Catherine Wybourne is the @Digitalnun of Twitter, publisher of The Digitalnun Daily, blogger at ibenedictines, and IT consultant, a business she runs from the Holy Trinity Monastery in Oxfordshire, England.
With her fellow nuns, she sees the internet as a way of welcoming others into the online life of the monastery, via Paper.li, prayers by email and online retreats. Currently they have followers in 117 countries.
Catherine shared how she combines prayer with online publishing, web consulting, writing apps, walking the dog, and raising funds to buy the community a home.
What made you combine technology and religion in the way that you have?
As a nun, I’d always used current technology in my work as a printer and, later, web and app developer. Quite early on it seemed to me that the internet would be a great tool for communication, especially for people with limited budgets.
When we formed the community here in Hendred (2003), we decided to use the internet as a way of reaching out, making it the ‘fourth wall’ of our cloister — a way in which people could share in the monastery’s life without physically journeying to us. It is traditional Benedictine hospitality expressed in an untraditional way, if you like.
It’s become very important now that so many people are experiencing real financial hardship. Monasteries have always been ‘available’ to others, but not everyone can afford to visit; and of course, a strong online presence makes nonsense of geographical boundaries. The last time I looked, we were reaching 117 countries.
What synergies do you see between religion and technology?
Religion has always harnessed the power of technology and itself been a driver of technological change. You’ve only to think of the contribution made by monks, nuns and friars to such diverse things as double entry book-keeping, champagne-making and printing!
While religion can make use of many of today’s technological advances, I think it also has something to contribute by way of keeping the technology ‘human’, ensuring we not only use it for good but in a good way. So, for example, I think religious bloggers and commentators can lead the way in showing that it’s possible to sustain reasoned arguments without descending to the level of personal abuse/infantilism one sees on some sites.
How do you use technology?
I sometimes think I’ve taken a fourth vow, of obedience to my Mac. I use many kinds of technology for my work as well as many of my community duties — I look after the community web sites, podcasts, etc. I also do most of the editing and processing of sound files for our audio books for the blind and visually impaired. Most of our shopping is done online, too. I suppose you could say that technology has become as natural to us as the use of paper and ink was to a previous generation.
What kind of reactions do you experience?
We tend to get two very different reactions. Commercially, some people cannot get their heads round the idea that we know what we’re talking about (most of the time, anyway). They assume we’re amateurs in the bad sense, playing at what we do, or they try to beat the price down (not much luck there: I was a banker before becoming a nun).
Those who come to any of our monastic web sites or take part in our webinars and so on tend to be very enthusiastic and encouraging. The only problem is that we are sometimes victims of our own ‘success’. I was away for a couple of days recently and got back to about 400 emails and prayer requests, all of which had to receive a personal answer. We do our best, but it isn’t easy.
Which of your tech services are proving popular?
Customers: I do a lot of consulting nowadays, advising clients how to integrate web sites, social media and apps; it doesn’t matter that I’m based in rural Oxfordshire for that, there are so many ways of getting in touch. A lot of people still need help with strategic thinking rather than the nuts and bolts of design.
Followers: many still home in on wanting a ‘personal word’ with one of the nuns. That can be demanding. We’re not social workers or guru figures, so I know we always disappoint. We can never give all that people hope, but our whole way of life is based on faith, so we shouldn’t necessarily expect to see results.
You told us that you are a fan of Paper.li: what do you like about it and how do you use it?
I think Paper.li is brilliant. I love the way it enables me to keep abreast of the content other people share via Twitter. I aim always to have a good mix of religion, technology and other things I’m interested in such as medieval history. That way it always surprises and often delights. The fact that it’s automated is also appreciated. It’s like having one’s very own secretary working day and night with scissors and paste to produce a scrapbook of life.
How did you discover it?
A Twitter friend got here before me.
What kind of content do you cover, and why?
Anything I’m interested in, or the people I’m currently following on Twitter are interested in. (I have a 10 percent follow back rule, so the content changes according to whom I’m following.) I haven’t yet explored how I can integrate content from other sources but the prospect is inviting.
What does it contribute to your work, your plans, and what you offer to people?
That is a difficult question to answer. I hope it shows people that enclosed nuns don’t have enclosed minds, that we are involved in the world everyone else is involved in. I think our use of Paper.li will evolve, just as Paper.li itself has.
We read that you and your colleagues would like to put down more permanent roots. What are your plans and how are they progressing?
We live in a rented house which is unfortunately too small to accommodate the people who want to join the community or stay with us for periods of retreat or quiet reflection. We’re hoping to get something bigger and more permanent and are negotiating a mortgage to that end. The trouble is, although the space we need for ourselves is quite small, our work for the blind takes up a lot of room, and we’ve built up a small(ish) but important library, currently a sub-library of the University of Oxford, which we make available to students.
If people wish to help, how can they do so?
They can employ me! Or they can donate online, using a debit or credit card, via our Charity Choice page. We have also issued an FSA regulated Charitable Bond which some people might like to invest in; writing us into your will would also be very helpful. The monastery is a Registered Charity, so donors can be sure that we work to the highest standards of public accountability and transparency.
Photo of Catherine using a mobile: James Pereira