The Web Not Taken
By Bronwen McShea - New Haven, Connecticut, USA - Pentecost/Assumption 2011
When creating Pilgrim, the editors were faced with the basic dilemma of how to market it. After some reflection, we decided for now not to market ourselves much at all in conventional ways, except to share news of the project with friends, family, colleagues -- people we had already gotten to know in our everyday lives. Some of those people posted our web address on their Facebook walls. A few generously wrote up blurbs about us and had friends post them on blogs and news feeds on other web journal sites. Judging by the data we are collecting privately with a Google Analytics tool, our readership is expanding, slowly but steadily, all over the United States and in many countries around the globe.
Hopeful as we are to reach many people, and curious as we are to know how many are visiting the website week to week, we are not doing all that we might do to reach the most people possible, as quickly as possible, through Facebook and Twitter, by installing sharing tools on our site, or by making our content easy to read on iPhones, iPads, Kindle, and the like. So far we have also eschewed interactive tools such as comment boxes and live discussion feeds, links to other websites, and flashing advertisements. In the future we may do differently, but we are in no rush to decide.
We feel no urgent need, either, to be "current" in the usual sense of the word, treating mostly topics that have recently been in the news or discussed in other web journals and blogs, because we think there is a great deal still to consider from the past, as well from the present, which can enrich our souls in new ways. So we are not doing all that we might do to monitor the content of other journals and websites to ensure that everything we have to say is "original." In fact, we hope and rejoice that similar things are being said and done elsewhere, because we do not wish Pilgrim to be the Lone Ranger or a pioneer headed to outposts of culture and the spirit no one else is much interested in reaching. We hope there's a big party where we're headed, and that there are many other roads carrying an interesting array of fellow pilgrims to it!
Furthermore, we have adopted an editorial policy of highlighting only our content, and not our own personalities and professional identities. We are not doing all that we might do, through biographical blurbs about each contributor, for example, to promote careers and various institutions, or, indeed, to legitimate ourselves with reference to various editors' and guests' academic degrees, publications, institutional affiliations or "day jobs," or even their journalistic or Catholic bona fides. If readers want to know who some of our contributors are, and what, if anything, they have published elsewhere, they will have to do a little bit of work to find out, by searching for them on the web, or, better still, taking the time to write us an email or a letter, which we will be pleased to answer in a personal way.
If they do not find much on the web about some of our contributors, that does not concern us much, either. Talented stay-at-home moms, for example, who have not had many opportunities to publish or establish any public profile are, if they have written something we like, valued here as writers, as artists and poets, and as the equals of the professors and more established writers and artists published alongside them. Whether or not a poet is raising children, has published anthologies of poems, or teaches poetry at a well-known university may be of real human interest and of some relevance to the work at hand, but by not including such information, we wish to assert something else of human interest and relevance which can scarcely be overstated in today's culture: that private, obscure labors toward the refinement of ideas and crafts, and sometimes thankless, hard-won habits of responding interiorly and openly to God, the world, and the fullness of personal experiences, are crucial, motive forces behind intellectual and artistic expressions of lasting value and real, transcendent meaning.
In making all these decisions, we are very conscious that we are choosing a "road less traveled," to borrow from Robert Frost. Our reasons for this are many -- some aesthetic, some moral, some philosophic. As Pilgrim's editor, I am more concerned that we simply try to embody the principles at stake, put them into practice, issue to issue, in ways that bear some fruit, than to make a formal case through arguments. But I would like to provide some explanations, partly because I put a lot of thought into such matters, and because I wonder, too, how others may respond to some of our decisions about the paths we are taking -- and not taking -- on the web.
One thought is to create with Pilgrim a new kind of web-based atmosphere -- for its visitors, contributors, and makers alike -- characterized by some contented disconnection from the rest of the web's busyness, and also by some moderate indifference toward the dominant digitized culture. Akin in a way to a monastic retreat, the idea is to get some real distance from the banalities and urgencies of the everyday -- including those related to our professional existences, even as writers and artists -- by means of a web space in which critical and creative thought and expression can develop more autonomously from worldly pressures. And as in a religious retreat, when undertaken in the right spirit, the object here is not to escape or condemn what has been left behind temporarily, but rather to arrive at a new vantage point from which to see, with refreshed vision, our busy world and our different callings within it.
