communal dinner graphic
Coffee Conversation graphic