The Place of the Telephone in Monastic Life

Anyone who has ever tried to telephone a monastery will know that it is not usually the easiest way to get in touch. Monks and nuns have an irritating habit of keeping odd hours. They are in choir or sleeping when one wants to talk, or they inhabit an entirely different time zone from ourselves and one finds that what is reasonable in X is the middle of the night in Y. That still leaves letters, emails, texts and Social Media, of course, but we have become so accustomed to instant and immediate contact via the telephone that it seems odd that a group of people should remain so resolutely difficult to reach. Are they just being perverse? Is the silence they are so busy protecting fundamentally selfish, not about God at all?

I was pondering this as I received yet another request to advertise our telephone number on Facebook. It is already given on our web sites, so I see no need to flaunt it elsewhere, but the request still makes me think. There is something about the human voice that the written word cannot convey. Many of the people who telephone the monastery desperately want to hear a kind word, to hear in a human voice the accents of love and compassion they do not find in others. Alas, the monk or nun is not always tuned into that need. I have sometimes crawled out from unblocking a sink to deal with someone in a state of breakdown or woken in the middle of the night to hear a torrent of abuse about the Church, at the bottom of which was a great unhealed wound. I remembered that afterwards, of course, but I fear that at the time I was quite crisp and direct. I was thinking about ‘my’ silence, not the other’s need.

I have to conclude that the telephone occupies a very important place in monastic life. Like it or not, it confronts us with aspects of ourselves we would rather not admit. An unexpected call reveals our true mettle. It can demand a generosity that stretches us, especially when we have other priorities. In short, it turns topsy-turvey our ideas about how the day or night should go. It would be an exaggeration to say that it is God breaking in on us — or rather, sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t, sometimes it may be — but to treat it always as an unwelcome interruption to our plans is clearly wrong.

Today we begin re-reading chapter 2 of the Rule, On the Kind of Person the Abbot Should Be. It is a masterly summary of what every monk or nun should be and it is noticeable how it concentrates on the interaction between individuals. I will read it this time with one eye on my spoken communication, especially that which is done over the telephone.