I wish to create a web-based atmosphere, too, that in spirit is more like summer vacation during childhood -- before there were cell phones! -- than, say, a networky happy hour downtown after work, which, however social and enjoyable and even conducive, in some instances, to the formation of new, spiritually beneficial relationships, does not allow us enough breathing room from our natural human vanity or the utilitarian values that tend to dominate everyday professional and social interactions. Here, we hope to be free to become as little children, as God asks us to become, and to focus on intellectual and artistic work not as means to worldly ends, but rather as marvelous callings of our embodied, emplaced, temporal humanity, the fruits of which we may strive to offer to our Father as purified, pleasing gifts, and share with one another cognizant they are signs of His love and the special glory He marks out for us.
Ever since I was a little girl, one of my favorite places to go in all the world is New York City, perhaps because my family on both sides has a lot of history there, some of it rather colorful. And, ever since I developed a love for medieval art and history as a teenager, one of my favorite places to go in the city is the Cloisters Museum up in Fort Tryon Park. Perched atop a 67-acre, tree-covered ridge with footpaths and a few roads that are not full of traffic, the Cloisters houses most of the medieval art collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was constructed from pieces of five different French abbeys transported to Manhattan in the 1930s. When there, touring its medieval garden, observing the tapestries, religious statuary, triptychs and other paintings, and all the sacred vessels encased in glass, or looking out from the stone patios across the Hudson River, one feels like one is very far from all the city's noise and crowds and the tight schedules and the business meetings and social calls.... Because of its location, requiring a longish subway trip or taxi ride from the big train and bus terminals in Midtown, the Cloisters is not the kind of place one goes to spontaneously in Manhattan. But although it takes some information gathering, planning, and time to get there and really see the place, it is worth the trip -- certainly for those who like medieval art, but also for those who go simply to enjoy experiencing something very different from the rest of the city, while still being in Manhattan and not so very far, really, from all the great restaurants, bars, theaters and other hot spots around town.
Now, in imagining the kind of atmosphere I want for Pilgrim, another thought I have is that if the rest of the web can be likened to that magnificent, restless metropolis constituted by Manhattan, Queens, the other boroughs, and parts of Jersey and the Island, Pilgrim should be a lot less like Times Square and much more like the Cloisters. If Pilgrim were in fact to go the conventional route and engage in all the "right" kinds of marketing and networking, the day-at-the-Cloisters atmosphere would dissipate rather quickly, would it not? It would feel as if the Cloisters were suddenly merging with the Port Authority, or Wall Street, or that trendy bistro in SoHo where the boss expects everyone to show up tonight to chat up potential clients.
And what if half the people on our peak-hour Metro North train or giving each other the finger in that nasty traffic jam on the East Side Highway followed us up to the Cloisters and waved "Like" banners -- -- every time we paused in front a beautiful tapestry, like that famous one with the unicorn? Or what if each work of art inside the museum, and every individual shrub or tree in the garden, was suddenly surrounded by flashing, interactive lights that prompted us immediately to disengage from what we haven't even really looked at yet and start imagining trips to other museums where similar items hung on the walls? Or indeed, what if the curator who designed the exhibit of sacred vessels and altar pieces suddenly appeared from behind a screen and handed us his business card and resumé?
Whatever judgments, moral or aesthetic, each of us might come to about these scenarios, one thing is certain: the Cloisters simply would no longer be the Cloisters. Likewise, if Pilgrim were to participate in web journalism's version of the Rat Race, it would not be the Pilgrim we desire it to be: restless only for God and focused intently on the cultivation and appreciation of His blessings.
