Dangerous Instruments: Your Online Life And Your Creative Legacy

I get email inquiries all the time from visitors to my side project, CatholicBarcelona.com, which is an online guide in English to all of the historic churches, monasteries, etc. in Barcelona. People want to know which sites are closest to their hotel, or if I can recommend a particular Sunday Mass, or where they can get married. A common question involves requests for Masses in other languages.

Some months ago I received an email from a lady whom I will call “T”. T had recently moved from her country to suburban Barcelona, but she had started to look into becoming a Catholic before she had left her home country. She wanted some suggestions on joining a parish, and also whether I knew of anywhere that she could receive instruction on Catholicism, through the program commonly known as RCIA, the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults. I gave her a couple of recommendations and wished her luck, assuming I would never hear from her again.

Then yesterday morning, I received an email from T, some four months after I last heard from her. She told me that not only had she joined the parish I suggested would probably work for her, but one of the priests there was giving her private RCIA instruction. She is thrilled and hopes to come into the Church next Easter.

Now at the end of the day, what is happening in T’s life is the working of the Holy Spirit, not me. If she hadn’t found the information she was seeking through me, she would have found it somewhere else. However I wanted to share this story with you for an important reason.

There’s no question that the connections we make via online media can be toxic. All you have to do is read the comments section on just about any blog to realize that there are a lot of bitter, unhappy people out there, who not only espouse crazy theories, they are more than happy to share them with you. Twitter and Facebook, at times, can seem little more than a flame war, while even the most seemingly innocuous Instagram account can take on a different tinge, when you look not at the images being posted by that user you’re following, but at the images that they are “liking”.

I‘ll be the first to raise my hand and declare that I’m as big and bad a sinner online, as I am in real life: the Seven Deadly Sins and I have been shacked up for quite a long time. It’s easy to think, when we look at someone’s online presence, “Wow, what a hypocrite/whackjob/jerk!” Except that if we turn the mirror around, I expect most of us will find ourselves doing the same things.   

Online media is not intrinsically evil, it is merely a tool: a means, not an end. It can be a tool of darkness, absolutely, for it can create all kinds of evil things. Yet it can also be a tool for good. We all, myself included, need to take a step back from time to time and ask what sort of online instruments we are.

Certainly we are all rusty, dangerous instruments when we chose to do evil. The fellow downstairs is more than happy to use us to injure others, if we let him. In the process, we end up injuring ourselves, becoming weaker and duller until we eventually snap and get tossed in the garbage.

Yet if we put ourselves in God’s hands, even in our sorry and decrepit state, by choosing to work the way that He wants us to, we can be as beneficial and healing in our online relationships as a well-wielded scalpel in the hands of a gifted surgeon. That is where, as the saying goes, the struggle is real. And it is a struggle all of us, myself included, need to be reminded of, when we are doing anything online.

Whether you are writing a blog post or tweet, sending a direct message or chat, or uploading an image or document, in creating online content you are creating a body of work that speaks not only to who you are as a content creator, but also about whom you are taking as your creative advisor. You can be an instrument for creating good, or you can be an instrument for destructive evil. Don’t let that choice go by, unexamined, in your online activities.


"Against The Common Good" by Francisco de Goya (c. 1814-15)

Invisible Friendships

Are you open to forming an intimate relationship with someone whom you don’t get to see?

At an after-party during the Catholic New Media Celebration in Atlanta weekend before last, I stood around chatting with a group of friends – all of whom I had originally met online – about this year’s conference. One of them took a step back and noted how strange it was that we were all there together in someone’s flat, drinking rare IPA’s and eating ice cream cake shaped like Hello Kitty’s head (don’t ask.) “There’s really no reason,” he observed, “for any of these people to be here together and know each other.”

It was an apt observation. It’s true that the CNMC always brings people together into new relationships, both personal and professional. In the days following the conference, many of the attendees have made similar observations on their respective podcasts and blogs, in their social media posts and comments. New collaborative projects always emerge online – watch this space – and people who did not previously know each other end up becoming friends.

