Sister Catherine Wybourne is better known online by her Twitter name: “Digitalnun”. She talks to Jesus Fellowship writer Amy Williams about community, vows, sharing and technology.
It’s great to talk with you, Sister Catherine. Could you tell us a bit of your own story to start with, about your vocation?
I was born of poor but honest parents and I had a Catholic education, which was a bit unusual as neither of my parents were practising Catholics. I was very influenced by the sisters who taught at the Catholic school. They were lively, intellectual people who would talk about faith in a very open way that made me do a lot of thinking about my own life.
I decided to do a PhD in Spanish medieval history. I was studying the Cistercians, so I had to read the collected works of St Benedict. While I was reading it, the monastic life began to speak to me – not in an academic way, but as something that I should pursue.
I sat down and thought about where I’d be when I was 50, and realised I didn’t want to be living in isolation from other people. I took myself off to Stanbrook Abbey in Worcester in 1981, where I lived until 2003.
What is the process that somebody goes through to become a nun?
Well, the first stage is postulancy, which lasts at least six months and can be extended to a year. They wear their own clothes and essentially live with the community and pray with the community, but they don’t have any particular commitment. They can leave at any time – they can also be asked to leave at any time.
Then you’d get the monastic habit with a white veil, which lasts about two years, but can be extended. That’s a period of more serious formation, with more study in scripture, theology and rules of St Benedict. Then you have first vows for three years – although they can be repeated – vows of stability, conversion of life and obedience. Then, finally, solemn confession, which means you make your vows for life and wear a black veil. It takes at least five and a half years to get to that stage – and they are vows for life. You become a full member of the community. That’s the point where you have to give up everything, all your worldly possessions.
There must be times when somebody who has made life vows does in fact break those vows. Or is that extremely rare?
It’s extremely rare, particularly for women. I have known only two cases where a nun has asked to be laid aside from her vows: one was ill and the other person wanted to live as a hermit. They’re the only ones I personally have known in my life.
I see the vows like this: one roots us, one opens us up, and one lifts us up to the Father
Do you think that is because of the process before making those vows?
Oh yes, it’s a real “weeder-outer”! We find a lot of people can’t cope with small community, doing pretty much the same thing day after day and not having very much in the way of material possessions. Some people just don’t grow. But usually you find that people who stay perhaps two or three years still feel that they have gained something from that monastic experience, though they may not spend their whole lives in the community.
Vows of ‘conversion, stability and obedience’ – can you unpack them a little more? What do they mean?
Stability is a vow which binds you to a specific community or group of people and a specific way of living a monastic life. All Benedictine Monasteries are independent, so each of them will have their own take on how the rules of Benedict should be lived and stability is a commitment to live in that way and to carry it forward.
Conversion is really a promise, a vow to live the monastic life as it should be lived and to be open to the process of conversion every day of our life.
Obedience is having an attitude of listening to God.
I see the vows like this: one roots us, one opens us up, and one lifts us up to the Father. That’s how I see it anyway.
Give us a flavour of your community life.
Well, we have what’s called a “chapter of faults”. That’s an occasion when we specifically meet together to apologise to one another for ways of which we may have hurt each other or brought down the community. The other person may know nothing about it: for example if I’ve been a bit short tempered with some of the people I deal with on e-mails, I will acknowledge that and ask for their prayers because I have weakened the public perception of the community. Equally, we have an important rule – again it’s from St Benedict – which is that if we have any dispute or disagreement during the course of the day, it must be settled before nightfall. I have noticed that very often it’s the person who hasn’t given offence that goes to the other and asks forgiveness. It’s a great liberation.
You have everything in common. How do you work that out in practice? Do you have a common bank account as a community?
Yes, we own nothing personally; St Benedict is very clear about private ownership. A monk would have absolutely nothing of his own. Yes, we’ll use our own toothbrushes and so on, but anything that we need is asked for from the community. So if my shoes were worn out I would ask the community if I may have another pair of shoes. We try to make sure that our own private life as a community is as simple as possible.
So you don’t have a television?
No, but we read a lot.
I’m sure there must be a way of opening up the internet as a sacred space where people can encounter God
Your work means that you’re online quite a lot – so there is media exposure in your life!
Yes, we made a conscious decision as a community back in 2003 to use social media as a way of reaching out to other people. Because my work is typesetting and web development I’m on the computer most of the day so it isn’t really too much of an interruption in my life. Everything I do is either with the encouragement or the sanction of the community.
We decided as a community that it would be a good thing for me to have a Twitter account. I didn’t decide that for myself.
The “Digitalnun” bit actually came from my email address in the 1990s – I wanted something memorable. We were reading the rules of St Benedict on welcoming and hospitality, and I said “How do we put this into practice, in a house with very limited space for guests?” So we thought, “We haven’t got any space, why don’t we do our hospitality online? It’s something that we could teach ourselves.”
Why would people be looking for us online, what would they be seeking?
So – “Digitalnun”! I don’t know of many digital nuns! Why did you make the decision to actively use the internet and social media?
I’d had a bit of experience with building websites so we sat down and said “How do we want to present ourselves online?” But then we realised that most monasteries were doing just that – talking about themselves and what they do – and so we asked ourselves a different question: “Why would people be looking for us online, what would they be seeking?” Trying to answer that question has decided how we’ve used the internet and social media.
So what are people seeking?
A lot of people are seeking some sort of community online; I am appalled by the loneliness that we seem to touch. A lot of people are seeking anonymous information about Christianity or the monastic life – it’s a lot easier than knocking on the door and asking.
People also want an experience of God and that’s why I’m very keen that we move from what I call the ‘declarative’ – proclaiming things online – to the ‘immersive’ – an experience. I’m sure there must be a way of opening up the internet as a sacred space where people can encounter God. I have a feeling that if we pray hard enough and work hard enough, we might find a way of doing it.
Is there anything that you’d like to say to the Jesus Army?
I think that what I would most want to say is, be encouraged, because in the life of any community there is a ‘middle-aged sag’ and if you’re getting on for 40 years old now you may be experiencing a bit of that. There comes a point where the initial enthusiasm has waned a little bit, maybe some of the initial dynamism has gone. I think that’s when it’s really important to remember why you started, to remember what it is that you were called to be. So be encouraged and don’t give up.
On Twitter, Sister Catherine describes herself as a “Benedictine nun, keen on God, books and technology” who “likes people, too”. She is the Prioress of Holy Trinity Monastery, formerly at East Hendred, now at Howton Grove Priory in Herefordshire - http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/