Sunday, 28 April 2013

Who do you believe?

Diana Butler Bass raised the interesting question in her book Christianity after Religion that this is possibly the most important question, rather than "What do you believe?" or even "Why do you believe?"

As she points out, who you believe is important, because it is about "where do you go to find truth? What sources do you hold to provide valid answers to your questions?"

The answer for most people is Google, of course.

The answers have changed over the last 60 years. It used to be that people like clergy, doctors and bank manager were respected members of the society, and people would go to them for spiritual or lifestyle guidance, medical and well-being advice and financial and economic advice. This has all changed. These days, people go to Google for financial advice, alongside personal financial advisers. The idea of going to a bank manager and asking for advice, and expecting it to be the best advice for you is laughable - not least, because the chances of getting a meeting with a bank manager are very remote.

So often, medical advice is being challenged these days, again with the internet being used to research symptoms and treatments. On the whole, medical professionals are still consulted, just with far more information, and a discussion is more likely than just being told what to do.

Overall, this is a positive development. Not always, and there are problems, but overall, this is providing more information to people, and allowing people to discuss with professionals, being able to understand them, and challenge them. Overall, in the majority of cases, this means that people can tailor advice and suggestions to themselves and their own needs.

But what about spirituality matters? Actually, the same applies, possibly even more. Most people don't go to the clergy for spiritual advice, or for lifestyle advice. If they do, there is a good chance that they will have looked up the person on Google to find out something about them beforehand.

The point is that if people use Google to search for answers to spiritual questions, then that is the place that we should be to try to explain what we believe. Of course, it is not just Google - twitter, facebook, whatever, these places should be where the discussion of spiritual truth should be happening.

In a work environment, there is a different approach. "Who do I trust?" will often be answered as "Fred over there." Because the personal is actually becoming more significant, oddly enough. If I know Fred, then I know what I trust him on, what I don't trust him on, and what he talks rubbish on.

So the challenge here is to be trustworthy people.The challenge here is to actually have a clue what we think, what we believe, and be prepared to discuss it. It is about engagement with others, and being a person that others can trust. But not trust that we have answers, it is about being people who can be trusted to have a useful and productive discussion with.

For many people, this is what they are actually after - proper discussion and exploration. And knowing Who You Can Believe. Because, if I am honest, many Christians are not people I believe.

Saturday, 27 April 2013

Masterchef UK

I enjoy watching Masterchef again this year, because I always enjoy the series. It produces some great characters. This year, there is one person who has attracted a very fanatical following, including me, and someone who is different to normal contestants. This is Natalie Coleman.

Normally, there are three types of contestant who get through the first round:

The arrogant. They are always saying "I am good enough to win this", and when a massive challenge comes - like Marcus Waring this week - these people simply say "I will have to up my game". Generally, I want to punch these people in the nose.

The scared. These are people who seem permanently rabbit-in-the-headlights shocked. When any challenge comes in, they shake like a jelly, and sometimes this shows in their cooking.

The success. Similar to the arrogant, but these are people who have succeeded in everything they have ever done. They have a sense of entitlement to succeeding, that they expect to continue for ever.

This week, Natalie showed a different side - when Marcus Waring was introduced, her face lit up with a smile. She gets very emotional, and genuinely upset when things are going wrong - the upset appears to be because she will let others down, not because she might go out. She is passionate about people having some good food to eat. And when she smiles, she smiles with her whole face, and it is wonderful to see.

Did I mention that she works as a part-time DJ, lives in 'ackney, and talks with an endearing 'ackney accent?

The thing is, these characters are ones I see elsewhere - like in the church. These types are like clergy, and I have seen them all. Except Natalie.

The arrogant. These are the clergy who are looking at their own career path, who are trying to do the things that will promote their own position.

The scared. These are the clergy who are always out of their depth. They have taken on a role that they are not quite suited for, and cannot cope.

The success. These are people who are always too good for their current church. They have always been a success, and assume that "being a vicar" is just another thing they will be good at.