However there’s something deeper at work here than simply throwing together a bunch of Catholic media nerds with common interests. After all, the same can and does happen at comicons or political conventions or any other similar gathering of like minds. Because beyond the silliness and selfies, the CNMC is really about recognizing the universal call of holiness to which all of us must respond.

And part of the way we do that, both in new media and social media, is by witnessing to people whom we will probably never see, about Someone whom we have not seen yet.

In St. John’s Gospel, when St. Thomas comes to believe in the reality of the Resurrection, Christ remarks: “Have you come to believe because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and have believed.” (St. John 20:29) Similarly, St. Peter sums up the experience of those early Christians who never got to meet Jesus in the flesh during their lives, using words which are still resonant of the Christian experience today: “Although you have not seen Him you love Him; even though you do not see Him now yet believe in Him, you rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy, as you attain the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 St. Peter 1:8-9)

Most of us – unless we are very, very blessed indeed – are not going to get to see Him during this life. I can’t Snapchat with God. We can only hope to see Him in the life to come. That can’t happen however, unless we are constantly trying to keep in communication with Him, through prayer. 

Prayer is not like an IM chat, where we need to see a checkmark to know the recipient has received what we are trying to say. He hears all of our prayers, when we make them; we take that on faith. Yet the message is going to have a much harder time getting through, if we don’t even bother to make it most of the time. Just as you can’t expect an online relationship to grow and develop if you don’t actually communicate with one another, so too you can’t expect to come to know Him, unless you’re willing to sit down and take the time to communicate with Him through prayer.

As we stumble through life constantly sinning our way into the grave, we are blessed and lucky if we come across people along the way that will give us a hand and pick us up out of the dust and dirt that we keep falling into along the way. Intimate relationships of this kind absolutely can be and are formed through engaging in new media and social media: I’ve seen it happen, and it’s continuing to happen. Yet the most important and intimate relationship of all, the one we have with the One who made us, is so often the one we spend the least time on.

Don’t forget, as you build your online relationships, that He would love to hear from you too, if you’ll take the time to reach out to Him.


Let’s Have Some Above-Average Life Goals

Some months ago, my attention was drawn to a popular Twitter account being linked to by a number of my contacts.  Average Life Goals tries to present aspirations which might be considered rather mundane, in a humorous way. Although meant to be ironic, the account’s writers often choose to look down upon things which, once upon a time, we saw as being acceptable and enjoyable, or at least suited to their purpose.

Take this tweet for example

I grew up in a rust belt Pennsylvania county where agriculture was the main industry, and steel manufacturing was a distant memory. There were only a couple of restaurants where one could expect a level of dining comparable to that you might find in an urban setting. Chain restaurants like this one, for most people, were as fancy as one could reasonably expect to be able to experience beyond fast food.

People in the hundreds of small towns across America whose pay does not allow them to dine luxuriously whenever they choose, are not going to be spoiled for choice when it comes to taking their sweetheart out to dinner on St. Valentine’s Day. So while it may not seem particularly nice to some that the anonymous fellow evoked in this tweet is taking his girlfriend to Golden Corral for a special dinner, maybe that is the best that he can afford to do? To scoff and suggest that there is little or no value to such a practice seems to me rather off-puttingly bitter and childish.

A similar tone of bitterness pervades the tone of the following tweet:

Here, someone’s parents paid for and installed this contraption for their child out of love, but we are supposed to mock it for not being…what, exactly? Gold-plated? Signed by Lebron? Would it be better if it came complete with tattoo artist, pole dancing Kardashian, and contraceptive/marijuana dispensing unit? Would that then make it more palatable?.

Now to be fair, two tweets do not condemn an entire Twitter account. Some of the tweets posted by those who run this particular account are actually quite sensible and even clever. Yet these tweets should make us pause and ask, what do we actually value? Are we really so jejune, that we have to denigrate others’ aspirations or acts of generosity? And to what end?

We should certainly cultivate an appreciation for quality, and aspire to learn more about the world around us. Yet being a little more charitable, and engaging in more realistic self-examination as part of that charity, would go a long way toward our treating one another with a bit more compassion, patience, and appreciation. Those would be far better life goals for each of us to try to espouse.