John Bell from Iona
Last week I went to workshops led by John Bell the Scottish composer/author and decided to sit in the choir stalls so that I could draw him with the stained glass window behind. In one session he was talking about humour in the Bible so I gave the man in the stained glass a smile - or perhaps a smirk.
One of the sessions was about private and public spirituality. However I think that John Bell emphasised his disappointment with modern technology too much. What do you think? Here are notes I made at the session.
Title - Going public in private; affirming the need for both public and private spirituality.
In our present day they are becoming confused about private and public domains - the edges blurring often inappropriately. For example on a train, a woman is speaking loudly into her mobile phone. She had been interviewing several people for a job and loudly she names and describes each person and their foolishness etc. One person in the same carriage is appalled. She is speaking about his friend. 'Hey, you're talking about a friend of mine!' Even when we hear only half of a conversation on a train, we listen in, making up the story, but it is none of our business. There is an obsession of self in a public place, without care of strangers hearing. I might be thinking quietly, praying, meditating and then I am disturbed by the loud voice on a mobile phone.
We are obsessed with telephones in our houses. It rings and we jump. No matter if we are in the middle of a family conversation, a crisis even, have visitors, but we jump up instantly and MUST answer that ring. Our quiet times, our prayer life, is being constantly interrupted. The telephone is an absurd instrument - it rings and we answer at once, just in case it might be important. We make ourselves incessantly accessable to people at all times.
We may be at a conference or meeting, or counselling someone, and then we notice that someone in the group is text-messaging, not listening at all.
Anthony Bloom said, 'Ring back later if engaged with God'. What does that mean? That might be a good answering machine message - 'Please ring back later. I am currently engaged in a conversation with God!'
Technology is morally neutral - it certainly can be used in different ways. A visitor comes to the house. As soon as the initial greeting is over, the guest opens up his laptop and says he must check his email!
What happens to domestic life with this instant messaging, emails, computers? The kitchen table is the last important item to buy in a house it seems. Two families are having a dinner party, but where are the children - not eating at the table, but in another room watching TV or playing video games. Private electronic life displaces family life. Earlier values were given to children by the parents, the community, the church, but values these days are provided by the television and computer worlds, and not always good values.
This has an effect upon children and their sociability. Without these items of technology, families would talk, argue, discuss things, show anger, sort things out, learn to disagree and think about issues. The world view is not controlled by the parents but by the world out there with all its emphasis on selfishness and the business of money.
In many homes there is as television in the child's bedroom. And the switch is on after parents go to bed. Next day the child is sleepy at school or disturbed, stressed and need calming down. Attention Deficit Disorder is a consequence.
Even important news may be conveyed by email. One story is about parents who received an email from overseas telling of the death of their daughter!
There is a passion for reality shows on television. We used to have circuses, freak shows, the fat woman, the rat woman, a man who smoked with his feet. Nowadays on television there are freak shows - private troubles in the lives of people put out there as entertainment. The psychologist's couch is not a place for public entertainment. Human vulnerability is not funny.
The best conversations come from trust and knowing one another.
People confuse private wishes, interests, with what is appropriate in public. In Ireland when a father died, the daughters talked about music for the funeral. His favourite song was 'Teddy Bears Picnic' and they requested that for taking out the coffin. The minister said, why don't you have a family get-together before the funeral, play the music, talk about your father, then at the public funeral, the music can be more general to suit everyone. Worship should not be held ransom to the musical favourites of one person.
And about weddings. If I am asked to perform a wedding ceremony and I know the couple have been living together for some time, I tell them not to follow the old medieval custom of a father giving away his bride (as property) to another man. Let the couple greet the visitors at the door of the church and welcoming them to the ceremony.
About private and public prayers. The early Celts had prayers for various times in the day, for everything even before churches were built as public places of worship. All the world was God's world. Worship is rich when the people already have a personal spirituality. The gospel and encouragement of private devotion. I know a woman who washes up her dishes as she prays for her children. As she does another domestic task she prayers for other members of her family.
When a busy young mother asked for help with her spiritual life, she was told to read about St Teresa of Avilon as a mentor and example. The woman did not relate to that though. Teresa didn't know the rhythms of the life of a young busy mother.