The image of police in full riot gear had blazed across television screens all day, on all of the news channels. The Spanish, stressed by the economic crisis, had finally taken to the streets and were protesting in front of the Cortes, the parliament building in Madrid. It was a moment of high drama, and this one video seemed to prove it. But one element was missing. There were no shots of an angry crowd.
Every now and again a news source will run a video clip without commentary, on the theory that at least a few viewers might understand what was happening without benefit of talking heads. Happily, the opening frames of this video seemed to bolster the prevailing story line: all was not well in Spain.
The tension in the scene was palpable. Lined up shoulder to shoulder were the police. Looking every bit like clones of Darth Vader, with shields to match, they stood in a solid phalanx, ready to crush anyone who would dare approach. They were the symbol of an uncaring and oppressive government.
But this photographer was of a rare breed. Perched atop a building with a commanding view of the square, the camera slowly pulled back from the close-up that had made the police look so menacing. And as the lens widened to take it all in, the full scope of the stand-off unfolded. In a large semi-circle, facing the police, was an army of photographers and interviewers, each jostling for the best angle. But despite the crush, they were careful not to encircle the police. Why? It was simple. If even one photographer stood behind the police, it would spoil every one else’s shot. This was a team of competitors, working together, to make the most of an army that was all dressed for battle but had no one to fight.
Almost as an afterthought, this one camera panned the streets leading out of the square. Without words it asked: “Hey, where’d everybody go?” And there they were, strolling off in the distance, a couple of blocks away. It seemed as if the “mob” had to catch a train or go to lunch. Whatever the case, it was break-time, and they were out of there.
All protestations to the contrary, most news programs these days are designed to be entertainment, which in turn drives ratings and advertising revenue. As often as not the viewers are clue-less as to the meaning of what they see, and networks are only too happy to supply inane commentary. The result? Despite massive amounts of data at our disposal, we’ve become a very ill-informed people. If we see it on the internet or television, or in a newspaper headline, we’ll believe it. We sit before the media passively, with the same “willing suspension of disbelief” that we once applied to reading fiction.
This near-universal credulity is nothing new, but it can be very unhealthy. John Allen, the noted Vatican analyst, pointed this out in a recent article on concerts that Popes Benedict and Francis had each missed. A few writers had branded Benedict’s absence from a concert as a deliberate snub of the performers. More recently, Francis’ absence from a concert got a very different interpretation. Prevailing wisdom contended it showed his unwillingness to sit in a big baroque chair, like some prince. In fact, Allen pointed out, Benedict often could not get a break from his critics, while Francis gets credit where credit is not due. In this instance Francis’ absence had nothing to do with his taste in furniture and more to do with his work ethic. The papal nuncios were in Rome for a once-a-year meeting, and Francis decided that a work-session with his representatives was more important than recreation.
In his Rule for Monks Saint Benedict is no believer in taking things at face value. If looks can deceive, words can as well. So, for instance, when guests come to the monastery, the abbot should greet them and then pray with them — to see if they come from God. In receiving new brothers the abbot likewise must “test the spirit,” to see if they come from God. Elsewhere he advises the abbot to seek counsel from a wide range of sources, just to make sure he’s included every possible slant. But then the abbot has the responsibility to make an informed decision.
It’s important to recognize Benedict’s emphasis on curiosity and truth-seeking. He’s not paranoid, and he harbors neither suspicion nor fear of guests. Nor does he have any ill will toward new monks until they prove themselves deserving of his trust. No, the abbot has little to fear except his own ignorance and ill-considered judgements. If he is truly wise, he will use every opportunity to seek God and the truth, and separate fact from fiction.
As for us, that’s not such bad advice. All too often we rush right in and believe every headline and every news alert, as if they came straight from God. We likewise tend to believe every scrap of gossip; and with well-entrenched opinion we pre-judge others without giving them a chance. In short, we let ourselves be manipulated, both by peer pressure and our own stubborn ignorance. And when we do so, we are no gift to the human community.
When Jesus tells his disciples to be sly as foxes he means them to be inquisitive, but not mean-spirited. I’ve always seen in this an encouragement to think for ourselves. God gave us brains to use, and we should use them wisely — and often. We disappoint the Lord God Almighty when we check our brains at the door of the church, or when we worship at the computer or television.
If God is the good, the true and the beautiful, as Saint Thomas Aquinas suggested, then we can never be passive in our search for God who is the truth. At the very least it means that we should listen to gossip and slander cautiously. We should read critically. We should watch television news with a whole truckload of salt, and see it for what it is meant to be: entertainment. And above all, we should be skeptical of what we read on the internet — except for my blog, of course.
+As I noted in last week’s post, on July 11th we celebrated the feast of Saint Benedict. At that liturgy Abbot John received the solemn vows of Brothers Nick, Michael-Leonard, and Lew. They are pictured in this photo, standing at the gate to the abbot’s garden.
+On July 12th I presided at the abbey Mass, and you can access the text of the sermon, Jacob’s Journey, in the section marked Presentations.
+From July 12th-14th we hosted the annual retreat of the Oblates of Saint John’s Abbey. At Mass on Saturday some eighty oblates renewed their commitment to live in the Benedictine way of life. At evening prayer Abbot John received the promises of ten new oblates. I preached at the Mass on the 13th, and you can find the text of that sermon, All God’s Sparrows, in Presentations.
+On July 11th I published a reflection on the life and teaching of Saint Benedict, which appeared in the blog of Salt & Light Television in Toronto. Visitors to the site can click here for the essay, entitled Saint Benedict: Seeker of God in the Ordinary Things.
+Our confrere Brother John Bede recently published a music-video of William Byrd’s Ave Verum Corpus (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xfgKrQYFYjU). During his doctoral research in England Brother John Bede was part of a small choir that performed some of Byrd’s compositions at Ingatestone Hall in Essex, where Byrd composed some of his work. In this musical clip, Brother John Bede appears with the choir, which includes Brother Sergi of the Benedictine abbey of Montserrat, located outside of Barcelona. Happily, Brother Sergi recently spent several days with us, and he was here for the feast of Saint Benedict.