Nuns and Social Media

After another sleepless night, I can report a little black humour to mark my emergence from under the chemo cosh. Cor Orans, the document which establishes the norms for implementing the Apostolic Constitution Vultum Dei Quaerere, assures us, with dreadful earnestness, that nuns may now use Social Media ‘with sobriety and discretion.’ Of course I agree with the need for discretion, but having been using Social Media for about ten years — probably longer than many of the clergy and others who felt it necessary to give nuns guidance on the matter — my main reaction is a mixture of despair and irritation. Despair, because yet again the Vatican shows itself to be out of touch with the reality of women’s (i.e. not just nuns’) lives, and in seeking to control is in danger of losing whatever moral authority it still commands; irritation, because with all the world’s problems, to devote time and energy to  something that I think most nuns have already thought and prayed about sufficiently to have arrived at a sensible decision regarding its appropriate use, is embarrassing.

It hurts to say I am embarrassed by the Church to which I belong and her heavy-handed approach to facets of modern life that she should be embracing, not condemning or viewing with suspicion. It seems to be only a few years ago that we nuns laughed about being given permission to use fax machines, with due discretion and limitations, naturally, and were tempted to email our response, only the Vatican wasn’t using email at the time!

I do have a serious point to make, and it isn’t a grumble. The text of Cor Orans raises many concerns for us as a small contemplative community*, but I think it raises even bigger ones for women in the Church as a whole. I have never been entirely convinced that there are two differing forms of spirituality, one masculine and the other feminine, with the masculine needing comparatively few rules and the feminine needing very close regulation. If Pope Francis is serious about using the gifts of all the Church’s members, then I genuinely believe that he and all the other senior clergy must take seriously the fact that women are not second-class beings. We can be as intelligent, well-educated, fervent and disciplined as any man. To presume that we are somehow lacking in any of those qualities is deeply insulting. True, some women have not had the educational opportunities given to men; true, there are still parts of the world where cultural constraints mean that women are condemned to secondary roles; but, if we have heeded the gospels of Easter Week, how can we assert that this is divinely ordained?

I became a nun in response to what I believe to be my vocation. I have never wavered in my desire to live that vocation as whole-heartedly and generously as possible but I am dismayed to discover that there is doubt whether I and other nuns can really be trusted with it, online or off. And what is true of nuns in that respect is, I fear, true of all women — though, happily, women who are not nuns may apparently use Social Media without the limitation of ‘sobriety and discretion’. I’m tempted to say, ‘Go for it!’

* See, for example, the concluding paragraphs of Cor Orans, Final Dispositions.


How To Judge A Monastery

The publication yesterday of Pope Francis’s Apostolic Constitution, Vultum Dei Quaerere, will not be of much interest to the Church at large, although it will be of great interest to those it most concerns — contemplative women’s communities, especially those that, like ourselves, are small and of diocesan right. It isn’t my intention to comment on the Constitution itself but simply ‘think aloud’ about one very important underlying question: how to judge a monastic community and its fidelity to its vocation.

For some, a monastery is just a set of buildings where the inhabitants wear funny clothes and spend a lot of time singing psalms. The grander the buildings, the more numerous the inhabitants, the more splendid the music, the more ‘successful’ the community is considered to be. May I beg to differ? The late Dom David Knowles once remarked that a community can keep up a decent performance of the Divine Office in impressively fine buildings long after the heart has gone out of it. I have often found that a chastening thought. It is what we do, not where we live or what we wear, that counts; and even what we do can be done half-heartedly or for the wrong reasons. Despite all our efforts, all our attempts to live  in obedience to the Gospel and the Rule, we can miss the point of being in the monastery in the first place. The only real test to be applied, the only thing by which our fidelity to our vocation can be judged, is the simplest but most difficult of all: holiness. Is the community striving to become holy itself and lead others to holiness, too?

I think we all know when we are in the presence of real holiness, although we could never hope to explain it and most of us would have the good sense not to try to judge it. Holiness can’t be faked or hidden. It just is. And what is more, real holiness is immensely attractive. That doesn’t mean it is not challenging or disturbing. It is often both those things, but it is also endlessly encouraging. In the presence of a holy person we know we are loved by God and that somehow, whatever the difficulties or disappointments on the way, we are buoyed up by that divine love. It is the love of God that the monastic community is meant to mediate to others, and it can only do that insofar as it has itself experienced that love. Hence all those hours of unseen prayer, the small asceticisms of daily life, the quiet perseverance in seeking God.

Those of you who know our community will appreciate we have some concerns over the ‘one size fits all’ approach of Vultum Dei Quaerere, but we must not allow such concerns to get in the way of what we are about. We may be small and insignificant, and we certainly aren’t holy yet, but that is our aim: holiness. Nothing less will do.