Pray the newsfeed

Global Sisters Report has enjoyed a partnership with A Nun’s Life Ministry since our site went live in April 2014. Srs. Maxine Kollasch and Julie Vieira share audio clips every week from their popular podcasts and now take turns writing a monthly column. Drawing on their experiences of online presence and using a lens of Scripture, they each will explore how social media offers new ways of witnessing Gospel values.

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Scrolling through our social newsfeed these days can be nothing short of disconcerting. The dissonance of posts can leave you wondering if you should laugh or cry. As we sift through the messages, we have to navigate status updates, posts and articles our friends found interesting, the latest meme sensation, ads and personal messages. And, as violence and disaster peak at various times across the globe — the Garissa University massacre in Kenya, the earthquakes in Nepal, the terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris and Yola — our newsfeeds can become litanies for the dead and lamentations for the human capacity to create and to suffer violence.

Before social media existed, I had a choice about when and how to access my various newsfeeds. If I wanted to know what was happening in the world, I turned on public radio, flipped on the TV news or read the paper. When I wanted to know what was happening with my family or friends, I'd call them. If I wanted to see how my nuns were doing, I'd stroll through the motherhouse and visit.

But with social media, all of our newsfeeds — personal, professional, local and global — are intertwined. They are not easily separated. If I turn off my newsfeeds, in a sense I also disconnect from people and events that are important to me. Sure, I can still pickup the phone, visit, write cards and engage in various ways with people, but I also rely on social media to keep me informed and connected.

So what do we do when our newsfeeds feel overwhelming because of too much violence and grief? How do we go to our favorite social network to connect with friends and, in the process, encounter a cute baby animal video or, conversely, a heartbreaking photo of recent violence?

I turned to Scripture to see what it might say to me. I didn't know where to start, so I began searching with the keywords most present to me: violence, crowd, suffering. I ended up with Psalm 55 perfectly summing up the anxiety I was seeing and experiencing on social media given the recent terror attacks:

I see nothing but violence and strife in the city. Day and night they prowl its borders; malice and trouble roam its streets. Violence fills the city; fraud and deceit never leave its marketplace. (Psalm 55:9-11)

After reflecting on the psalm, another image from Scripture emerged unexpectedly: Zacchaeus towering above the crowds trying to catch a glimpse of Jesus.

Entering Jericho, Jesus passed through the city. There was a wealthy person there named Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector. Zacchaeus was trying to see who Jesus was, but he couldn’t do so because of the crowd, since he was short. In order to see Jesus, Zacchaeus ran on ahead, then climbed a sycamore tree that was along the route. When Jesus came to the spot, he looked up and said, 'Zacchaeus, hurry up and come on down. I'm going to stay at your house today.'
(Luke 19:1-5)

The part that really resonated with me was Zacchaeus' choice to find a vantage point that would enable him to see Jesus. He could have stayed in the scrum of the crowd or he could have walked away. But he chose to find a new way — to remain with the people in the midst of the crowd and at the same time, to find a place where he could be on the lookout for Jesus. The story of Zacchaeus invites us to find a new perspective from which to look at our newsfeeds — not just to better negotiate the wide range of experiences that flow through our newsfeeds, but to actually encounter Jesus in them.

Many contemplative sisters and nuns have the practice of "praying the news." A website called PrayTheNews.com had a profound impact on me and many others. The Carmelite sisters who ran it invited us to think differently about how we encounter the news. Praying the news was, for the sisters, "a process by which we placed ourselves and our prayerful energy into situations of distress in the world." Although the website is no longer running, sisters and nuns worldwide continue to pray the news, and their message continues to speak volumes about how we can be with our newsfeeds.

Praying the newsfeed is a transformative way to remain with one another through the griefs and anxieties of our world and to find Jesus in the midst of it all. Like Jesus, we are not called to become recluses and remove ourselves far from the world — or the World Wide Web. While we all need to retreat at times — and this is a good thing — we find our home with one another, even when our hearts are breaking and our despair is acute. Praying the newsfeed is also not just for times of tragedy, but something we can do each day.
To pray the newsfeed means to remember that each post that comes through is not just a news story or personal opinion, it's about people — the people referred to in the story and the person posting. We can prayerfully unite ourselves in solidarity with them and we can find ways to bring our "prayerful energy" to them.

And, as Jesus often did in the face of distress and tragedy, we can offer a word of consolation and hope in our newsfeeds. We can post a prayer, respond to a friend or follower's anxious comments, upload an image of people who are aiding those in distress or organize an online or offline group for people to gather. We can also remind ourselves and our friends of the need to care for the most vulnerable and to work for peace and justice.

It's important also to consider our own actions online. We must think about the type of news we wish to perpetuate through our reposting of headlines, images, and news footage of tragic events. We can ask ourselves how what we are about to share will contribute to the good of those affected by the tragedy, of those in the online community, and of ourselves.

Finally, praying the newsfeed is not in the end simply about what we do individually in our own networks. Praying the newsfeed is about participating in God's redemption for the world. Our acts of prayer, of justice, of love, of compassion are united to the redeeming mission of Jesus already happening in our world. We must never fail to see Jesus already in our midst.

As the world continues to suffer and grieve, let us not leave our newsfeeds but enter into them with the persistence of Zacchaeus for finding a new way, the contemplative spirit of Catholic sisters and nuns and the redeeming love of Jesus the Christ.

[Julie Vieira is a member of the Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary of Monroe, Michigan, and co-founder of A Nun’s Life Ministry, which was founded on the Internet in 2006 and is present at aNunsLife.org and in many social media.]

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