How to be together

June 14, 2021 | Bethany Cottage | Portland, Connecticut

Two weeks have passed since the month of non-involvement with Facebook began. Today I am at the cottage in Connecticut. It is a cool and wet day, pouring at this moment, and thunder rolling round above, even as the kids at the YMCA camp across the pond continue, apparently undisturbed, to have fun beneath the tents in place for their comfort and safety.

In the big world the G7 nations’ meeting ended in Cornwall, England, and President Biden is in Brussels for the NATO meeting, to be followed by a summit with Vladimir Putin.

I have spent this morning here on a little retreat. Through Youtube I heard a talk by a leader of the worldwide community of folks committed to contemplative prayer and then joined – through their website and webcam – with the community at Glenstal Abbey in County Limerick, Ireland for matins and lauds for this day. Together with the quiet here, the sounds of the kids at camp, and the falling rain, it has been a peaceful morning.

The above paragraph, with its mention of youtube, websites and webcams makes the point that stepping away from social media does not mean stepping away altogether from the digital tools that can broaden and deepen considerably the resources for the spirit ready-at-hand for any of us. I appreciate that availability quite a bit. Stepping cautiously forward out of the heaviest of the pandemic period, I find that the sense of isolation that many of us have known lifts only slowly, and that re-engagement with people face-to-face is both a joy and a challenge.

I turned this morning – though physically alone here with the dogs – to community. To the community of people making contemplative prayer a central part of their lives, and to the monastic community of Glenstal. Digital community is certainly not the same as, but rather an effective reminder of, the truth that we live best when we live in community. We live most fully when we are in conversation with other persons. We live most joyfully when we are eye-to-eye with the light in others’ eyes. We live most humanly in the company of other humans.

I tell a lot of stories these days from other years of my living. And the stories, significantly, come forth from interaction, experience, conversation, friendship, even conflict with others. The solitude which is also central to life is the sacred holder of all these. But they are born in community.

So what is to be the relationship, now and into the future, between digital community and what might be called ‘geographical community’ (since I haven’t yet thought of a better descriptor)? I refrain from calling one of them ‘real’ and the other ‘virtual,’ as they each are real in their own way. Each and both should be at the service of the maturation of the person, of the process of becoming fully human. I begin to believe that the digital version should, where possible, exist not in isolation, but rather in cooperation with the geographical person-to-person community. One instance of this might be our early efforts now at what some are calling ‘hybrid church’ or ‘hybrid worship,’ ongoing gatherings of persons in a faith community that embraces daily both people in one another’s physical company and people in one another’s digital company.

The goal is a shared one at best: bringing us together. Bringing us out of isolation into community. Considering fuller ways to move toward that goal is a good thing, a godly thing, without doubt. It will also be a challenge.

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