The writing and artwork we exhibit here may be far less wondrous, on the whole, than anything from the hands of master craftsmen and artists preserved in great museums. But we would like to think that readers who come to know about us will appreciate the chance -- uncommon in this sprawling, restless megalopolis we call Cyberspace -- to examine our content without feeling like they are being rushed away to the next display table at a business conference or trying to beat rush-hour traffic on the Cross Bronx Expressway.
We are not choosing the road less traveled, we hope, in a spirit of excessive detachment from the culture around us, or in a spirit of opposition to that culture. Speaking for myself, I am very much a child of the Second Vatican Council, and of the Church of Blessed John Paul II: outreach, openness, solidarity with all that is authentically human and conducive to human betterment, and also the concern to be accepted within the communities I am part of -- all of these can serve the greater glory of God, and, in that, the fulfillment and glory of the human person.
At Pilgrim, however, we also believe our workaday lives are already so dominated by the prevailing modes of digital communication, social and professional networking, and utilitarian values that there is also a real need -- for the sake of cultural and spiritual renewal -- for relief and respite from all these things. Here, we wish to render as distinctly as we can, in as pure a light as possible, a vision of the human person that is holistic, in which a man is so very much more than the sum of what is listed on his CV or LinkedIn profile, and in which his intellect and powers of creativity and expression have purposes in and for this world that far transcend -- and really do not depend much at all upon -- the number of "friends" or "tweets," the material gain, or the professional recognition they may win him.
A primary aim of our web journal -- insofar as we are not doing all that we might do to publicize, professionally promote, publish or update frequently, and so on -- is to encourage not just chatter about culture making and its necessary foundation, which is leisure, but also to nourish leisure and culture themselves. We hope to do so by providing a space in which leisurely modes of thinking, expressing, reading, looking, sharing content, and being can be practiced and refined by all involved: content contributors, editors, and those who visit the site and encourage others to do the same.
In Leisure: The Basis of Culture, originally published in German in 1948 as Musse und Kult, Joseph Pieper discussed leisure in these terms:
Leisure is not the attitude of the one who intervenes but of the one who opens himself; not of someone who seizes but of one who lets go, who lets himself go, and "go under," almost as someone who falls asleep must let himself go.... And in fact, just as sleeplessness and restlessness are in a special way mutually related, just so the man at leisure is related to someone sleeping; as Heraclitus said of those who sleep, that they "are active and cooperative in the business of the world." The surge of new life that flows out to us when we give ourselves to the contemplation of a blossoming rose, a sleeping child, or of a divine mystery -- is this not like the surge of life that comes from deep, dreamless sleep? And as it is written in the Book of Job: "God gives us songs in the middle of the night" (35, 10), and as wise people know, God gives His blessings to his own and what rejoices them, in sleep -- in just the same way, to the greatest, most blessed insights, the kind that could never be tracked down, come to us above all in the time of leisure.
Put another way, the "sleep" Pieper identifies with leisure, and with the cultural goods that flower from it, is the willingness of human beings to allow the Holy Spirit the room and freedom to act within them, and within their relationships to things and to other persons, and to gently direct their intellectual and creative work to ends that belong to the order of grace. At the same time, it is mindfulness of a truth that is very difficult for the active, creative human intelligence to bear under: that the Spirit's actions are generally hidden from us, and the fruits of our Spirit-inspired work not apparent or obvious for a long time, sometimes not until after death.
Pieper also said of leisure that it is "the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit," and that it exists above and beyond "the exclusiveness of the paradigm of work as effort." It is marked by the "inner joyfulness of the person who is celebrating [Der Feiernde]". The German word for "quitting time" -- "Feierabend," or "festival-evening" -- gets at the affirmative spirit of "leisure" far better than our more impoverished notions in English when we talk about the weekend or vacation as times that are meant as breaks from "real life," characterized by dull inactivity or carefree self-indulgence. Leisure, feasting: these require a suspension of hyperactive effort, of seizing. Yet they demand their own kind of labor, and love. A great cook knows how much practice it takes for cooking to become both a joy to herself and a means of providing enjoyment to others. Similarly, thoughtfully considering what's around us, honoring and gracing Creation, and contemplating God all require practice. These are sources and aims of culture, which itself has very little to do with productivity and volume, and which is certainly not marked by ease of access and fleeting popularity among those who will to possess it but will not give real time to its largely private, hidden, plodding cultivation.