I would like a Natalie as a vicar. Always cheerful, always concerned about whether people are going to be happy, passionate about people. Oh and someone who knows how to have a party. A Natalie DJ set would be my worship.

And she cooks brilliantly. This is crucial - just because she seems like a lovely person does not take away from the fact that she has achieved the final through talent. But being a lovely person does help..

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Careless in the community....

There have been a couple of recent TV series about prisoners, and it raises one particular issue for me, which is the institutionalised nature of so many of the inmates.

Many years ago, "Care in the Community" was the idea of the the Thatcher government to close many of the large institutional hospitals that those suffering with mental problems used to be treated. The principle was that these people could, instead, live in the community with localised support, and so not be simply removed from society, but be helped to cope with their problems within society.

Actually, there is something to be said for this - some people with more minor psychiatric problems used to end up with even more problems because they were institutionally based, and never had help in coping with living in society. The problems were that the community support was not there, the money spent - which should have been at least as much, possibly more - was actually reduced, and it meant that many did not get the help that they needed.

A number of them did end up in prisons, either because it was the only way they could get any help, or because their inability to cope in society put them in opposition to the society. It is not because all people with mental illness are dangerous criminals, it is because they are not able to cope with the society they are "freed" into.

What stuck me about the latest program "The Prisoners" is that so many of these repeat prisoners are institutionalised, and commit more crimes simply to be returned to prison - it is the only place they can go to get food and shelter, and they are accustomed to the prison life. Of course it is a rather more restrictive environment than some others, but it serves the role that so many of them need.

The problem is, by closing the psychiatric institutions, by reducing funding for homeless projects and drug rehabilitation schemes, the only institution that people who need some form on institution to live in is prison. There are some people who are best off in appropriate institutions - people who need the structure and support there to thrive. This is not to criticise them or demean then, just that in certain situations the order and structure of an institution is the best thing for them.

The problem with prisons is twofold. Firstly, they are "one size fits all" places, and are less able to focus on specific problems (drugs, psychiatric issues, social challenge). So it tends not to help them properly and specifically, and it fails - often - to rehabitualise these people to society.

Secondly, the cost of keeping people in prison is very high. The cost of providing this for those who are in need of help rather than incarceration is far too high. If this level of money was actually put into proper support for drugs, homelessness and psychiatric support, then a whole lot of these problems would be improved. And yes, some of them do need to be institutionalised and supported long term. this is not a failure of the care, it is a part of care.

Actually, proper and appropriate support for people, whatever it may be, is the humane and caring thing. Whoever the people are.

Saturday, 20 April 2013

What a week

In this last week, the news has been a fairly constant stream of death, pain, anguish and misery. In particular, the Boston marathon bombings and subsequent apprehension of one suspect and death of the other; the explosion in West of a fertiliser factory; an earthquake in China.

What I want to focus on, however, is the reaction of many people to these events. In particular, the fact that many Muslims have experienced very negative reactions, because the Boston bombers adhered to their faith. It seems to me that this is completely unreasonable, utterly unfair.

Let me make a point: the Boston marathon bombers left 3 dead and many injured, some very seriously. The West explosion left some 15 dead and many others injured. The Chinese earthquake has killed 100 or more, and injured many hundreds.

In the same week, many have died in Afghanistan and Syria, numbers unknown.

And yet the hatred and anger is focused on the religion of the two men who caused the fewest of these deaths. I don't see calls for fertiliser to be banned. I don't see calls for earthquake zones to be abandoned, and yet these are bigger killers than the Boston bombs.

Of course, the bombings are deliberate acts, not accidents.

I don't see calls for troops to leave Afghanistan or intervention in Syria, despite the fact that the dead here are the results of deliberate acts.

I am convinced that the reason for this discrepancy is that many people - not just in the US, of course - see Islam as Bad, and so look for reasons to see the bad in acts of any Muslims. This is a mistake, and a dangerous one.

