My Blue Notebooks is the record of a French courtesan named Liane de Pougy—famous, among other reasons, for her bisexuality—who ended her life as a Dominican tertiary caring for disabled children. She keeps much the diary you would expect such a person to keep, moving from moments of piety to sapphic interludes to catalogs of possessions (“buried in dresses to the point of ruin!”) to regrets to scorekeeping, with a steep uptick in piety toward the end of her life. In short, very fun, if not particularly revelatory.
The passage in it that’s stuck for me, however, was this little entry that I pull up from time to time to reread on my phone:
August 15. Mary, Holy Virgin, I offer you this day. I hail you and I ask your forgiveness for everything within me which might offend you. I shall be tolerant, kind and gentle. I offer to you Max Jacob and André Germain, whom I do not like, but whom I shall try to like in your name, with all my compassion.
Admissions of actual dislike are not something I come across that often in spiritual writing (which, of course, My Blue Notebooks isn’t precisely). While I’m sure Henri Nouwen disliked plenty of people, he doesn’t exactly fill Return of the Prodigal Son with comments along those lines. Liane, on the other hand, simply says it straight out. Is it a little self-serving to get a dig in at the same time as practicing your piety? Maybe, but as prayers go, it mostly seems honest.
I don’t think that any observer who pays attention could fail to notice that most intra-Christian (let alone intra-Catholic) conversation, especially online, is indeed toxic—that it creates and sustains “networks of verbal violence,” as Pope Francis recently put it in Gaudete et exsultate: “even in Catholic media, limits can be overstepped, defamation and slander can become commonplace, and all ethical standards and respect for the good name of others can be abandoned.”
This passage is just about the only part of Gaudete et exsultate that I have read—largely because the moment other people read it, they began spreading it in isolation. Possibly the most beloved topic of people on the internet is how terrible it is to try to talk about anything on the internet. Which meant that the paragraph really circulated around as a kind of joke: What can you do? It’s the internet. It’s just going to be bad.
But like it or not, the internet—and Twitter and Facebook—are where a lot of writing and thinking happens these days. If you post an article (let’s say, this one) to Facebook, you are, at least implicitly, admitting you’re ready to discuss it, and often that discussion descends into a fight. Even those of us who don’t have a particularly large online “presence” still end up in situations where we want to talk through things that matter to us without, as the song goes, losing our religion. And to do this, as it turns out, is hard.
As a Christian who writes and thinks online, and also has a taste for argument, how best to conduct myself is something I think about often. The kind of advice that you’ll often get about how to deal with ugly online interactions is to log off and exit the whole scene as quickly as possible. I have a lot of sympathy for this advice, which is sometimes right, and sometimes advice that I’ve needed to heed. If your online life produces nothing but discord, it might be the right advice for you.