In presenting any arguments at all about why Pilgrim is choosing a "road less traveled" on the web for the sake of leisure and culture, my intention is not to preach as if I am well-practiced in the arts of leisure, but rather to affirm the need for more humane ways of using the web and being on the web -- topics upon which many other social commentators and speakers, including Church leaders, have been reflecting recently. Back in January, for example, Pope Benedict XVI urged Christians all over the world "to join the network of relationships which the digital era has made possible." Yet he qualified his enthusiasm for digital media with characteristically cautious comments about the need for "serious reflection" on their meaning and proper use: new communications technologies "must be placed at the service of the integral good of the individual and of the whole of humanity." He warned, too, that a life that is centered more on a "virtual" world than the real, physical world is an impoverished one, marked typically by a continuously distracted, fragmented attention; persistent absorption "in a world 'other' than the one in which we live," and the formation of relationships with other people that have little opportunity to grow into anything "truly deep and lasting."
Especially when it comes to the work of sharing the truth and vision of Christianity with others, more directly or through various cultural forms, the Holy Father has urged us to "be aware that the truth which we long to share does not derive its worth from its 'popularity' or from the amount of attention it receives. We must make it known in its integrity, instead of seeking to make it acceptable or diluting it." It must be safeguarded for what it is -- "nourishment" for the human soul, "and not a fleeting attraction." The message of the Incarnate Word, the Crucified Christ, the King who reigns in Glory and whose Spirit illumines the earth and draws all of Creation back to the Creator "is not something to be consumed or used superficially; rather it is a gift that calls for a free response."
I love the Internet and journalistic media for the way they bring people together, in intellectual and spiritual communion, who might never come to know each other this side of Eternity. It allows once-strangers to share ideas, hobbies, laughs, and sorrows, to unite together, even, to overthrow dictators or to celebrate the marriage of a real-life prince and a "commoner," or to pray together in thanksgiving for the witness of a man like Karol Wojtyla, who understood as well as any modern leader the goods that mass communication can help to bring to the lives of the oppressed and the neglected.
But sometimes I love them in disordered ways, and I let their prevailing modes and paces dominate my human freedom. (I wonder, for instance, if John Henry Newman, while penning The Idea of a University, had a prophetic vision of us latter-day web surfing and Google addicts: "Derangement," he wrote, "has been considered as a loss of control over the sequence of ideas. The mind, once set in motion, is henceforth deprived of the power of initiation, and becomes the victim of a train of associations, one thought suggesting another, in the way of cause and effect, as by a mechanical process, or some physical necessity.") I know that I ought to love the Internet and the expansive universe of journalistic media in the way one should love all human-created things: with detachment, with open and discerning eyes, recognizing that they can be put to new and better purposes. Pilgrim is conceived, in part, as an arena for exercising such love and as a means for propagating it. In eschewing certain modes of self-marketing and mass communication, and in not striving always to be "current" in the normal sense of the term, we do so not out of opposition to these things, but more simply to affirm a particular devotion to the Spirit of God, whom we want to allow to act as freely as possible with, and within, Pilgrim. Very simply, we don't want to be in the way if He has plans for us we may not discover if we choose, too soon, a different spirit characterized by hyperactive "seizing," utilitarian values, and a mechanical energy, simply because, in this culture, that spirit is much more familiar to us.
It is with such thoughts in mind that Pilgrim chooses a way on the web, to paraphrase Frost, that is grassy and wants wear, and which may very well diverge far from the way much of the world seems to be going. We will see, in time, what difference -- however modest but, we hope, good -- this decision will make.