There is a lot of good and a lot of bad in Islam. As there is in a lot of good and bad in Christianity. And in atheism, monetarism, and any other ism you want to focus on. Islam is not the worst of these - one could argue that it is the greed and selfishness that requires large amounts of fertiliser to keep producing produce to sell. In the UK, the government's austerity measures - based on research that has been shown this week to be seriously flawed - have caused a whole lot of suffering and death.

Demonising other people because of their difference is dangerous and damaging. Not least, because it is the people who are substantially like us who tend to cause the most problems and the most suffering. Yes, the radical aspects of Islam do need reigning in, almost certainly by the leaders of their faith. But the radical aspects of Christianity also need reigning in, and of monetarism, the forces of greed and avarice. And some of these are our responsibility to change.

The rejection of more restrictive gun control in the US this week indicates that this sort of change may still be some way off.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

What is a leader?

I do remember being told that "you can recognise a leader by how many people follow them". The definition was completely flawed anyway, in the context, but it made me think about whether this is a good definition of the sort of person who should have responsibility in a Christian group.

I believe that within these criteria, the answer is no. What is more, I believe that the same applies on a wider basis.

Now I should point out that there is a need for figurehead leaders, but this does not mean that they should be decision makers or that this is the only form of leadership expected. It is a core problem of a democratic ideal that the best people tend not to rise to the top, but the ones who can command a following.

The problem I have, in the particular context it was raised, is that I do not want people to follow me. I want people to follow Jesus, I want people to explore my ideas and thoughts if they are useful, I want people to think for themselves, and find their own way. The last thing I want is for people to hold  me up as their example, their "leader", because that is not Christianity.

That is where my problem with this form of "leadership" lies. If you define "good leadership" by "people follow you", then clearly the aim of a church leader is a large church. The thing is, Jesus scared people away from him, telling them to seriously consider what following him meant. Towards the end, while there were lots of people who enjoyed the party, there were only 12 who followed him. And in the end, there only seemed to be a few of his friends and followers around the cross. If leadership was about how many people follow you, then Jesus was a lousy leader.

Of course, I don't want to go the other way either, and argue that a good leader is someone who challenges and excludes people - that would make Fred Phelps and his ilk good leaders, and that is also not the case. I think, in contrast, we need to reconsider the nature of leadership.

The best leaders I have known show two significant features, which don't fit with popularity measures:

1. Tolerance and acceptance of dissenting views and perspectives. This means being prepared to accept that other people may come to a different answer, to support and respect that direction, and allow then to explore that further. This means helping people do things that you do not understand or value, but they do.

2. Providing challenge that is not criticism or rejection. this means working with people, and providing acceptance with challenge. This challenge is difficult to provide, and is there to prompt and help people grow, not to get them to conform.

Of course, this is not very popular, especially amongst people who want to be told what to believe (or want their own beliefs unchallenged). This is not the way to be popular, not the way to climb the career ladder.

In fact, the most likely result of this is that you will end up alone. But - and this is the critical part - there will be people who have been made to think because of what you have said. Probably after you are dead.

That is true leadership - leading people to their own fulfillment, their own independence. Don't expect to be popular. In fact, people will probably crucify you.

Monday, 15 April 2013

John and Cuthbert

While on my retreat, I wrote a short story about Cuthbert. I hope you enjoy. it is not perfect, but made a point for me at the time.

John and Cuthbert

John had always admired Cuthbert, of course.

“But how would he cope with my life, my work, my problems” he would sometimes mutter. The work and pressures of his particular monastic journey were getting John down. He always seemed to be busy, never finding time to unwind.

 “It’s alright for him” he moaned, “wandering off to his island there whenever he wants to. Some of us have to do the work that keeps him fed, you know”. The work that morning had been particularly tough and unrewarding, meaning that he was going to have to return later to finish off.

It was odd that they bumped into each other just an hour later, passing in the cloister. John tried to avoid the meeting, but Cuthbert seemed to make an effort to come over to him. John was not sure why, as Cuthbert simply greeted him saying “God’s blessing on you, Brother John” as he passed.

