By Jim Towey
A glance back 1,500 years to the life of Benedict of Nursia, and later to medieval times, provides a lesson for the Information Age in which we live.
Born at the time the Roman empire had collapsed and barbarian kingdoms were sprouting throughout Western Europe, Benedict decided to flee the chaos and decadence surrounding him and live in a cave forty miles from Rome. For three years there he devoted himself to a simple life of prayer. Soon others followed him and formed a monastery.
Earlier this week I got a glimpse of one of its issue – a Benedictine monastery built during the Dark Ages on the Isle of Wight off the southern coast of England (yes, I “scrimped and saved” to go there!). Monks inspired and governed by the Rule of Saint Benedict founded the monastery in 1132 near a quarry to access the stones needed for construction – hence the name, the Quarr Abbey. The monks of Quarr lived peaceably there for centuries before the notorious (and murderous) King Henry VIII gave orders in July 1536 to banish them and demolish the monastery down to its foundations. The ruins can be seen today.
These hallowed grounds remained fallow for hundreds of years before French Benedictine monks came over in 1908 and built the magnificent monastery I visited.
Today nine men comprise this monastic community. The head of the monastery, Father Abbot Xavier Perrin, a Frenchman who has spent 40 years of his life as a monk, adheres to the Rule of Saint Benedict which centers daily life on “ora e labora“ – prayer and work. He is highly educated, cultured, charismatic, and the author of books on the spiritual life.
He and his fellow monks renounce personal possessions and devote themselves to a vigorous prayer life that begins at 5:00 a.m. each day and ends after night prayer around 9:00 p.m. when silence descends on the monastery and conversation is forbidden until after Mass the next day.
Benedictine monks are renowned for their efforts throughout history to preserve culture, promote critical thinking, and defend God-given human dignity. Years ago, I visited a Benedictine monastery outside Rome where the monks had preserved books, art, and other cultural treasures from plundering during regional and world wars. Their heroism was in keeping with what they did during medieval times to preserve culture and humanity. I enjoyed my visit to Quarr’s own library and now-mothballed bookbinding shop.
While on the island I gave talks on Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and at a dinner of Friends of Quarr, I drew parallels between the work of Dame Cicely Saunders, who began the modern hospice movement in South London, and Aging with Dignity’s Five Wishes.
What became clear to me as I spent two days with the Benedictines was that these men didn’t flee the world to escape it but rather enter more deeply into it by praying unceasingly to God. They remind modernity of what is holy and hidden and how human beings, the joy of God’s creation, are more important than the things we create.
The Tyranny of Technology
Meanwhile, the tyranny of technology continues to spread and poses new threats to culture and civilization. Artificial intelligence experts have warned about the existential threat that generative AI poses to mankind. ChatGPT, the AI tool that is transforming life on our planet, promises to do the thinking for us and assures us not to worry. The upsides and efficiencies AI proponents tout are smokescreens for the dystopia that is unavoidable when man plays God. Generations of children will face an educational system that deprives them of their own human creativity because they won’t learn how to think for themselves but instead defer to “super-intelligence.” Don’t take my word for it – read this. Henry VIII had nothing on Marc Andreessen and his menacing view of humanity.
Who has fled to the cave now? Joe Biden and Donald Trump, members of Congress, and our world’s leaders seem to be huddled there, hiding from AI reality. They refuse to regulate AI and place ethical guard rails to govern its deployment. The engines of global commerce are stepping up with billions of AI investment to accelerate its advancement and make money. Their greed – and Big Tech is as greedy as they get – blinds them to the real-world consequences of human enslavement to technology. They ignore the addiction and enslavement they foster. The monks of Quarr Abbey remind us that AI is not our god. They pray fervently each day to remind us who is.