As a self-confessed gadget geek who left my software career to spend a couple of years in a monastery, I was once asked to help create a retreat workshop on the benefits of giving up technology. Who are we when we’re disconnected from Google, Twitter and the rest? Leave your smartphones behind and experience life first hand!
Sadly, I knew I was a fraud. During my time as a novice nun, the internet had only reached as far as an antiquated PC in the bursar’s office, and a tentative proposal to permit the sisters to use the internet during a one hour window on a Sunday afternoon was soundly defeated.
But I had come prepared.
Knowing that I was supposed to live in poverty with no access to money, I prepaid for a year’s data on my phone and hid it in my luggage when I came to stay. Since the sisters’ rooms are private and sacrosanct, I could lie in bed checking the news after lights-out with no fear of discovery… that is, until the week the whole community went sick with a vicious stomach bug and the infirmarian came into my room to treat me and discovered the gadget I was too sick to hide.
Once I recovered I was summoned by Mother Abbess who told me with a wry smile that I had “committed a grievous sin, sister”. I dutifully handed over my phone, promising repentance and conversion of heart. Of course, as a true addict I had a backup plan – my old Kindle with the always-free 3G connection and basic internet browser. What aging nun would suspect my innocent book-reader was also a window onto the outside world?
What compelled this need to be connected? I went to the abbey seeking silence in which to pray and learn to be a better person, and I’d really begun to appreciate how mental knots unravel and relax when there’s nothing to be done except the job at hand. When you’re spending the next hour ironing veils in silence, and there’s no benefit at all to getting it done any sooner, your senses open up and simple things like the smooth texture of the fabric and the smell of the steam iron and the light slanting through the laundry window and the clanking of the ancient pipework, all become elements of perfect satisfaction in the moment.
But as soon as you start wanting your task to end so you can do something more entertaining or more important, time gets slower, frustration increases, people seem more irritating, and life is something that gets in the way, rather than a source of joy and wonder.
My own fear was being left behind by the zeitgeist. In the summer of 2012, hidden in the abbey, I completely missed the London Olympics, and I felt like I was losing my identity. Everyone else had this profound shared experience and I stepped out of the room and missed it. I came to understand why the sisters were only allowed to read newspapers a week old: we can really get addicted to being ‘up to date’.
It all comes down to our sense of identity. Where is our treasure? The rich young man couldn’t give up his wealth to follow Jesus, but it’s not just wealth that gets in the way. It’s anything that’s so central to who we are that to let it go would be like tearing off our own limb. Jesus is ruthless. Just cut it off, he says, pluck it out. I’ve seen from the monastery that he’s right. But…
This month's blog was written by Tess Lowe. Tess is training as an Ordinand for ministry in the Church of England.
A collection of thoughts and reflections from the people of All Saints.