It was the late afternoon, when the monks would normally be free for a couple of hours private study or similar before the evening meal, when John had to return to the field and finish off. He watched Cuthbert walk over to his island, huddled in his hood as the wind lashed him. “It’s alright for you” John thought. Even more so as the rainclouds gathered, threatening, above him.

As he continued to work, Johns mood became as dark as the clouds above him. The rain had started, and the only bright spot was Cuthberts island.

Hang, on, that was wrong. Why should the island be OK, when everywhere else was miserable and dark? That made no sense. As he finished on bundle, he looked over and saw that, sure enough, the island was lit up, as if it was bright sunshine.

“Typical” muttered John, “he even gets his own good weather”, but he was puzzled, because the light seemed to radiate from the island, not onto it.

As he watched, the island glowed, centred on the cross that always stood there. The cross glowed too, but not the white shine of the rest of the island – in the midst of the storm, the cross was a just visible red streak.
John sat down and offered this vision to God. It slowly started to dawn on him.

Cuthberts role wasn’t the easy one – it was just different. His role wasn’t the hard one, it was just the place he fitted into at the moment. It is probably true that Cuthbert would not have coped as well as he did with some of the pressures of his work. It is almost certainly true that Cuthbert struggled with the whole monastic life thing, just like John himself did, sometimes. It was wrong to be jealous, because every place has its challenges, its problems.

That was the thing, he realised. Being jealous is wrong, because every role has its challenges as well as its benefits. It is far too easy to see the benefits, and not realise the challenges, especially if these are hidden.

The truth is, John realised, that each has their own part to play. It may take a time to find that part, and the part will not necessarily be easy, but it is where you best fit. That is Gods ideal place for you at this time, and if it is Gods place, he had no right to be complaining.

He was still kneeling when he felt a touch on his shoulder, and opened his eyes to see that it was getting dark. As he turned, Cuthbert was standing there, smiling.

“Come, on, lets see if there is any food left” he said.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Cultural widows?

I have just started reading Diana Butler Bass's Christianity after Religion, and it is proving to be an interesting read so far, However, there was a well known quote that gave me some insight into other events this week.

"Those who marry the spirit of the age will find themselves widows in the next." GK Chesterton.

Within church circles, this is often used to critique those who define their faith in terms of the current society - the postmodern paradigm that is predominant across most of the world today. They are right, in that if you define your faith in terms of a single worldview, it will be difficult when that worldview is challenged, because that will be seen as a challenge to your faith. In fact, in many cases, I see this when trying to interpret Christianity in post-modernist terms to those with a modernist worldview.

Most of the time, interpreting the historical faith in terms of a new perspective is exactly the right thing, even though it is often difficult. What is more, people do not always get it right, and fresh expressions of faith seem to come under far more scrutiny than old expressions.

This is not to to dismiss this quote as irrelevant or meaningless. It is a very important and significant statement and idea, that is just too often used in the wrong direction. The truth is many church people are stuck in a modernist paradigm, and what they see, when there are new ways of interpret church, is their own faith becoming irrelevant. they are the ones who are becoming widows in a new age, because their faith has married the spirit of the age we are leaving.

And yes, the majority of Christian theology and ecclesiology is very distinctly modernist in its approach.

But the Christian faith historically needs to be interpreted for different cultural environments. Whether this is modernist or post-modernist, Western or Eastern, it is important that the faith is appropriately interpreted for the cultural milieu that it is being expressed in. The fact that this will reject or challenge other interpretations is part of the nature of a culturally interpreted faith. So yes, I firmly believe that the full range of properly interpreted Christian faith will include paradoxes and contradictions. What is more, that is an important part of it.

