Her cell phone has a custom ring tone. She frequents the Internet’s most popular social networking sites. She gets jittery when she can’t check her e-mail or post on her blog. She communicates with her family mostly by AOL instant messenger. And she’s a 50-year-old nun.
Sister Anne Flanagan has been a Daughter of St. Paul for almost 30 years, and lives with five other nuns in a convent upstairs from a Catholic bookstore near Chicago’s Magnificent Mile. She teaches Bible study classes, edits Catholic books and magazines and roams the Internet looking for cool technology, although, she wryly notes, “a vow of poverty tends to limit one’s access.”
She spends her under $100 monthly stipend on cables and gadgets. She’s currently developing a “retreat in a box” idea for a pre-loaded MP3 player, complete with a sermon and hymns. I spoke to Sister Anne by phone — and in case you were wondering, her cell phone’s custom ring tone is “Ave Maria” from the Renaissance composer Tomas Luis de Victoria.
I was surprised to find out you have a blog, a YouTube channel, cell phone and e-mail. I assumed that nuns are more cut off from the world than the rest of us.
There are some communities where that’s definitely true. I’ve got a friend who is in a cloister, and she gets permission to write me a letter maybe once a month, a handwritten letter. She’s a Poor Clair, the order founded by St. Clair and St. Francis, and they’re very penitential. Their whole focus is to be a presence of prayer, so they get tons of prayer requests from people, and that’s their form of service. They don’t engage actively with people. But there are other sisters like me who are more visible and more engaged in public forms of service.
How much time do you spend online during the day?
I don’t really measure it, but I can tell you I don’t like being without it. I was traveling last week. I spent a few days with our sisters in Maine, and they only have dial-up at the convent. It was horrible! I’ve gotten used to DSL. I couldn’t even blog, because Blogger wouldn’t load into the computer.
Are there a lot of nuns who blog?
Yes. I link to some nun blogs on my own blog. Some of them are people like me, who just want to be out there, engaged with people. Others are using it for vocational promotion, to be a presence for women who are interested in convent life — there are a surprising number of women looking into consecrated life right now. Probably only a minority will follow through on that impulse, but it’s a beautiful thing.
You told me that you pray for computer software programmers. Can you say a bit more about that?
I do that when I’m, say, reading the technology section of the Wall Street Journal and they introduce a brilliant new piece of software or a new Web site. Sometimes I take the paper to chapel, and I’m thinking, “Jesus, look at this! There are these people who have come up with this application, and these minds that have thought to put this together!” It’s just a matter of pointing them out to God and saying, “Look at these people! Bless them! Give them direction! Give them ideas! Make sure they can use their ideas in a way that contributes to the good and to the health of society.” I hope they feel little waves of inspiration coming at them.
I would imagine that being so immersed in technology could take you away from the more contemplative aspects of life as a nun. How do you handle that?
I’m trying to find an appropriate form of discipline for myself — for my work and my prayer — by just going outside and enjoying the beauty of the day. Sometimes, I’ll be honest, I’d rather just get something done. I really would, because it’s exciting to get stuff done. It’s very exciting, but you could end up like that Chinese gamer who just sat there for days till he dropped dead in his chair or you could say, “Wait a minute. My whole humanity has to be part of this, and for the sake of my humanity I am going to put that thing in sleep mode, take my rosary, walk to Lake Michigan and pray along the lakefront on a beautiful sunny, warm day.”
I need to let my full humanity — body and soul — be recharged and put my work aside because ultimately we all have to put our work aside, you know? That day’s going to come. So it is something that I’m challenged by. I have a screen saver on my laptop that says, “Heaven and earth are full of Your Glory” to remind myself of the whole point of why I am doing this.
Why did you decide to become a nun?
I was 17 when the idea first crossed my mind, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I was finishing up high school, and I’d just been accepted to Loyola University in New Orleans. I was going to study communications, because I wanted to give the Church a voice in the world of media. I didn’t know if I was going to do that by training to be a journalist working in secular media or if I would be focusing more in Catholic communications. I just knew that was what I wanted to do.
Just about that time, the girl across the street had a birthday, and my mother wanted to get her a present at the Daughters of St. Paul bookstore in our suburb of New Orleans. While we were there, one of the nuns saw me, this 17-year-old carrying a stack of Catholic books, and she said, “You know what? We make these books. This is a publishing house.” And I’m kind of short: “Oh, that’s nice.” Then she said: “It’s our mission to put the media at the service of the Church.” And I thought: Wow! I’m not the only person on the planet who has this desire? I can have the life that I was trying to invent, it’s already established. That’s what I really desired to do, it’s what I still desire to do, it’s what I still get really excited about.
And how do you do this?
I’m sort of an informal R&D person. With a vow of poverty you learn how to do things in a very creative manner. So I explore. I read Wired. I read the Wall Street Journal’s technology section, and then I follow up on some of the references in the articles. If it’s telling me about a free service, then I’ll try it out and see. What does this do? What is it good for? Is there some way that I can use this?
I’m curious, since you took a vow of poverty, do you have your own computer?
It’s not really mine. It belongs to the community. I’m using a Mac that is provided by a donor who can ask for it back any day. I doubt he will, but that’s how it works.
Are there extended periods of time where you intentionally unplug from the Internet?
Canon law requires members of religious orders to take a retreat day once a month. My community does that on the first Sunday of the month. And a big part of my retreat day is no technology.
Is that hard for you?
Well, I feel it. I am by nature an active, doer kind of person. So I’ve tried to make it my own personal discipline. Also, I don’t blog on Sundays. This is my tiny little way of purposely setting that day apart.
Tell me about your blog.
I started blogging in 2004. I delayed doing it because I already had a
Web site, and I thought: What’s the point of duplicating my presence on the Internet? But then I decided I wanted to see how blogging works.
And I learned that when you are a blogger you are not in control of the process. You are there to enter into a relationship with the audience, and they’ve got a say in how it unfolds. To me, that’s what these new technologies are fostering when they’re used to their best — relationships.
Somebody may have been reading my blog for a year or two, and I don’t know they’re out there. And then boom! They pop up in the comment box, like old friends. Recently, this young woman who reads my blog asked me to contact her directly, and I said, “Well, she could be a nutcase,” you know? But I did contact her, and it turns out that she was needing prayers because she might have a lethal form of breast cancer. And now I’m like a spiritual anchor for her. I never knew her. Now I do. You are there to be met.