Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Facebook Monks

Gordon College has a university program at a monastery in Orvieto, Italy. John Skillen is the director of that program. One of the problems he faces is how to run a cultural immersion program when the students are immersed in a facebook culture. Many American university programs in Italy, he says, are all reporting their students are measurably less engaged in their local settings than they were even ten years ago. Students, though overseas, are still connected to the internet, cell phones, ipods and social networks. The semester at Orvieto is designed to unplug from this disembodied, multitasking lifestyle. Please put down the cameras and see the thing for itself, and not a thing for what it will look like on your next facebook posting. Skillen is trying to counter the weakening of the will that the addictive clicking of a facebook culture can aggravate. In the monastery, internet time is limited to one hour in late afternoon. Meals are leisurely, eaten together at precise times. Without the interruption of cell phones, or email, one faces long hours of uninterrupted time which each person has to fill, techno gadget -free. It can be a struggle. Community at Orvieto is not cyber but intensely personal. Twenty or so people have to live face to face without relief for four months. It is a training ground for patience, courtesy and love. There are no trite internet conversations ( Thats so cool!, Love your photos, etc) that encourage short, terse responses which short circuit relationships. Instead of "poking" you are forced to give a real hug or sit down and talk with someone for an hour.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Skillen does have a facebook account. He finds it useful to keep up with alumni of the program but it is also an enormous temptation to waste time. "Is time spent on facebook, harmless curiosity, he asks. Hardly, he thinks, "curiosity comes from the Latin curiositas which medieval theologians considered a vice. It was a besetting sin of the pilgrim who lost his focus on the goal of the journey by gawking at all the novelties along the way, lapsing into the titillating but uninvolved gaze of the tourist. Curiositas is the 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 am neither a college student or a monk and I do have time for face to face conversations during the week. I am hardly a facebook junkie, or prone to spending hours on the internet (I admit to checking my email several times daily). I don't own an iphone and ear buds hurt my ears. But, here's the question I was pondering: can I unplug for Lent? I barely get the question out to take a look at and I am already framing excuses. Can I unplug for a day? Umm, I can think of reasons why that would not be such a good idea? Ok, so what about plugging in for only an hour a day? Possibly, but that seems too restrictive, too. What's my problem? I can handle this, can't I? Maybe a monastery would help.