What of this weeks news? Well I have already put my views down, and there is a whole lot more that has been said that it doesn't seem worth saying any more. But I have been particularly distressed by the lack of leaders who have been prepared to stand up and be critical of Margaret Thatchers legacy. Bishop Pete Broadbent and MP Glenda Jackson have stood out as a very few who reflect the negative side of her legacy. This is not to support some of the viciousness that has been shown against the person herself, and that is a worrying sign, But the truth is that, when in power, she did earn a whole lot of hatred, and her legacy is not a positive one for everyone.

Some people seem to have been taken by surprise at the vehemence of the feeling expressed against her. I am not sure why - it was always clear to me that when she died, many people would shout "ding dong, the witch is dead" - which doesn't mean I agree with it.

The problem is that most MPs and most church leaders seem not to be in touch with society, the society that Baroness thatcher polarised so much. To ignore this, to simply talk of her strength and leadership, just the positive aspects of her personality and leadership is to miss the zeitgeist. For many people - myself included - the legacy of the Thatcher years is damaging and negative, as I have expressed elsewhere, and this perspective of her time in office should be reflected as we reconsider her life.

 That so few of our leaders have accepted this and been prepared to address this tells us something about them, and just how widowed they might be.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Baroness Thatcher is dead

Just in case you haven't noticed. I am intrigued by the vehemence of the responses to this event, despite the fact that I am aware that she always provoked strong reactions. So I wanted to take a look at this reaction and her legacy.

Firstly, I would like to point out that I am not celebrating her death, because it is wrong to celebrate the death of anyone, whoever they are, and whatever they have done. Especially, as in this case, where she has left family behind who are mourning for their loss. As John Donne said, no man is an island, everyones death diminishes me.

Having said that, I remember her time in power - I was in my 20s at that time - and I remember some of the impact of her policies. I was also around and in my teens during the previous regimes, and I remember the "winter of discontent". I am talking from my experience partly, and I think this gives me a different perspective on the events from the many who have discussed her legacy.

In her first term of office, she was a revelation in UK politics. She did a whole lot of really good things, bringing a degree of stability after a period of serious unrest. The turmoil of the previous years needed a firm hand, a strong leader to bring some of the unrest to a halt. She was firm, decisive, certain of what she wanted and ruthless in getting there.

Given the number of u-turns our current government has managed, there is a part of me that longs for strong leadership. Right or wrong, the endless vacillation of the current administration is a real problem.

Unfortunately, after her first term, the Thatcher legacy turned into one that turned me against her and her policies. I will admit that I voted for her after her first term, but in her term of office, I turned completely against the Tory part and policy. As someone who might have been a natural right-wing supporter, that is a real issue.

The problem is that the later Thatcher legacy is rampant individualism, and the worship of money above all else. It is these two that really reflect the long-term impact of her term in office.

The first one is her famous reported comment that "there is no such thing as society". What she taught people is that the important thing was the individual, not the society, with the infamous "trickle-down effect", with the belief that if you enabled and supported the individuals who were making money and running the businesses of the nation, then the benefits would work their way down through the business, to all of the workers.

If you want to know why David Cameron supports the bankers, and appears to hate the poor and those on benefits, this is the reason, and this is the legacy of Thatcher.

Unfortunately, as she did not get to realise, it is utter crap, because what happens if you just let the rich get on with it, they take and take more and more money, putting it away, and not using it to "trickle down" to others. If they do spend, there is a tendency to spend abroad, to spend with others who are also wealthy, not to enable their own society or their own business or workers.

What is the Thatcher legacy, in reality? It is the Blair government and the Cameron government, and the increasing lies and abuse of the poor that we see today. It is the rampant individualism that the show, not taking the responsibility for others that Thatcher had counted on.

I have heard one person argue that they are more than happy not to be working in the mines, but rather to be working in an office. One part of me agrees - I would rather work in an office than down a mine. Unfortunately, most people work in offices these days because Margaret Thatcher started the decline of the manufacturing and resourcing industries. The danger of office work is that this is, often, easy to outsource to another country, something that employers may do if it is cheaper. This focus on profit and not on society - the local country in this case - are the results of the Thatcher era.

And, of course, if your job is outsourced and you are unemployed, then it is up to you to sort it out, which is individualism, because you can't expect the state to bail you out. The money your employers will save will, eventually, trickle down to you, surely. Except it won't.

So I understand the hatred shown towards Baroness Thatcher. I do not share it, because it is not the person to whom this should be focused - it is her policies, her legacy. As an old woman, who, I genuinely believe, was trying to do her best, I have sympathy. However the Thatcher policies, the legacy that she has left behind, I hate and loath with a passion, because she was very mistaken. She failed to listen to others, which indicates an arrogance that is extremely dangerous in a leader.

So Thatcher - a sad old lady who deserves some dignity in death. Thatcherism - a legacy that is destructive, damaging, and hideous. Each casualty of the seriously screwed-up policies of this current administration is a child of the Thatcher era, a result of the loathsome policies she introduced.

That is what really makes me sick.

Monday, 8 April 2013

Making work pay

The prime minister has asserted, repeatedly, that the benefit changes are intended to "make work pay". He has made it clear that making work pay is a primary aim of his policies.

The problem is, he is lying.

If he wanted to make work pay, he would not have supported the illegal and abusive workfare schemes, which were work without pay.

If he wanted to make work pay, he would increase the minimum wage, making it worth more to work than to stay on benefits.

I struck me just today that I have heard the same form of lying - saying the right words, but expressing them such that it is clear you mean the opposite - in some clergy. I only mention it because I have heard this happen live, I have heard clergy lie to my face. I realise just how good some people are at it.

I also realise just how much you need to despise the person you are talking to do this.

Of course those at the other end of the social scale to those on benefits most definitely don't want to make work pay. They are quite happy with getting paid without working for it - taking their profits from investments without having to do a lot for them.

So maybe we should introduce a maximum "wage" - the most per hour that people are allowed to gain from salary and investments. Surely that would then encourage the richest - and so, according to the Cameron philosophy, the most significant members of our society who we must not lose under any circumstances - to work more hours, contribute more to the nation.

Maybe we should address the huge issue of tax evasion, because if the wealthiest actually have to contribute to the economy through taxation, then surely they will just work harder to make up this loss. And, as so many have pointed out, tax evasion is a far bigger drain on the economy than benefit cheats.

The problem is that, in our nation today, there are two groups of people who have an expectation of pay without working for it. At one end are those very few people who want to and enjoy living off benefits. There are many others who would happily work if they could, but cannot for whatever reason, and the benefits system does provide an important safety net for these people. We should not forget that, before the welfare state, these people would often end up in the workhouse (basically, workfare with more security), or dead. Sometimes both. The benefit system saves lives, and that is why it is so critical.

The other end is those people who feel that they should be rewarded vastly for the work they do, or the work that has been done by their parents, and so from their investments. These people are just as "lazy", just as expectant of "pay without working", but they are the privileged few who have the money to not work.

And quite a few of them are in the cabinet.

Making work pay is a good idea. Justifying the decimation of the benefits system while encouraging the wealthy to simply hoard their money and not invest in new jobs, is not making work pay. It is abusing your privilege and power for personal benefit and gain.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

A musical Easter meditation

This is a piece of music that I have written and recorded. It is not brilliant, but gives a sense of what I am after, as an Easter meditation. It is all recorded by me on my guitar.

Waiting for GPS

For an explanation, the chaos and crowds of Good Friday is finished by the sound of the nails being hammered in. Then we have the rather dead and waiting time of Easter Saturday, when there was a pause in history.

The piece is concluded by a celebration of Easter Sunday resurrection.


Friday, 5 April 2013

Freedom and Christianity

"Freedom cannot be bestowed on or taken from a Christian or Christians. Freedom is an inalienable possession of the Christian"
Tolstoy “The Kingdom of God is Within You”.

So are all of the calls for religious freedoms pointless? Are the claims of religious persecution in the west meaningless? Maybe they are.

Here's the thing, when I hear that someone is being “persecuted” or restricted for their faith, I have an immediate air of caution. When I hear that “our Christian freedoms are being eroded”, I wonder what this actually means. This quote might help me to understand it a little better.

As a Christian, we have freedom. We have the freedom to wear the symbols of our faith or not. We have the freedom to accept others regardless of their sexuality or not. What we do not have – and never have had – is the freedom to express our faith in contradiction of the law without consequences.

Freedom is something for us. I am sure that Paul would not have considered state sanction for his actions and behaviour to be fundamental to his calls for freedom. I am sure that Philemon would have preferred Paul not to have spoken quite so explicitly about freedom. I am sure that when we use the word freedom today, the biblical writers would not recognise what we are talking about.

Freedom, Tolstoy continues, is about the achievement of a closer relationship to God. That is something that no state can bestow or remove. Freedom is not about being allowed to do anything without criticism or sanction. It is about not being constrained by what others expect, and not being constrained by their reactions.

Note that I do not mean that we should always and at all times obey the law of the land. Where this gives us moral qualms, we are duty bound to oppose it. But – critically – we are also duty bound to accept the consequences of our opposition. We may campaign to change the law, but to do so, we must ourselves be subject to it. That, surely, is what Paul demonstrated in his life.

If we expect our "freedom" to be state supported, then we not longer have freedom, we are then bound to the state, slaves to acceptance by the state. There is no freedom there. In the end, Paul lost his life by state sanction, but nothing took away his freedom.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Can I use facebook on a silent retreat?

Just before Easter, I went on a retreat. One part of it was silent - not something I would normally appreciate, but this was fine, in the context. It was only 18 hours, which I could cope with.

Anyhow, the question came up was it appropriate to use facebook on a silent retreat? The same, of course, applies to Twitter, and all sorts of other online social media. I mean, should I even have been considering this blog post on a silent retreat?

The thing is, it we need to understand what the purpose of a silent retreat is. I know that the purpose is to "meet with God" or some such idea, but what is the point of the silent aspect? Is is about not speaking? Not making a noise? Not chatting?

I take the view that the silent aspect is about removing the needless or social chit-chat that is a part of all social situations. It is not to indicate that this interaction is wrong in any sense, just that it can get in the way of engaging with God, letting God speak to us, and letting us hear what he says.

I think there is a danger that a "silent" retreat is taken too far, and another danger that it is taken not far enough. The danger of not taking it far enough is to avoid the talking, but continue to keep up with everyone online, reading papers or books, in essence, just using it as a chance to have some peace and quiet. The "not chatting to others" is a positive, because you can focus on what you want to do, and not have to deal with other people. That is not taking it seriously enough - it should be a time to reduce your social interaction so there is time to focus on God.

The "taking it too seriously" is about focusing too hard on the "being silent" rule. The place we were at included a bookshop, open to the public. We were told of people who had been on a silent retreat there, and refused to talk to people when they came into the shop looking for help. The view of our retreat leader - and me, but as I am not a great one for silent retreats, this is not necessarily a good guide - was that this was not an appropriate response, in that situation. Assisting people who need help is a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

The thing is, insisting on your own perfect silence at the expense of others is wrong - faith is always about others first and foremost. Being silent and avoiding chit chat should not mean not being prepared to help others, but maybe doing it with the minimum of talk. that may be an even bigger challenge than complete silence.

So what about facebook, twitter and suchlike? Well I think there is a place for using them on retreat. Maybe reduce your usage, less "chattering", and more listening. The thing is, for me, these forms of engagement are important, and to keep up with the discussions - even if to reduce my replies because I am supposedly on retreat - is important.

So the answer, I think, is to treat a silent retreat as a chance to reduce your chit chat, the social niceties, and to focus on God. But if the newspapers, social media, other people, can help that, then they are positives. As always, it is wrong to focus on the discipline itself, but see this as a part of our Christian growth and development. As with lent, it is not about giving certain things up, it is about growing spiritually.